More than two decades of an ongoing struggle for the rights of the ‘Pourakarmikas’ (Safaikarmacharis, workers engaged in sweeping, cleaning garbage etc.) has yielded some positive results in the Tumkur district of the state of Karnataka. As on June 6 2018, 723 Pourakarmika workers received a Government Order as Urban local Body employees. Of these 174 are permanent employees and 549 are under direct payment. However 45 contract Pourakarmikas who either have crossed the age limit or have less than 24 months of service have been removed from service and would lose their jobs from June 1, 2018. Activists in the state are urging the district administration to institute remedial measures for these 45 workers who have lost their employment to protect their labour rights.
Safaikarmcharis are not regular employees and get fewer payments and lesser wages. The Saikarmacharis are not recognized as proper workers and are often bereft of the benefits of regular workers and get forced to do the undignified work of manual scavenging. The Safaikarmachari Kavalu Samiti (SKSS) –a watchdog committee comprising of members of the Dalit Madiga community has been waging a struggle for the rights of the Pourakarmikas in the state since two decades. The SKSS members are working at the community base, with municipality and conduct investigations into every Safaikarmachari and under-ground drainage worker deaths. In association with different civil society organisations the SKSS has been closely monitoring and documenting deaths of manual scavengers and Safaikarmacharis. Besides this the SKSS has been gearing its efforts towards abolishing contract system under the 1974 Contract Act and outlining to the civic bodies to regularize the SKs and make them regular employees. The workers have had to struggle against the system of contracting which makes them vulnerable to irregular payments, labour law violations, physical/psychological and sexual harassment.
In 2014 the SKKS for the first time raised a demand for minimum wages for the SKs with the Regulatory Board and also negotiated for provision of the safety equipment for the SKs. The regulatory board on the suggestions of SKKS recommended of the increased wages of the SKs. The combined struggle of different civil society organizations and SKKS finally yielded a result in May 23, 2016, when the state government took a cabinet decision to abolish the contract system and the window period for regularizing the contract SKs was given as March 31, 2017. The decisions called for abolishing contract system and regularize more than 35,000 Pourakarmikas in the state, including around 30,000 in Bengaluru.
In 2017, the Cabinet had passed a resolution against outsourcing to contractors and the Government of Karnataka had made a special recruitment policy for regularising the existing workers. 10,000 workers would be recruited as permanent staff and the others would be employed as direct payment staff. In December 2017 and January 2018, district officials had initiated this process but the process was delayed due to the state elections. Under pressure from SKSS, THAMATE and other civil society groups, the Tumkur District Collector has been working on this issue, co-ordinated by the Directorate of Municipal Administration. There have been several protests and petitions demanding regularisation of the Pourakarmika workers, 80% of whom are women.
According to activists of SKSS the process of regularisation is a great victory for the struggles by workers for dignity, equality and labour rights. This is a landmark action and can become a way forward for workers in other districts and states. The state of Karnataka though has the distinction of banning manual scavenging by Government as early in 1972, but the struggle against manual scavenging has been continuously steered by civil society organizations like THAMATE, Safai Karmachari Kavalu Samiti, different human rights activists, Dalit movements, PUCL and other alliances and networks like Jana Swasthya Abhiyan, Safai Karmachari Andolan etc. Using multiple approaches of mobilization, empowerment, rehabilitation and affirmative action these civil society bodies and likeminded alliances have struggled to end this caste-based occupation in the state.