Bengaluru: Distressed by the non-payment of wages for over five months, a 37-year-old conservancy worker consumed poison and killed himself in Bengaluru's Guttahalli area on Sunday. S Subramani, who is survived by a wife and two daughters, was among the hundreds of workers who have been keeping the streets of Bengaluru clean without any pay for the past few months. His suicide comes over a month after hundreds of workers had gathered to protest in front of Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) " the head office of the civic agency responsible for the maintenance of the city.
"No conservancy worker should meet the fate of my husband. The BBMP authorities must pay wages to the conservancy workers on a regular basis," says Kavitha, Subramani's wife, who works as a domestic help, "The media has reported that the BBMP has given me compensation worth Rs 10 lakh, but I have only received Rs five lakh. I do not know when the BBMP authorities will pay the remaining amount."
Condemning the incident, S Balan " president of BBMP Contract Workers' Union " blamed the civic officials for the plight of the conservancy workers. "I do not know what the BBMP authorities were doing all these months without fixing the problems of conservancy workers. Along with cleaning the streets of Bengaluru, they also remove carcasses of animals. Many people take their pet dogs out for a walk and it is the conservancy workers who collect the dogs' faeces from the streets. The BBMP has been treating these workers worst than those pet dogs," says Balan.
BBMP not recognising new workers on rolls
Sources suggest that Subramani had written a letter to Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president Dinesh Gundu Rao, who represents the Gandhinagar constituency in the Assembly, stating that garbage contractor did not pay his wages for over five months. Although it is not clear whether the KPCC president personally received the letter or not, it indicates the plight of many conservancy workers and also negligence of elected representatives. The KPCC president was not available for comment.
BBMP Solid Waste Management joint commissioner Sarfaraz Khan points out that garbage contractors have got thousands of new workers on to the rolls. "We are weeding out such people. The government wants the ratio of one conservancy worker for every 700 residents to be implemented at the ward level," he says. According to Khan, Subramani was initially working as one of the workers in mosquito control and started work as a conservancy worker less than a year ago. "The BBMP cannot take those working for less than a year on the rolls," he adds.
Earlier, the BBMP used to pay the wages as per the list submitted by garbage contractors. The civic agency was paying 38,000 conservancy workers but after the introduction of the biometric attendance system, the number came down to 12,000. Later, the BBMP included 4,000 conservancy workers after verification. "We have no objection to the introduction of the biometric attendance facility. We have been demanding the introduction of Global Positioning System (GPS) to prevent paying excess amounts to garbage vehicle contractors, but the BBMP authorities have not taken it seriously. We demand that the BBMP authorities conduct a survey once again to identify the genuine conservancy workers," says All-India Central Council of Trade Union (AICCTU) secretary PP Appanna.
Mayor calls it 'bogus' issue
As the result of conservancy workers' protest on 5 June, Khan had also issued a circular directing the eight zonal joint commissioners of BBMP to take measures for paying the due wages of the conservancy workers within three days. However, nothing has happened thus far.
"I am waiting for my wages. I am supposed to get Rs 12,000 per month which means BBMP has to pay me Rs 72,000 for six months," rues a 34-year-old conservancy worker, Kuppamma S. "I need Rs 40,000 to send my three children to school. The delay in receiving my wages causes more problems at home. While our neighbours are sending their children to school, I am cursing myself for my inability to educate my children due to the lack of money," says Kupamma, who has been cleaning Seshadri Road (Ward No 110) for more than five years.
A majority of conservancy workers working on a contract basis have a similar story to share. "I have received no wages since January. My daughter is not able to go to school since I did not pay the school fees. I want the authorities to clear my dues as early as possible," says 54-year-old Palli Putta, a conservancy worker who lives in a slum near JC Road in west Bengaluru. The city's mayor R Sampath Raj has promised to to convene a special meeting of the BBMP Council to discuss the issue. "We (BBMP) have been paying wages to 16,000 conservancy workers regularly. There were no complaints from these 16,000 conservancy workers," claims Sampath Raj.
According to the mayor, there are around 1,800 contract conservancy workers claiming to be genuine workers. "These workers are not employed by the BBMP. They are not authorised to work as conservancy workers. They joined the garbage contractors after introducing the biometric attendance system. We cannot waste taxpayer money on those people. I want to discuss the issue with all the corporators in the BBMP Council and also with ward committee members to find a permanent solution for the bogus conservancy workers issue," says the mayor.
The author is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters