Why Karnataka’s sanitation workers are against privatisation

While regularisation of jobs for pourakarmikas has shown some benefits, those hired through private contractors continue to be victims of unfair practices.
Why Karnataka’s sanitation workers are against privatisation
Why Karnataka’s sanitation workers are against privatisation

It is 7 am on a chilly Friday morning at the City Market in Bengaluru and Meena* has already been working for an hour. The sun has still not fully risen and Bangalore remains in a pre-traffic slumber. Meena and the other pourakarmikas (PKs) of the area sweep through a road, cleaning up the previous day’s trash from local shops, wet waste from the food carts on the road and excrement from stray animals.

While the road is spotless once Meena is done, hardly 10 minutes later three coconut sellers come and start to throw their coconut shells on the road. By lunch time, one cannot tell that the road had been cleaned before. Meena and the other PKs in the area work for a minimum of eight hours a day to keep the City Market area clean. But all this hard work is without reward – some PKs haven’t been paid in months.

Pourakarmikas are municipal sanitary workers in Karnataka, engaged in cleaning public areas of cities and towns in the state. A PK is usually either a permanent or a contractual worker. Permanent PKs are hired by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), while a contract worker’s daily wage is left at the mercy of the contractor.

Unpaid salaries and lack of job security

Mangalam and Sheila from Hassan district travelled to Bengaluru on February 1, 2019 to protest the new draft bill that re-installed the contractor model of work. Under the draft, it was suggested that the recently regularised PKs – just the street cleaners – would again be forced to work under private contractors. These women, and several others, were against this.

They felt that working under contractors was a huge risk because private contractors don’t provide the proper salary of Rs 14,040 a month that the state prescribed. They also felt that the contractors would not pay the salaries on time. Many contractors don’t use the biometric attendance system and would therefore not count the exact number of days the PKs work. This lack of security and the number of dependents the women have at home has made reverting to the contract model of operations a massive risk for them.

In Bengaluru too, the situation with contract PKs is similar, with many being unpaid for a longer period of time than permanent employees under the BBMP. Leela, a contract PK from Bengaluru, strings flowers at home and sells it to a wholesaler to make ends meet. She has not been paid for the last few months.

“I have not been paid for the last 9 months,” says Karuna, another contract PK, adding that since her name is not on the BBMP employees’ list, she is hired through contractors to do the same type of work. They don’t have biometric attendance and therefore there is no proof of her nine months of work. So to make ends meet, Karuna has four part-time jobs as a domestic worker. Her work day lasts a full 12 hours, not counting the domestic work she has to do in her own house.

Meena, a permanent PK, estimates that her family’s monthly expenses run up to Rs 25,000 a month including rent, electricity, water, school fees, food, etc. Since she has not been paid for the last few months, she has had to take multiple loans. Karuna and Leela also have taken loans to sustain their families. Nilesh, a PK in Bangalore, is a contract employee and hasn’t been paid roughly Rs 12,000 for the previous month. Thimmappa, another contract PK in Bangalore, has no fixed area or length of road that he must finish cleaning. He is a type of contract employee that is hired whenever people are absent in an area and therefore cleans whichever patch he is asked to that day, sometimes having to clean large areas.

When asked about how the BBMP interacts with the private contractors in Bangalore, Sarfaraz Khan, the Joint Director of the Solid Waste Management department under BBMP, says, “There are no private contract PKs in Bangalore. We have hired 16,500 PKs and we have not paid for any PKs through any contractors.”

When pressed about my interactions with PKs who said they were hired through contractors, he claims, “I don’t know who these people are… the BBMP does not pay contractors any money for such work. I wouldn’t know how the contractors are paying them since we have not paid contractors for PKs.”

However, when asked about the amount paid to private contractors currently, he says, “This is only for workers who were hired for loading the garbage or driving the trucks. The jobs of PKs are not under the amount we pay to them.”

Karuna also informed us that she not seen a single rupee in the form of Provident Fund (PF) in the last five years of working at her job. This is despite the government paying the contractors the PF amounts till 2017. Similarly, Raju, a supervisor, also claims that the BBMP had given out Rs 9.25 crore recently for PF, but he has not seen this amount either.

Dr RV Chandrashekar, researcher at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy (CSSEIP) at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), says that according to reports the Karnataka state government owes PKs roughly Rs 200 crore as PF for the years of 2011-18.

To this, Sarfaraz Khan explains that prior to the regularisation of PKs any amount was sent to the private contractors to be paid and that there is an investigation being done on those contractors who have not paid their workers their PF. With regards to the current PF amount, he confirms that it has already been distributed to their accounts and should be available to them.

Permanent employees are far better off

Most PKs believe that permanent employees are far better off. Being permanent, they have a better chance at negotiating their hours, with most of them leaving by 10.30 am, while contract workers often have to work till 2 pm. And though permanent workers also face delayed salary payments, they say that they still have more assurance than contract workers of receiving the payments at some point.

