They sweat, toil, even die for Swachh Mumbai
These conservancy workers of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), or safai karmacharis, are rarely able to beat the system. It is a pernicious system, a reflection of all that is wrong with urban societies, city governance and vestiges of a feudal set-upmumbai Updated: Apr 12, 2017 17:53 IST
There are approximately 35,000 of them working across Mumbai. In rain and shine, they collect garbage to the extent that it’s possible to, clean the city’s sewers, sweep the streets, slide down manholes to clean them and generally do the chores that must be done in a city. They remain invisible because the system wills it to be so.
These conservancy workers of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), or safai karmacharis, are rarely able to beat the system. It is a pernicious system, a reflection of all that is wrong with urban societies, city governance and vestiges of a feudal set-up. If they want the job, they must grin and bear this system though some of them see the stark exploitation, injustice, illegality and unethicality of it all.
They earn about Rs15,000 a month if they work six days a week. But that’s about it. They are contracted labour, not employed directly by the BMC. They do not get paid leave, are not provided with protective gear, cannot claim medical expenses for injuries sustained during work, and do not have a medical insurance cover. The abysmal work conditions mean that illnesses and early death are common, and to top it all, they must go off the rolls for a few days before they complete 240 days of work.
Nearly 225 of the workers die every year due to the appalling work conditions; about 1,380 had died between 2009 and 2015, according to the BMC’s own data. Some of the poorest, most marginalised and least educated people suffer and die to keep Mumbai as clean as possible.
Though the city cannot do without them, the BMC does not employ them because it would have to give them a higher salary, paid leave, medical cover and so on. So it hires them from hundreds of contractors because, on paper, each contractor has only about 20 workers on rolls. Why? Because he can escape the provisions of the Contract Labour Act which mandate benefits and rights to establishments with more than 20. A contractor takes them off the rolls before they complete 240 days and rehires them after a gap because otherwise he would have to, according to the Industrial Disputes Act, make them permanent employees.
This is an exploitative, malicious, illegal and unjust arrangement but it suits everyone involved – except, of course, the safai karmacharis.
Ten years ago, some 2,700 of them helped by their union approached the industrial tribunal. In October 2014, the tribunal ruled in their favour granting them permanent employment with the BMC and all applicable benefits. What did the BMC do? It appealed against the order in the Bombay High Court. In December last year, the HC too ruled in the workers’ favour.
The BMC appealed in the Supreme Court which dismissed the petition last week. It is anybody’s guess if the BMC will implement the orders immediately but this case opened the avenue for nearly 3,000 workers whose cases are pending in the tribunal. This is still 10 per cent of all conservancy workers.
As Mumbaiikars, you would have to wonder what compelled the BMC to behave the way it did – and does – with those on the bottom rung of the class, perhaps caste, and work ladder. Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta has grand plans to make Mumbai clean: build toilets in slums, replace 3,000 open garbage bins with closed compactors, install new garbage processing stations, and so on, while completing the paperwork required to get a Swachh Bharat rank. Mumbai was placed 10th in India last year.
But Mehta fought tooth and nail in the courts to deny the safai workers their rights. The Swachh Bharat rank is coveted, clean Mumbai is important, but those who work for it are treated like, well, dirt. How much more dichotomous and unethical can the BMC be? Or the question to ask: Who benefits from this pernicious exploitative system? That pervasive contractor-corporator-official nexus, perhaps?