Sanitation Workers' Struggle

EVERY morning, in every village, town and city around the country, even before the sun rises, an army of lakhs of safai karamcharis begin their daily work of sweeping the streets and clearing garbage. This work is an obligatory function of the State, and has to be done every single day. Garbage and dirt cannot be allowed to collect on the streets and pavements, since that would lead to health epidemics and a serious crisis. We are all well aware of the case pending before the Supreme Court in regard to the dengue outbreak in which it has strongly condemned the failure of the Delhi Government to remove garbage which has resulted in this epidemic. So to protect the lives of the citizens of these towns and cities, these workers toil every single day without a break.

While India celebrates its progress it has made in various arenas including science, technology and innovations, these employed are employed in the most scientifically backward, inhuman and primitive form of garbage collection and street sweeping. Bending their backs to sweep and push broken down push-carts, handling all forms of rotting garbage and human waste with their bare hands, this work force toils every single day of the year to keep the cities clean. Except for a handful of workers who are employed on a permanent basis, the majority are contract workers or daily wage workers, for the past 20 years or more.

In general, the practice of extensive employment of a Safai Karamchari workforce is a direct outcome of urbanisation and the mass production of garbage, requiring its disposal. Caste-ridden society ensured that the dominated and oppressed castes i.e. the scheduled castes, the Dalits, were made to perform the very filthy job of removing dirt, garbage and excreta. Given the filthy nature of these jobs, it was “reserved” solely for the untouchables, the most dominated section of Indian society. Thus, a feudal casteist society anointed the untouchable community as the sweepers and scavengers. The advent of the British and their introduction of urban local self-governments saw solid-waste management becoming one of the primary functions of the State. Thus, workers were employed directly by the local self-governments to perform this filthy work. Thus, the caste-based occupation of the dominated Dalit caste was converted into their “profession.”

Post Independence, the life and working conditions of Safai Karamacharis were on par with the other category of “D” Group employees or manual labourers as far as job, wages and social securities. The financial condition of safai Karamacharis improved to some extent and they enjoyed job security. Post Independence, another important development was that Hindus belonging to dominant castes were also employed as Safai Karamcharis. But as we see, the I.P.D. Salappa Committee report Page 19, “Report of the Committee on the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions of Sweepers and Scavengers”, Shri. I.P.D. Salappa, Chairman, April 1976. noted that: “…in many Municipalities the caste Hindus who have been recruited as Safai Karamcharis due to acute unemployment problem at present are allocated not their legitimate work as Safai Karamcharis, but some other work that has nothing to do with their appointments as such….”

Globalisation pushed Safai Karamcharis to the pre-colonial stage. During this time, workers were also not recruited through the normal channels but were on daily wage basis, most of whom have since been absorbed. The tag of Safai Karamcharis has changed as “Guttige Safai Karamcharis” (contract Safai Karamcharis) which devastated their life denying them of wage, job and social security. The above system has completely changed from the early 1990s as India undertook a comprehensive economic restructuring, with financial assistance of the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank. This financial assistance was contingent on the adoption of a free market economy and the opening of its borders to foreign capital, besides the “rationalisation of staff” and freeze on direct recruitment, especially in the Group D cadre. This represented a significant narrowing on the role of the State in governance from provider to mere regulator. Thus, there was no direct recruitment of Safai Karamcharis anymore; instead the contract system was introduced, where contractors and the workers through them, known as contract Safai Karamcharis, were employed for doing the work of solid waste management.

For the past two decades and more, since the contract system was introduced, various persons have been handed contracts i.e. so-called contractors, to carry out this work, and the workers have been shown as being employed by them. Yet in reality the so-called contractors are mere name-lenders; the contracts are a sham; and the contract Safai Karamcharis have become “permanent” contract Safai Karamcharis. Thus, the contract Safai Karamcharis have been working for the past two decades and are, in reality, “disguised contract pourakarmikas (municipality civic workers).”

