When his mother died in 2005, Shambhu Thakur inherited the job his parents had done for nearly three decades: fetching water from a kilometre away to clean the floors and toilet of the post office in Ratu village, 18 km from Jharkhand’s capital, Ranchi.

For this, he was paid Rs 10 per day.

The amount was higher than the Rs 2 his father earned, and the Rs 5 his mother earned, but it was still far below the minimum wage set by the Jharkhand government – Rs 275 for a working day of about eight hours. Even by an hourly calculation, Thakur’s wage did not meet the minimum wage standard.

In 2018, Thakur began pursuing a wage hike. He wrote several letters to the post office, requesting the authorities to increase his pay. “My daughter was ready to be married. But we didn’t have enough for dowry,” he said.

Two years later, the post office agreed to increase his wage to Rs 275 per week, effectively Rs 39 per day. This included Rs 200 for sweeping and mopping the floors, and Rs 75 for washing toilets. It was still below the state’s minimum wage.

This year, a local activist Basant Prasad Kumar came to know about Thakur’s wage and decided to spread word on it. One of the people he informed was researcher Vipul Paikra, who tweeted about it on April 5, in the hope of drawing the attention of postal authorities.

But the tweet backfired. The very next day, Thakur was turned away from work. On Twitter, the India Post, the postal service that functions under the Central government’s Ministry of Communications, replied to Paikra’s tweet to say Thakur was no longer working at the Ratu post office.

Thakur said, “For years I was not aware of my right to ask for a minimum wage. When I did, they asked me to stop coming to work.”

‘Irregular post’

The postal authorities, however, denied any injustice had been done to Thakur.

Arun Tiwary, the officer at the helm of the Ratu post office, claimed that Thakur’s post was “irregular”. “He worked for an hour or less. He kept urging for more wages even though the work wasn’t much,” he said.

An official, who did not want to be identified, said smaller branches of the India Post such as the one in Ratu don’t have a sanctioned post for a cleaner. “Each post office makes an informal arrangement for its cleanliness by paying a labourer locally,” the official said.

Sanjiv Ranjan, the postmaster general in Jharkhand, said the Ratu post office is about 160 square feet, which requires 25 minutes to be cleaned. “Based on that, the wage is proportionate,” he said.

Ranjan justified the decision to abruptly terminate Thakur’s services. “The post office had hired him for a few hours of work as an irregular engagement,” he said. “His services may not be needed anymore now and the respective postmaster general can take a call to remove him.”

Shambhu Thakur with his wife Phoolmani Devi at their home in Ratu village.

Unfair labour practice

Vipul Paikra, a research fellow at Rice Institute, a non-profit organisation, said Thakur’s wage was “a ridiculous amount even in an informal arrangement”. “It does not align with any labour law,” he said.

Gayatri Singh, a senior lawyer in the Bombay High Court with expertise in labour law, agreed. Even if the post office paid him on an hourly basis, “the wage must be proportionate to minimum wage,” she said.

Saurabh Bhattacharjee, associate professor in National Law School, Bengaluru, who has extensively researched labour laws, said Thakur’s wage was an example of an unfair labour practice. “The post office is an industry based on the Industrial Disputes Act. The rates of sweepers are notified even if it is for hourly basis, and a government institute must follow it,” he said.

But worse than the denial of the minimum wage, Bhattacharjee argued, was the way Thakur was terminated suddenly without notice or compensation. “Even if it is an informal set-up he cannot be removed in such a manner,” he said.

A family in distress

Three generations of Shambhu Thakur’s family have been treated unfairly by the postal department, Basant Prasad Kumar, the local activist, pointed out.

Shambhu Thakur’s father, Doman Thakur, began working as a cleaner in the post office ever since its inception about 43 years ago. “He would sit at the post office till 5 pm ready to do whatever work the post office gave him. He was paid Rs 2 per day,” Kumar said.

Doman Thakur passed away in 1998 and the job was transferred to his wife Laxmi Devi for Rs 5 per day. “My mother-in-law would remain at the post office from 10 am till 5 pm daily,” said Phoolmani Devi, Shambhu Thakur’s wife. “I would ask her to demand a wage hike. She eventually did write to the post office but passed away shortly after.”

In 2005, Shambhu Thakur took up his mother’s job after her death. “I was a graduate but I had no other job offer,” he said. The wage was raised to Rs 10 per day. But it was inadequate to take care of his family’s needs.

Thakur, therefore, fell back on his family’s traditional caste-based occupation of cutting hair. After cleaning the post office, he would roam around the village to offer door-step services as a nai, or barber.

But he made sure he was available even on Sundays for the post office cleaning work.

With four children to support, Phoolmani took up whatever paid work she could find. “I would work on other people’s farms to earn, or would take up labour work to sweep in the village to earn extra. But even then, we hardly earned enough to save,” she said.

In 2008, Thakur wrote letters to the post office, requesting for a wage hike. Those letters were ignored. Finally, a decade later, in response to another set of letters, the post office raised his wage.

But now even that has been snatched away from the family.

Thakur’s eldest daughter is 25 years old. The couple are keen to get her married. Her younger brothers, aged 22 and 17, are studying in a government college. Thakur’s youngest daughter is eight years old, and goes to a government school. “The books and meals are provided by the school, so I don’t have to spend for that, else paying for school would have been difficult,” he said.

The couple’s main concern is the marriage of their eldest daughter.

“Since 2018, I am trying to get my daughter married,” Phoolmani said. “I saw my mother-in-law and husband both work hard but what did we get in return? We couldn’t even save enough to get our daughter married.”