According to Shakunthalamma, a social worker working with PKs, roughly 80% of all street cleaners in the city are hired by contractors. And this despite the Karnataka government’s attempts at regularisation since 2017. According to a 2016 report by the Safai Karmachari Commission, there were roughly 48,128 workers in Bengaluru urban alone. Prior to the regularisation, the BBMP estimated that there were at least 32,000 workers. However, only 16,500 workers are hired under the BBMP currently. This means that there is still a large dependency on contract workers to get work done in the city.

Shakunthalamma, social worker who works with pourakarmikas

Health and safety hazards on the job

While non-payment of dues is one major issue, the health and safety of PKs isn’t ensured either.

According to the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act of 1971, contractors have to ensure PKs receive basic facilities such as restrooms, drinking water, washing facilities and canteens. A Government of Karnataka order passed on August 4, 2016 also specifies the provisions of uniforms and safety equipment for all PKs. In fact, the government also pays contractors 20% maintenance charges for the purchase of safety equipment and other requirements.

As early as 1973, the IPD Salappa Commission report had stressed that the provision of merely a broom was not enough for the PKs as it forced them to sweep the ground in a bent posture that affected their backs, leading to long-term health issues. Similarly, the first National Safai Karmachari Commission report for the year 1994-95 had written that only primitive equipment and implements are provided to PKs and that in the absence of modern equipment or protective gadgets, PKs are exposed to serious hazards.

Most PKs aren’t seen wearing gloves and are often given just a long piece of wood and a broom for their work. The piece of wood is used to scrape any dirt that is stuck on the roads. Especially in areas such as markets, the piece of wood can hardly clean the required area before more sticky waste is dumped on the ground. However, according to Sarfaraz Khan, the government has budgeted Rs 1,500 lakh for the year 2018-19 for the design and purchase of smart uniforms and improved pushcarts.

Currently, PKs are often made to work in conditions that threaten the health and safety of not only their own lives but also of their families. This is because they have to clean wet waste, food waste and other types of waste without proper safety equipment, which could lead to infections.

In rural Karnataka, there remains the problem of manual scavenging due to the fact that most areas do not have underground water systems. “It is important that there is more awareness about the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act of 2013. Many people in our area still do this work due to dry latrines,” Subash, a representative from Haveri, says.

“We fall sick because of our work and our children fall sick because of us. Another big reason for this is we can’t give them proper nutrition with the salary we get,” says Meena.

In the last year, Meena and most members of her family, including her children, have been hospitalised at least once. While she fell ill from exhaustion, her husband developed problems with his stomach recently and now needs medical attention. In the 2018-19 BBMP budget, Rs 1,500 lakh has been allocated for midday meals for PKs, in the hope of reducing malnourishment among PKs.

Caste and regularisation inconsistencies

The profession of street cleaners has been intensively attached to the caste system. In Karnataka, most of these workers are from the Madiga community, a branch of the Dalit community. Shakunthalamma says that all the workers she interacts with in the city are Scheduled Castes (SC). However, certain areas also have a high population of Schedule Tribe (ST) groups working in this field.

During the regularisation of PKs under various palikes across the state, reservations were also implemented. As part of this, seats were reserved for general category, other backward castes (OBCs), SC and ST. As a result, many permanent workers, who had been in the profession for multiple decades, were thrown out of their jobs to provide space for OBC and general category workers.

Nagaraj, a representative for PKs from Udupi, says that there was only a 3% reservation for STs to work in the permanent jobs in his district, due to which almost 150 PKs were rendered jobless. This is also because the Koraga tribal community resides in this area and have been historically performing this work for generations.

The way forward

Despite this, many PKs from around the state still prefer being a permanent employee and do not want privatisation, which will put their fate in the hands of contractors. But with the state government attempting to shift back to the contractor model, the few benefits that the PKs have seen in the last year are also dwindling.

“We do any type of work that comes our way, even those that pay just Rs 10. We even do men’s work. All we are asking for is a salaried job and not for a handout… Does the government ever ask us how we feel, how we struggle, don’t we deserve to be heard?” Meena asks.

According to Dr Chandrashekhar, there is a need for a complete survey to be done about the total number of PKs currently working in the state. He asserts that currently all of these numbers are estimates by different bodies such as the Safai Karmachari Commission, but none of them are exact. One also does not know exact information about other aspects of PKs’ lives, such as family size or education or health, due to which there isn’t a clear picture on how to plan for them.

This sentiment is echoed by Sarfaraz Khan who says, “People don’t ask us, they get information from some random NGO that has no clear “source” to provide these estimates. We know for a fact that we have only 16,500 PKs and we are paying them every month. In the future, even our tender conditions are going to be very strict and there should be even lesser cause for concern with private contractors.”

Given their large numbers, not just in Bengaluru but across the state, PKs want the government and the BBMP to look into their issue with more seriousness and let them stay under the ambit of BBMP. Being privatised is almost as good as being unemployed, for most of them. Though one can be reassured as Khan explains, “The draft bill was only a suggestion. But we at BBMP are very strongly against it. We assure you nobody will be outsourced in Bangalore.”

*The names of pourakarmikas and supervisors have been changed to protect their identities.

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