Safai Karamcharis are not merely individual members of the sanitation work force out of pure choice; but members, by birth, with inerasable identity and inter-generational continuity. They have been forced into this occupation by the inexorable evil power of the Indian caste system. It is a fact that almost all of the Safai Karamcharis in India come from a group of castes at the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy, and are termed as untouchables. The Bhangis, Chamars, Churhas, Halalkhors, Yanadis, Balmikis, Arundhatis, Thottis, Rellis, Sikkilias are different names in different states for those who do similar kind of job- cleaning others dirt and filth.

Insofar as Karnataka is concerned, these workers predominately belong to the untouchable Schedule Caste community, and in that to the Telugu-speaking Madiga community. Of course, there are some Tamil and Kannada speaking workers who too are from the dalit community along with converted Christians and Muslims, but as the I.P.D. Salappa report noted, 97% are Telugu-speaking Madigas. The contractors are inevitably from the dominant caste; in Bangalore they are from the Reddy community. As on worker very poignantly put it; “We escaped our villages in Chittur, Nellore, Ananthpuram and other districts of Andhra and ran to Bangalore to escape the caste oppression at the hands of the Kapus and they have now followed us to the cities and force us to shed our blood for them to prosper!”

However, the class and caste-based oppression is not merely at the hands of the contractors and their henchmen or the bureaucrats. Safai Karamcharis continue to live under conditions of social isolation owing to their caste and caste-based occupation. It has to be acknowledged that by virtue of being employed in a profession which is seen as dirty, unclean and unhygienic, the Safai Karamcharis and their families continue to face ostracisation and social immobility. This affects their morale leading to further segregation.

Safai Karamcharis are forced to undertake this form of work due to inescapable discrimination against them in all other fields of employment, and pervasive socialization leading them to believe that this work is the only form of employment to which they are suited. Because of the distasteful work, other castes shun it, and the work of the Safai Karamcharis becomes hereditary and non-optional. This form of caste-based occupation further results in perpetuating caste inequalities and discrimination, and becomes a social practice rather than an occupation, trapping the community into this practice.

This is the lone woman, in a tattered coat, with a small broom, bending over sweeping the street. Or pushing a rickety push-cart with small wheels that barely turn, overflowing with stinking garbage. Or walking from gate to gate collecting garbage from every household.

These are the bunch of men loading stinking and rotting garbage into a truck with their bare hands. They are there every single day.

In Bangalore there are almost 18,000 such contract Safai Karamacharis and almost 50,000 across the State and lakhs across the country. This workforce, almost entirely Dalit and predominantly women, is also denied statutory and constitutional rights. Then workers are paid measly minimum wages, denied all statutory rights and are subject to abuse and harassment at the hands of the contractors and their henchmen and the BBMP officials, and contempt at the hands of society. It is all so common to see a privileged person to cover their noses with handkerchiefs even as these workers clean the garbage with their bare hands.

While on the one hand the workers have been abused, harassed and their rights grossly violated leading to their impoverishment, on the other hand, the past two decades have seen the growth of an entrenched nexus that has resulted in loss to the public exchequer. The Karnataka High Court has stated that there is an unholy alliance between the contractors, elected representatives and corporation officials in the garbage business, and these function like a cartel, illegally gratifying themselves with “garbage” money at the expense of the workers.

It is in this context that the BBMP Guttige Powrakarmikara Sangha (Bangalore Contract Safaikaramcharis Union) affiliated to AICCTU, has been organising these contract workers and struggling against this unjust and illegal contract system for more than a decade now. Countless struggles and protests to highlight the blatant violation of the rights of the contract Safai Karamcharis employed by the BBMP and have repeatedly drawn the attention of the BBMP and the State Government to this situation and urged their intervention. The fight of the Union has been on three primary fronts – wage security, job security and dignity of labour.

