Angered by their working conditions, pourakarmikas in the state of Karnataka have started an indefinite strike from July 1. The sanitation workers are demanding that their jobs are regularised, and want a minimum monthly salary of Rs 30,000. Regularisation of pourakarmikas would mean that they will be eligible for benefits such as post-retirement pension, which are not given to contract workers. Pourakarmikas are the people solely responsible for keeping Bengaluru and the entire state of Karnataka clean. However, with continued denial of their basic rights, the pourakarmikas say they cannot continue to work under inhumane conditions.
â€śThey donâ€™t even give us basic amenities like drinking water or toilets. The senior officers enjoy high salaries with little work while weâ€™re the ones who make sure the city remains clean, but are paid much less. Every year we have to protest to force the officials to listen to us. Why is it that the only way to make them hear us is through a protest?â€ť said Neela who also has been a pourakarmika for 20 years, and has attended multiple protests to get her wages on time.
The pourakarmikas are paid Rs 12,500 monthly for working eight hours daily, with no prospects of getting a raise or better working conditions. According to Dhanalakshmi, a pourakarmika, if theyâ€™re late to work by even five minutes, they lose the dayâ€™s payment. This is because biometric scanners are scheduled to operate only between certain hours. â€śWith such meagre salaries and unsafe working conditions, how are we to manage our households when prices of all essentials such as cooking gas and oil are constantly rising?â€ť one pourakarmika said, echoing the concerns of several others.
The poor wages ensure that future generations too cannot escape the profession, which is largely dictated by caste. Nagamma, who has been a pourakarmika for more than 20 years, could not afford to send her son to school. Now, he too works as a cleaner under the BBMP. â€śHow many more years can we work with Rs 12,000 or 13,000 as our salaries? A major chunk of it goes to pay our house rent, the rest for essentials like rice. I come from a far away area, who is going to count my daily travel expenses? Weâ€™re demanding that all of us are given at least Rs 30,000 as our monthly salary and be made permanent workers along with a post-retirement pension,â€ť she said.
â€śIn Bengaluru, contract workers such as the cleaners and garbage vehicle drivers do not even get Rs 12,000 a month. They are paid as low as Rs 6,000 and they are also sometimes not paid for two or three months,â€ť said Clifton D' Rozario, National Secretary of All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) and a speaker at the protest.
State president of Karnataka State Urban Local Outsource Employees Union, MB Naganna said that close to 12,000 pourakarmikas showed up at Bengaluruâ€™s Freedom Park alone on July 1 and more than 40,000 are said to be agitating across the state. The protesters were mostly pourakarmikas and members of the Pourakarmika Sanghatanegala Janti Horata Samiti, which is affiliated with the All India Central Council of Trade Unions.
Although the state government had ordered in May 2016 for regularisation of services of all pourakarmikas by March 2017, very few have actually been made permanent workers while the rest continue to suffer in uncertain work conditions, say activists. An open letter has been written by civil society members to the Chief Minister BS Bommai, asking him to immediately act on the demands of the pourakarmikas. The letter highlights how it is impossible for the workers to live in Bengaluru with wages as low as Rs 14,000. Further, it said that forcing them to work at minimal wages would ensure their children were also pushed into the same occupation due to lack of an education. The letter further asked that pourakarmikas be made permanent government workers and be provided with Rs 40,000 per month as salaries along with housing quarters, pensions and other benefits.
Protests by pourakarmikas in the state are not a new occurrence. Every year the workers take to the streets and grounds demanding the BBMP provide them with better working conditions. In 2021, the protest demanded free vaccination and a monthly allowance of Rs 10,000. The year before that, the protest demanded protective equipment against COVID-19 at a time when five pourakarmikas had succumbed to the virus.