Sanitation workers employed with the East Delhi Municipal Corporation went on strike for the fifth time in two years on Friday to protest against not having been paid their salaries. The workers are demanding that the Delhi government release the money for their salaries immediately. They also want the state government to accept the Fourth Delhi Finance Commission report that recommends, among other things, that the civic bodies be allocated a higher percentage of taxes collected by the state.

The East Delhi Municipal Corporation is the poorest of Delhi’s three municipal corporations. It, along with the more prosperous North and South corporations, governs eight of Delhi’s 11 districts. The remaining three districts are governed by the New Delhi Municipal Council and the Delhi Cantonment Board.

While sanitation workers in the cash-strapped East Delhi Municipal Corporation haven’t been paid for the past two months, some other employees have not received their salaries for up to four months now.

On Friday, sanitation workers started the strike by holding several protests across the city. The next day, in protest, they started dumping truckloads of garbage on roads, outside state government offices, in enclaves where state legislators live and even outside government schools in East Delhi colonies.

The strike continued on Tuesday even though the Delhi government, over the weekend, released an advance of Rs 119 crore to the East Delhi Municipal Corporation to pay sanitation workers’ salaries. The protesting workers say that the advance is not sufficient to pay even one month’s dues.

On Tuesday, sanitation workers of the North corporation also joined the strike, and dumped garbage in North Delhi’s Rohini township.

Municipal polls coming

Given that elections to the three municipal corporations are coming up later this year, the strike has taken political overtones.

The three municipal corporations are dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has blamed the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government for not giving the East corporation enough funds to pay salaries.

The Kejriwal government has, in turn, accused the BJP’s municipal councillors of siphoning off money meant for wages. The state government also accused the East corporation of ignoring a High Court order regarding the timely payment of salaries.

“It is a fight between two political parties and the poor servants of the corporation, and the public are suffering because of that,” said Rajendra Mewati, president of the Delhi Pradesh Safai Mazdoor Union.

Uncollected garbage piles up at a dump in East Delhi. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).

Unimplemented report

“We also want our pending arrears with regard to the recommendations of the Fourth Delhi Finance Commission’s report,” said Mewati.

The Fourth Delhi Finance Commission report was tabled in the Delhi Assembly in December 2015, nearly three years after it was submitted to the state government. However, the government is yet to implement it.

The report outlines the measures needed to be taken to improve the financial situation of Delhi’s three municipal corporations. It includes a recommendation that civic bodies should get a higher share of taxes collected by the Delhi government – it suggests that the allocation to the civic bodies be increased from 5.5% of total revenue collected to 12%.

Sanjay Gehlot, president of MCD Swachh Karamchari Union, the other group leading the strike, also demanded the immediate implementation of the report.

But the Aam Aadmi Party government says it will implement the report’s recommendations only after the Union government does so – another of the commission’s recommendations is that the Union Urban Development Ministry refrain from intervening in matters related to the constitution and powers of local bodies in the national capital.

The Delhi government has also demanded that the Centre give it an increased share of central taxes that are distributed among states and Union territories.

“The problem is with both sides,” said Rakesh Mehta, former Delhi Chief Secretary. “While the municipal corporations lack accountability and cannot give the state government proper justification of their expenses, especially with regard to funds, the latter too is being adamant about not implementing the fourth Delhi Finance Commission report. If things do not change soon, people in Delhi will only keep suffering and witness a blame game between AAP and BJP in the run up to the upcoming municipal elections.”

Mehta, a retired Indian Administrative Service officer, was also the Commissioner of the unified Municipal Corporation of Delhi between 2002 and 2005. The corporation was split into three in 2012.

Striking sanitation workers protest in Gandhi Nagar, East Delhi. (Photo Credit: MCD Swachh Karamchari Union).

Never-ending deficit

One of the biggest challenges facing Delhi’s municipal corporations is the wide gap between income and expenditure. Except for the South corporation, which governs some of the city’s most affluent areas and rakes in a sizeable amount of revenue as property tax, the expenditure of the other two corporations is higher than their earnings.

The financial condition of the East Delhi Municipal Corporation is particularly grim.

The majority of localities in its jurisdiction are unauthorised colonies as a result of which the civic body relies on only about 90 colonies for revenue through property tax. However, a chunk of these colonies also fall under the D and E category of property tax assessment, which are charged a low rate.

The East corporation also gets meagre revenue through advertisements, unlike its counterpart in the South that bags the lion’s share, followed by the North corporation.

“The toll plaza on the national highway, which is a major source of revenue, is East MCD’s lifeline,” a municipal official said.

But its expenses are high. The East corporation employs around 17,000 sanitation workers alone.

Said a municipal corporation official: “According to the previous year’s figures, the corporation received an annual revenue of around Rs 900 crores against expenses of over Rs 1,300 crores only on salaries, leave alone other expenditure heads.”

Workers adamant

On Sunday, Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia announced that the state government had approved an advance of Rs 119 crores to the East corporation with a rider that the allocation be spent exclusively to pay sanitation workers.

In a press statement, the Delhi government also accused the corporations of mismanaging their funds.

It said:

“The MCDs have become centres of financial mismanagement and functional indiscipline, which are financially and functionally unviable… The [East] MCD has committed a contempt of court by having disobeyed the Delhi High Court order of payment of salaries to all its employees, including sanitation workers by seventh of every month.”

But sanitation workers have refused to call off their strike.

“Rs 119 crores is not sufficient to pay salaries of all employees of the East MCD [Municipal Corporation of Delhi] even for one month,” said Gehlot. “We cannot settle for anything less than the implementation of the recommendations of the Fourth Delhi Financial Commission’s report.”

Mewati echoed Gehlot’s views. He said that the Delhi government’s condition that the Rs 119 crore-advance be spent exclusively to pay sanitation workers was problematic as it ignored the corporation’s other unpaid employees like senior officers, doctors, nurses and teachers.

According to former municipal commissioner Rakesh Mehta, only a “financial model restructuring” can save the East Delhi Municipal Corporation from a crisis.

“The East MCD [Municipal Corporation of Delhi] has to get help from its counterparts and such provisions are often recommended in the Delhi Financial Commission reports,” he said. “Implementation of the report is a constitutional requirement which is not supposed to be politicised.”