The neglected urban guardians

When the affluent religiously flock to the next health fad, the role pourakarmikas play to ensure a healthy city goes unnoticed

That the plight of the sanitary workers is an unending tale of sorrow and helplessness must find greater resonance among the general public.

The trial the pourakarmikas are put through -- thanks to the apathy of the authorities and public -- have most of them living in penury. Frequent protest calls have become the
occasional distraction for the authorities to shortchange them often.

“Make the 16,000-odd workers permanent, not just 4,000. Credit salary on the seventh of every month (May’s wages aren’t paid yet). Rid the biometrics of glitches. Provide restrooms and safety. Improve the quality of food. Mandate Employees State Insurance Cards (ESI). Respect us and treat us with dignity,” demands Nirmala M, BBMP Pourakarmika Union president.

“Pourakarmikas have been consistently cheated for over 15-20 years. There is a history of exploitation. After an October 2017 order of the regional provident fund commissioner, irregularities regarding the provident fund of the pourakarmikas were exposed. They were cheated of Rs 90 crore, yet to be paid. The money is with the contractors. BBMP has not initiated an inquiry. They have to comply with the order, or be prosecuted for dereliction of duty. Public money cannot be squandered,” elaborates human rights advocate and AICCTU state general secretary Maitreyi Krishnan.

The exploitation goes much beyond the aforementioned.

“A committee was formed to probe complaints of more than five pourakarmikas who alleged sexual exploitation in the past three years. The committee is yet to release its report.”

The BBMP was swift with assurances. It remains to be seen how pragmatic the solutions are.

“We can make all permanent, provided the government nod. Now, 4,000 can be regularised. We will provide them uniform and safety gear. Restrooms will be constructed,” clarifies
D Randeep, Special Commsissioner (SWM), BBMP.

As for sexual harassment, according to Randeep, one must wait for the committee report. “Thereafter action will be taken in the interest of the affected pourakarmikas. Three to four cases are before the Sexual Harassment at Workplaces Committee and joint commissioners. The SWM policy being framed by the government is going to emphasise on pourakarmikas’ dignity and welfare,” Randeep explains.

Rathnamma, BBMP Pourakarmika, Ashoka Vana Park - Near Deve Gowda Petrol Bunk, Banashankari II Stage: “We suffer wounds, boils and allergies while sorting garbage. I took a day off and went to the hospital to get rashes treated. We experience bad odour daily. We are given face masks but find it difficult to breathe wearing them. Regardless, we continue to be affected by the smell, insects and flies.”

“Public don’t care when we ask to segregate waste. What do we do? The higher-ups tell us to segregate waste. They say they’ll pay Rs 13,000 but give only Rs 9000 or less. No one ‘s helping. The government makes promises, but haven’t fulfilled one. Permanent staff do superficial work. They get Rs 20,000-25,000, houses, clothes and benefits. We work diligently. What do we get?”

“My entire salary pays bills. We don’t want anything big. We want proper salaries and a bit of space to live, so that we survive.”

Member of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Jagadish Hiremani says from 1993 to 2019, out of the 800-odd safai karamcharis who lost their lives in India, 203 are from Karnataka and at least 25 are from the BBMP. “Working conditions must improve. Authorities and public have to see ground reality. About Rs 850 crore was plundered by 25 contractors in the fake bills scam,” adds Hiremani.

(As told to Samhita B Atrey)

‘We need to appreciate what the pourakarmikas are doing, study their work closely and ensure adequate healthcare’

“They are exposed to pollution - plastic and toxic fumes - that can lead to health hazards. Most sit beside heavily congested roads during breaks. Though much has been achieved so far, with the onset of the monsoon things will get worse. We need to appreciate what the pourakarmikas are doing, study their work closely and ensure adequate healthcare, with a health check up or two a year,” says gastroenterologist Dr Naresh Bhat.

Why the authorities are turning a blind eye while it is abundantly clear the city has no future if it ignores these true urban guardians is intriguing.

Urban local bodies are in shambles, just like neglected backyards

“Pourakarmikas deserve a fair deal. The system needs to understand ghost workers. This is a humane issue that has to be dealt with sensitivity, and non-negotiable. It must be addressed in the SWM policy and discussed in the run up to next year’s BBMP election,”

- V Ravichandar, Urban expert

The idea of basic pay begs a rethink

“We must move from minimum wages to living wages. The idea of minimum wages is absurd considering it is not adjusted for inflation. PSUs deteriorated post liberalisation with private contractors taking over. Most workers do not know much about their employer. At the municipality level rules are often flouted.”

- Sobin George, ISEC

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