When BBMP Mayor R Sampath Raj was faced with the critical question - "When will salaries be paid?", there was a moment of hesitation.
It was a question posed by hundreds of pourakarmikas who had gathered outside the BBMP Head Office in Bengaluru in protest of denial of wages. Some of whom had not been paid even a rupee in the last six months.
Mayor Sampath Raj, in response, asked all those who have not been paid their salaries to sit on one side and give their details to BBMP officials. He promised to pay their 'rightful' salaries immediately.
But the pourakarmikas, who keep Bengaluru's streets clean, were not fully convinced. It is a promise they had heard several times over the last few months.
The Mayor was once again faced with a volley of questions. "What is our salary? How many pourakarmikas are there in the city? Are you checking the biometric verification?", asked the protesting pourakarmikas. The questions flew thick and fast.
The mayor, under pressure, claimed that the civic body has not paid only the excess workers. As per the prescribed ratio by the government, there should be one pourakarmika for 700 people. Protesters, however, pointed out that a few pourakarmikas who had been working for as long as 20 years were also being denied their salaries. The Mayor then announced that he had asked the Zonal Joint Commissioners to pay all the salaries by Friday.
The workers gathered outside the BBMP Head Office at 3 pm on Thursday to protest, one that was triggered by the death of Subramani, a 40-year-old pourakarmika who took his life on Sunday. He was not paid his wages for six months, and could not afford to send his children to school.
Like Subramani, many other pourakarmikas have not been paid wages for six months. After his death, the BBMP released Rs 27 crore for their salaries on Tuesday. This, however, only partially paid off their unpaid salaries.
Even as the workers were protesting outside the headquarters for the salaries they had worked for, the BBMP council meeting was on inside to find a permanent solution to the issue.
BBMP Mayor Sampath Raj speaking to protesters outside the BBMP Head Office
In the meeting, BBMP Commissioner Manjunath Prasad confirmed that the civic body had enough money to pay all the pourakarmikas including those who were excess and had worked for less than a year.
Before January 2018, pourakarmikas in Bengaluru were paid by 'mestris' or contractors as per a contract system. The biometric system was introduced starting from January 2018, to ensure that the BBMP can pay genuine workers directly and remove ‘ghost workers’ or 'fake' workers who were being paid by the contractors. The system was brought in to pay workers directly.
However, the new system which was expected to remove pourakarmikas from the mercy of contractors and bring them relief instead proved to be even more problematic. Many pourakarmikas in the city were not paid wages in the new system in spite of registering their attendance for work every day.
Protests over unpaid wages have been held several times in the city, but to no avail. On June 5, pourakarmikas turned up to protest outside the BBMP Head Office with their children as they were unable to admit their children in schools. Many workers do not have money for two square meals a day.
Lakshmi Devi, a pourakarmika from New Baiyappanahalli, said that she did not even know how much her salary was, and repeated attempts to ask the BBMP about this and when their salary would be released did not help. "We have repeatedly gone to the inspector and AEE (assistant executive engineer SWM) and each time, we are told that the payment will come in the next few days".
The pourakarmikas will return to their duty tomorrow in the hope that their troubles will now end and that a permanent solution will be found for the issue. The BBMP meanwhile has the task of verifying each civic worker and ensure that they are paid.