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Wednesday, 12 October 2011

‘I am not Anna, but I too must be heard’, say Delhi’s street cleaners.

Thousands of MCD safai karamcharis stopped work for more than week to demand for basic workers rights, Vishwajoy Mukherjee tracks a peoples movement everyone ignored

Outside a Municipal Corporation of Delhi office in Lajpat Nagar, a few hundred people had gathered in protest. Among them was the Gandhi-cap wearing Ram Bhule Chandaliya, who went without food or water for eight days demanding basic workers rights for the city’s street sweepers working under the MCD.

Unlike the recent current of Gandhi-like crusaders, Chandaliya, in his 60s, wasn’t propped up on a stage, with thousands of adoring onlooker expressing solidarity and important people paying their respects. There wasn’t any media frenzy, with live television coverage and constant new updates. There was just Chandilaya, who lay on a thin sheet spread out outside the MCD, Central Zone, Deputy Commissioner’s office for more than a week, surrounded by a couple of hundred of his fellow street sweepers.

“I am no Anna Hazare, I am just a sweeper like my father was, and my son is… But we have to fight for what is our right,” said Chandilaya in a feeble voice from where he lay. Chandilaya’s deteriorating health wasn’t being monitored by a team of specialist doctors. He would instead be forcibly taken to Safdarjung Hospital by his fellow protesters, whenever his health took a turn for the worst. After being administered a glucose drip, Chandilaya would be sent back to the protest site.

From 28 September, the Akhil Bharatiya Safai Mazdoor Congress called for a strike in which close to 6,000 street sweepers under the MCD central zone put down their brooms and wheelbarrows, and stand in protest against the MCD. The protesting safai mazdoors (street cleaners) were asking the MCD to regularise the thousands of street sweepers across Delhi as permanent staff. Thousands of these street sweepers have been working for the MCD for as long as 16 years and were still paid like daily wage labourers.

Untill recently, their income was a little more than Rs 3,000 per month, there were no health benefits, no uniforms and no safety equipment given to those who kept Delhi’s litter levels in check. “I was hired in 1996, when 5,000 workers were hired to fight the Dengue epidemic that was plaguing the city in a big way at that time,” said Ashok Kumar, 32. “We weren’t given uniforms, gloves, or even masks when we were tackling the dengue mosquitoes,” he said. Ashok Kumar is a father of two young boys and a girl. He recounts the time when his son fell ill with jaundice, and a three-month backlog in his salary forced him to borrow Rs 20,000 for the treatment. “I can’t afford such a huge debt, but I had to do it to save my son… If we got medical benefits like other workers, then I wouldn’t be in debt today,” Kumar said.

Though, in 2005 the MCD Commissioner had approved the regularisation of persons engaged on daily wages for maintenance work, till today most of the approximately 54,000 street cleaners in 12 zones under the MCD are not permanent employees and therefore do not get many of the basic workers rights like healthcare and steady wages.

“When the preparations for the Commonwealth Games 2010 were on, we were made to work over-time to make sure the city looked clean. Now that it is all over we haven’t seen a single paisa for our extra work,” explains Navin Vaid, 25. Since, workers under the New Delhi Municipal Corporation were paid over-time for their work during the Commonwealth Games the MCD street cleaners believe that it is only fair for them also to be compensated accordingly for their work. Vaid is the youngest post holding member in the Union and believes that one of the major reasons for which they are marginalised is because they belong to the lower caste. “This is our fate, we aren’t even allowed to enter the MCD office before working hours are over, and most of the staff has gone home… Imagine, we can’t even enter the office where we are supposed to report,” said Vaid.

One of the other reasons that drove these workers to striking is the rampant corruption they allege takes place in the lower rung of the MCD. Ravi Kumar, 28, recounts one of the most harrowing times of his life following his father’s death. Ravi’s father was also a street cleaner who died while Ravi was still in school. He then had to discontinue his studies to find work and support his family. Getting the Rs 87,000 that the MCD owed Ravi’s father as pension and other dues took months of harassment.

“They asked me for Rs 50,000 bribe for them to clear my father’s dues, and when they realised that I couldn’t pay that money, they kept asking me to come day in and day out and just wait,” recalled Ravi. “Finally I gave up, borrowed Rs 20,000 and paid it to the concerned official. After that I got the money that was rightfully supposed to be given to my father.”

For a city that is said to generate between 6,000 to 8,000 metric tonnes of waste every single day, one has to wonder what the residents of Delhi would do if the MCD’s 55,000 street cleaners were to stop working. As Navin Kumar put it, “We are safai karamchari’s belonging to a lower caste, it’s not like we can quit and do something else, we have to make sure that we get some dignity for the work that we do.”

Subhash Arya, Leader of the House, MCD, believes that there are genuine logistical reasons for which all MCD street sweepers can’t be regularised, and that there is no caste prejudice involved. “There are only 40,000 sanctioned posts for this purpose. We can’t make everyone permanent, and so they’ll have to wait for their turn,” said Arya.

Starting this week, the MCD commissioner has issued an order to provide all street sweepers with medical insurances and Rs 2,500 compensation for those who worked over time during the Commonwealth Games 2010. All permanent employees will get a Rs 40,000 bonus and an enquiry into the pending regularisation of employees working in place of their deceased parents will also be initiated.

However, for Ram Bhule Chandaliya this may just be another promise. Chandaliya, who starved for eight days for his colleagues, said that this isn’t the first time that such promises have been made. “This is going to be a continuous struggle for us. I am a permanent employee who is eight months away from retirement. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t feel that the problems faced by my people need to be heard.” Ironically, Valmiki Jayanti was celebrated on 11 October.


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