Last Sunday evening, as a cool wind swept through Bengaluru, 38-year-old S Subramani strung himself up from the roof of his house and ended his life. He was, his family said, frustrated and tired of living a penurious existence, at not being able to pay school fees for his two children, of not being paid – first by the contractor who hired him, then by the municipal corporation – for seven months despite sweeping the city’s streets every day.

Subramani was particularly disturbed, his wife Kavita told the New Indian Express, because his 10-year-old, Darshan, was made to stand in the school ground for most of a school day as punishment for not wearing shoes. Subramani went to school and promised teachers he would buy shoes for his son as soon as possible. “That day,” said Kavita, “never came.”

Subramani’s salary was Rs 17,564 per month, including social security deductions. That is Rs 1.22 lakh the city owed him and would not pay because it was trying to first sort out which names on its payroll were real and fake, a botched process that reflected a legacy of pervasive corruption and mismanagement.

When the city’s sweepers – about 7,000 of them similarly unpaid for months – heard of Subramani’s death, they massed in anguish and anger outside the offices of one of India’s richest municipal corporations. With the protests, came the politicians, and within hours they were handing over to Kavita, Subramani’s wife, a cheque for Rs 10 lakh.

While he lived, Subramani pleaded and protested, ran from proverbial pillar to post, and wrote letters to his local MLA, Dinesh Gundu Rao, the president of the state Congress. It would take Subramani’s death for the government to show that it could act with alacrity if it wanted or was pressured to. A day after he died, the municipal corporation – afraid of another suicide – also released Rs 27 crore to pay all outstanding salaries, which meant they could have saved a life and prevented much trauma to thousands of other sweepers if they really wanted.

Whither governance

The suicide of Subramani is a reminder of the tragedy that is India’s governance. Despite new programmes, more spending and a great desire to transform the country, the quality of life worsens nationwide because the government cannot do what is supposed to – govern. That is because millions in the trenches, the frontline of government, whether permanent or on contract, are ill-paid, ill-trained and generally ignored. These positions include the sweeper, the constable, the health worker, the anganwadi worker, the teacher, the peon, the sanitary inspector and the junior engineer.

The middle and higher echelons of the government are part of India’s elite. They live in nice houses, ride in government vehicles and send their children to the best schools. Those on the lowest rungs – called “Class-4” or “Group D” employees in officalese – are usually left to fend for themselves.

Subramani’s suicide may have been an extreme reaction, but the conditions he lived and worked under are not uncommon. Thousands, perhaps millions, of government employees nationwide are not paid in time. So, protests are now common, especially by employees on contract. To save money and pare payrolls, contract employees are paid a fraction of the salary of their permanent counterparts and do not get either pensions or perks.

Rich Bengaluru is often vexed when thousands of sweepers, health workers or assistant or subordinate teachers on contract clog already gridlocked streets, as they agitate against miserable service conditions and job insecurity.

To this insecure, marginalised and often exhausted army of frontline workers is assigned the task of fundamentally changing India. Plans may be drawn up, funds may be allotted, speeches may be made, and hope may be delivered for a new, rising India, but unless its foot soldiers are paid and empowered, these are fantasies. Unless their lives are transformed, they cannot do any transforming.

Of particular significance is the chasm between the Army down low and the commanders up high, not just in material terms but at the responsibility each can deploy. For instance, traffic constables in most Indian cities are not allowed to issue tickets, ostensibly to prevent low-level corruption, but that is symptomatic of their low status, and the higher levels are anyway riddled with higher-level corruption. And when governance collapses, it is the frontline that does what it can. When a giant pothole appears, we have, all too often, seen traffic constables keep traffic flowing by filling it up with whatever stones and bricks they can find.

The lowly street bureaucracy

Yet, even the limited initiative available to low skilled and disempowered employees is gradually being withdrawn as India’s government centralises, argued Rashmi Sharma in a Mint column earlier this week. “Field-level employees are subject to continuous directions as well as contradictory and impossible demands from the top,” Sharma wrote. “They work in harsh conditions with inadequate infrastructure, and have to spend money for travel and even office expenses from their meagre salaries. Disciplinary action against them is often casual and arbitrary.”

The treatment of what Sharma calls the “street bureaucracy” reveals an unstated premise in government that the frontline cannot be trusted and does not matter. This is a mistake because India lives and works on its streets. It is where the country’s destiny will be decided, by the junior engineer filling the potholed road, by the constable chasing the goon, by the patwari assessing crop losses, and not by the chief engineer, police superintendent or collector sitting on his towel-draped chair or travelling in his red-beaconed car.

This is not to say the higher bureaucracy is not important. Indeed, India has many fine examples of dedicated civil servants who try to strengthen the steel frame and offer world-class managerial talent. But their job is to galvanise and organise, it is not to do.

Subramani knew what he had to do – sweep the streets and ask no questions. He did it every day, and like thousands of his colleagues he did it mostly without gloves and other equipment. “My husband was never given gloves in 18 years,” said his wife Kavitha. Subramani was happy, she said, when he was told he would get a uniform. It never came. Bengaluru’s army of sweepers uses primitive, wobbly carts to collect the garbage of 10 million people. Sometimes there is no cart, in which case the sweeper must drag the garbage in a sack until her shoulder aches. Sometimes, there isn’t even a broom, in which case the sweeper must gather the trash in her hands – discarded sanitary napkins, sambar, soiled diapers, cardboard and blades. To do India’s dirty work and not get paid – sometimes that is too much to bear.