On the wage front the Union has taken up a sustained campaign over the past two years for the revision of minimum wages. Presently workers are paid little over Rs. 7,000/- which they have to stretch to accommodate rent, food, education, health, etc. These abysmally low wages have forced workers into a cycle of poverty and debt, which is never-ending. It is to address this that AICCTU took up the campaign to force the Government to increase wages. In the face of our struggles, the Government proposed revised wages of Rs. 8,860/-, to which we vehemently objected and held a mammoth protest of over 3000 contract Safai Karamcharis where we gheraoed the main Labour Department Office and demanded Rs. 21,000/- as monthly wages. The Government was compelled to respond to our agitations and as a result of our protest, the Government has partly met our demands, and increased the minimum wages to Rs. 14,040/- from August 2016 onwards. In addition workers are now to be paid an additional Rs. 3,000/- as risk allowance over and above minimum wages. This victory is the result of the workers and Union’s sweat, toil and struggles.

Alongside demanding proper wages the Union has persistently highlighted the inhuman and unhygienic working conditions and demanded for basic services. Our Union had filed a case in the High Court demanding for toilets, drinking water, washing facilities, etc. Now we have succeeded in this as well and the State Government was compelled to order the following facilities to be provided to all contract Safai Karamcharis.

1. Rest rooms

2. Drinking water facilities

3. Toilets

4. First-aid facilities

5. Washing facilities


7. Hand gloves – leather

8. Caps

9. Gumboots with ISI mark

10. Slippers

11. Cleaning instruments and tools

12. Long handle broom, broomstick with wiring

13. Drain scrappers, collection plate, hand scrappers

14. Hoe with wooden handle

15. Spade

16. Nose mask – dust free respirator

17. Ghamela

18. Weed cutting machine

19. Drain cleaning equipment

20. Bamboo Baskets

21. Phenyl and bleaching powder

22. Push carts

Furthermore, the Government has also mandated that payment of wages shall be made through direct bank transfer or through cheque, and under no circumstances by the payment of cash.

One other demand of the Union is the regularisation of BBMP contract Safai Karamcharis. Repeatedly this demand has been raised, by our Union and several other groups across the State. Now it appears the Government has taken its decision on this front. On 04.05.2016 the Cabinet of the Karnataka Government discussed the future of contract Safai Karamcharis in the State. Various workers unions and Dalit groups, including our BBMP Guttige Powrakarmakara Sangha had, through protests and direct actions, and through interventions in the Court resulting in directions, forced the Government into the inevitability of making a decision. Thus, the matter was discussed over several cabinet meetings culminating the in the decision taken on 04.05.2016 to abolish contract labour system and retain all contract Safai Karamcharis by March 2017. Further the government has also resolved towards opening of an escrow account in every ULB for the wages of contract Safai Karamcharis, reservation of 20% funds for their welfare, provision of housing, among other decisions.

In an extremely affluent area in Bangalore, Indiranagar, the workers finally erupted against the relentless exploitation and denial of dignity. Two weeks back the TV channels were buzzing with the news that workers had gone and filled garbage in the house of one of the leaders of a local Resident Welfare Association. The biased and prejudiced media painted the workers as villains who were targeting a middle-class woman social activist, who was trying to ensure that the garbage collection was streamlined. The reality is otherwise.

In these affluent areas the workers are expected to not only clear the garbage but also to clean dogs’ shit from the roads. The elitist residents who take their manicured dogs out for walks force the workers to clean the dogs’ shit from the roads. Even this so-called middle class social activist believed that it was the workers’ duty to pick up dog’s shit and threated the workers with retrenchment if they refused to clean this excreta. Tired of this despicable inhuman treatment meted out to them, the workers revolted. Their rage came pouring out in the form of garbage being dumped in that persons’ house. This act has emboldened the workers across the city. This fearless action of the workers has compelled the contractors, officials and elite citizens to back off the workers.

It was in the backdrop of this epic resistance that a determined struggle was organized by the Union on 19.10.2016 at the Corporation office warning that any delay in payment of these revised minimum wages or failure to provide basic services or regularize the workers or any more harassment from elite residents would be met with the iron fist of workers’ united struggle. This forced the Commissioner out of his AC chamber to the streets to negotiate with the Union and assure them that the revised wages would be paid from the next month along with all arrears and all other facilities would be provided shortly and that it would be ensured that the elite residents even in the name of resident welfare association will be reigned in.

The struggle continues.

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