The jhadu has taken centre stage in the national imagination. It is being wielded by many who have never had to use it in the traditional sense, certainly not for public good! The jhadu wielders are in the news, both in the papers and certainly on prime time TV. But what of those forced by birth to wield the jhadu? Do they get the press, the adulation, the admiration? Alas no, and the irony seems lost on every one.
For the past 26 days nearly 5,000 safai karmacharis, those who sweep our streets and go down our gutters, those who allow us to live in stink free colonies and homes, walk on the relatively unlettered streets of Ahmedabad, have been on a strike for fair wages and permanent jobs. And they are being starved and ignored.
AMC seems to have three categories of safai karmacharis. There are those who are permanent.
These are the lucky ones, but they are given no bonus. Then there are the full time ones on contract — who work 8 hours a day, get Rs210 a day, below the minimum wage stipulated, no benefits, nothing else. The bottom of the pile are the part-time contracted ones, those who clean the roads, clean the shit in municipal schools and who inevitably work much longer than the stipulated part-time hours. They get paid Rs900 a month, no benefits, and no extras.
Many of them have been working for 20 years and more. All of them have lost friends in the frequent manhole accidents — 580 at the last count.
Under the organisation of Gujarat Majdoor Sabha, these poor people have been on strike asking for only one thing, to be made permanent with all the benefits that permanent staff deserves.
Strangely, enough they are asking for what the AMC is supposed to grant them anyway. By their own order, any worker who has worked longer than five years is to be made permanent. But like much else, this remains an order on paper.
And there are always carrots being held out to ensure compliance. Take the ill famed Sadbhavna event. Says Indiraben V, “We were promised permanent jobs if we went to the venue and worked there. Who wouldn’t go with such a promise? But my son got burnt that day, he was in hospital, and they wouldn’t let me leave. My heart was in my mouth, my mind was a blur, but we had been promised permanent jobs. How could I risk leaving? And in the end, not only was the promise a lie, but we still haven’t even been paid for those three days”.
For a corporation that has a budget of above Rs4,000 crore, it seems cruel and bizarre that 5,000 people performing such a fundamentally crucial function cannot be given their due. Imagine the absence of their services. The city would soon descend into a public health hazard, with rats and rodents over running us, rotting garbage piling up, contaminating, water, food, air. And we still continue ignoring their plight. And they continue sending letters to the authorities signed in their blood.
Two days ago parleys were held. The Valmikis tell me that after many, many hours all they were offered were a promise to make 250 people permanent every year. 250! And with the city growing as it is this would be while thousands more were being added to the roles of contracted labour every day.
As I write this, the safai karmacharis rightly continue their strike. But for how much longer will this group of mostly women be able to hold out against hunger and threats? Shouldn’t we care?
The writer is a noted danseuse and social activist.