On Monday, a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi washed the feet of five sanitation workers at the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, labour and Dalit rights organisations held rallies in Delhi and Mumbai to protest against the failure of the Union government and states to uphold the rights of sanitation workers.

At Azad Maidan in Mumbai, safai karamcharis (municipal sweepers and garbage collectors) from across Maharashtra called out the state government for failing to implement a February 2015 government resolution or GR that granted minimum wages to all municipal contract workers. The majority of Maharashtra’s safai karamcharis are hired on the basis of contracts, and the state government owes many of them lakhs of rupees as arrears for the past four years. As a mark of protest, labour unions organised a “GR wapsi” at Monday’s rally, throwing copies of the government resolution into trash bags.

At Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, hundreds of workers from across the country protested against deaths caused by manual scavenging, and demanded better working conditions, implementation of reservations and separate education and job quotas for sanitation worker communities. The protest was organised by Dalit rights organisation Aadi Dharam Samaj.

Workers who attended the rally described Modi’s gesture of washing the feet of sanitation workers as a “political stunt” ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

“It is all for votes,” said Ravi Valmikan, 30, a sanitation worker from Faridabad, Haryana. “If Modi has likened us to soldiers in the Army then when one of us dies, we should also get the status of a martyr.” Valmikan added that sanitation workers like himself in Haryana still worked without any protective gear like masks, gloves and boots.

“There are no facilities and no protection,” he said. “All of this despite an order from Supreme Court to put a stop to manual scavenging. There is no value for us. We can get better technology and use machines but that has not happened.”

Sanitation workers threw copies of a government resolution in a trash bag as part of a protest they called "GR wapsi". (Photo credit: Aarefa Johari).

No minimum wages in Mumbai

The Mumbai protest was organised by the Maharashtra Municipal Kamgar Union, the Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh and several other labour unions from different districts in the state. For years, Maharashtra’s municipalities have hired a limited numbers of sanitation workers as permanent employees, who are entitled to wages as per the Seventh Pay Commission as well as other perks and employee rights. Lakhs of other sweepers, sewer cleaners and garbage collectors are hired on a contract basis, with poor wages, no job security and no employee rights.

A state government resolution issued on February 24, 2015, sought to remedy this by granting minimum wages to all contract-based workers hired by municipalities in the state. However, unions claim that in the past four years, municipal bodies have made little to no progress on implementing the government resolution, and the state government has failed to hold them accountable for this.

“At least 30,000 contract-based safai karamcharis are still not being paid minimum wages, so each worker has to be paid many lakhs as arrears,” said Deepak Bhalerao, the president of Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh, a Mumbai-based union.

In Mumbai, for instance, 6,000 workers are owed between Rs 1.2 lakh and Rs 3.2 lakh each. In Thane, 1,400 workers have to be paid up to Rs 2.25 lakh each. The Navi Mumbai municipal corporation has no permanently-employed sanitation workers, and 6,500 of its contract workers are owed Rs 1.6 lakh as arrears for the past two years. “By not paying minimum wages, the government has effectively turned sanitation workers into bonded labourers,” said Bhalerao.

Safai karamcharis from across Maharashtra protest in Mumbai on Monday. (Photo credit: Aarefa Johari).

Since 2015, various state government departments as well as the Governor of Maharashtra have issued orders to municipalities to implement the government resolution on minimum wages. But Bhalerao claims there has been no punitive action against municipalities for repeatedly failing to comply with those orders. “In 2017, the labour commissioner in Thane stated that contract workers are entitled to not only arrears of minimum wages, but also a fine equivalent to 100% of the wage denied,” said Bhalerao. “But nothing has been done about it till now.”

He added: “Meanwhile, the Thane corporation has allotted Rs 100 crore for the city’s happiness index, which will involve beautifying the city with gardens and fountains.”

Narayan Sarode, a garbage truck loader employed on a contract basis by the Mumbai municipal corporation, attended the Mumbai protest rally because he has been working without job security for 15 years. “I get Rs 12,900 a month for working six days a week without any leave, medical insurance or safety gear,” said Sarode. “But permanent employees who do the exact same work as me get more than Rs 20,000, safety equipment, leave and even insurance.”

However, Shantuvar Thorat, a permanent employee who attended the rally to support contract workers, claimed that the Mumbai municipal corporation is yet to give even permanent sanitation workers all their rights. “I was made permanent two months ago, after 12 years as a contract worker,” he said. “Even though I get better wages now, I have not been given arrears. And we still do not get insurance or even gloves, masks and other safety gear.”

‘We have to work during curfew’

In Delhi, protesters had a range of grievances against the government.

Brahm Singh, a 55-year-old sanitation worker from Faridabad, said that campaigns like Swachh Bharat caused workers to work longer hours. “I have cleaned an area where a minister showed up the next day,” he said. “Because of these events, we have to work harder and longer. Our leave days have been cut. In Swachh Bharat there is nothing specifically for our benefit.”

Vijay Pal travelled to Delhi from Kashmir to participate in Monday's protest rally. (Photo credit: Vijayta Lalwani).

Vijay Pal, 53, was one of 11 sanitation workers who travelled from Jammu and Kashmir to attend the protest in Delhi. “We only get masks to wear when a minister visits,” he said. “None of the workers get paid on time.”

Pal added that life has been no different for sanitation workers in Kashmir even after the Pulwama attack of February 14. “We have to work even during curfew,” he said. “The police and Army do not stop us from working. There is no curfew for us no matter what happens. Even after an attack, you will see there will be no garbage in the city.”

The children of sanitation workers also attended the protest, demanding government interventions to secure them a future different from that of their parents. For instance, Dipak Valmikan, 24, a student from Faridabad, grew up listening to his parents say that he would not grow up to become a sanitation worker. “I am studying now because of what my parents told me,” he said. “The government needs to understand this. Sanitation workers earn so less that it is not possible for them to support their children’s education. Their children’s health and education should be made free.”

Sanitation workers at the Jantar Mantar rally in Delhi on Monday. (Photo credit: Vijayta Lalwani).