Outside the City Municipal Commissioner's office at Gangavathi in Karnataka’s Koppal district, a group of 160 people sat on bedsheets and mattresses spread out on the pavement on Thursday night. These pourakarmikas, or civic sanitation workers, who clean up the city's streets spent the night camping outside the CMC office in protest.
Their demand? Payment of nine months worth of wages.
"I have not received a single rupee since January this year. We were told that we will be paid salaries directly by the municipality from January but we are yet to see the money. I have been taking loans to pay my bills and my children’s school fees. I can no longer continue to wait for the salary," rues Parashurama (35), a pourakarmika from Gangavathi. He has been working as a pourakarmika since 2011.
The pourakarmikas have been protesting outside the CMC office for a week now. But it was only on Thursday that they decided to continue their protests over the night.
The All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), politically affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation has extended support to the dissenting pourakarmikas, along with the Safai Karamchari Andolan, a human rights organisation.
"These workers have not been paid wages for nine months despite having toiled and having biometric attendance. This is inhuman, illegal and contrary to the Constitution and labour laws," reads a letter from Bharadwaj, State Vice-President of AICCTU.
The demands of pourakarmikas in Gangavathi are identical to the ones raised by pourakarmikas in Bengaluru in July this year and in Mysuru earlier this month – apart from payment of wages, they demand they shouldn’t be struck off the payroll because of the new system of payment.
The pourakarmikas’ woes can be traced to a December 2017 decision of the state government to regularise pourakarmikas, and do away with the contractors who were responsible for paying the pourakarmikas. A direct benefit system was put in place in January this year under which the local municipality will pay the pourakarmikas directly.
However, pourakarmikas in Gangavathi say that many workers who have been working for several years have not been recognised by the government’s payroll after the switch to the direct benefit system of payment. Many of the protesting pourakarmikas are Dalits and it has put the district administration under pressure to resolve the issue.
Officials at the Koppal DC Office confirmed that several pourakarmikas have not received their wages this year in spite of doing their job. The Directorate of Municipal Administration (DMA) in Gangavathi fixed the upper limit of the number of pourakarmikas in the city as 164 based on population. The state government had prescribed that there should be one pourakarmika for 700 people.
The DMA in Gangavathi was tasked with uploading the details of each pourakarmika on a web portal by crosschecking their records. "This process was done based on seniority of the pourakarmikas," Koppal Deputy Commissioner P Sunil Kumar tells TNM. A biometric system was introduced to ensure that the municipality can pay genuine workers directly.
"However, the actual number of pourakarmikas working in Gangavathi was more than that. There are around 70 pourakarmikas who are in excess," Sunil adds.
Sunil admits that they are facing an uphill task in ensuring that the wages of the pourakarmikas are paid. Officials are making a list of people who have been denied wages and are planning to solve the issue in one of two ways. "If these pourakarmikas agree to move from Gangavathi, we can give them jobs as a pourakarmika in another municipality in the district. If they are unwilling to move, we can try and accommodate them in Gangavathi. But they will not be considered a pourakarmika and will be paid minimum wages," he explains.
The wages of pourakarmikas were increased to Rs 14,000 in January while salaries of minimum-wage workers are around Rs. 12,000.
In Bengaluru, similar protests were held by pourakarmikas in the first six months of the year demanding unpaid wages. The protests reached a tipping point in July after Subramani, a pourakarmika from Malleshwaram committed suicide after he was not paid wages for six months. Several pourakarmikas admitted that they had pawned off jewellery and sold their belongings to make ends meet. Hundreds of pourakarmikas gathered at the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) office on July 12 demanding that their salaries be paid.
Protest by pourakarmikas outside the BBMP Office in July
Following the protest, the BBMP announced that it has released Rs 28 crore to pay the wages of pourakarmikas in the city. However, few pourakarmikas say that their salaries are yet to be paid due to discrepancies in the system of payment.
In Mysuru, pourakarmikas staged an indefinite agitation on October 3 demanding payment of salaries. The protestors withdrew their strike after a meeting with Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy and Deputy Chief Minister G Parameshwara in Bengaluru.
The pourakarmikas in Gangavathi, however, are torn between the two options proposed by the district authorities and are yet to reach a consensus on what they prefer. The district administration meanwhile claims that it wants to resolve the issue and is also planning to write to the state government seeking permission to employ the excess pourakarmikas.