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WB: Safai Workers Under KMC Struggle With Dingy Quarters, Meagre Pay and no Holidays

The safai workers with the Kolkata Municipal Corporation push 6-7 quintals of urban waste for 2-3 kms everyday for a scant wage of Rs 202 per day. They return to their staff quarters where even running water is not available to take baths.
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Representational use only.

Kolkata: Nageshwar Ram, (53) originally hailing from Giridih of Jharkhand is a safai worker (conservancy mazdoor) in the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC). A father of three children, he has to keep his family in Giridih as the KMC quarters meant for safai workers consists of one small dingy room where four to six safai workers spend their nights. “We are endlessly exploited,” says Ram, a dalit worker.

Most safai workers of the corporation hail from scheduled caste backgrounds and are originally for Bihar, Jharkhand and UP and some are paid wages as low as Rs 202 per day after 8 hours of burdensome work. Ram’s main duty is to keep the city clean by removing wastes from the city. He came to Kolkata in 1987 and took up a job in KMC where he still serves presently. Most of them have to take the waste from designated vats to the compressor machines of KMC in hand carts, travelling a distance of 2-3 kms with 6-7 quintals of filth. This requires immense physical strength on part of the worker.

There are about 14,000 permanent posts for conservancy mazdoors in KMC, out of which only 6,000 posts are filled presently. Rest of the posts are temporarily filled from 100 days urban work programme and are paid a meagre wage of Rs 202 per day. They do the same work as the permanent conservancy mazdoor.

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“We are made to work under stringent conditions; often the authorities use foul words to make us work, and instead of one road we are made to sweep two to three roads which is an arduous task for a safai mazdoor,” Ram told NewsClick.

“We don’t get water at times to get a proper bath and there are virtually no bathrooms in our quarters. The quarters itself are in dilapidated condition; some are without any doors and windows, which were broken long ago. In these cramped 8x8 rooms we place khatias (small cots) one by one , or use mattresses on the floor to sleep at night , and each 8x8 room is home 4 to 6 mazdoors. The quarters are not repaired. The last repair in most quarters took place in 2011, during the times of the Left Front government,” Nageshwar Ram, who stays in Azadgarh quarter of KMC, added.

The system of replacing the permanent conservancy mazdoors who are retiring from service by badli workers (most of them being family members of mazdoors), as was the prevalent practice, has also nearly stopped and outside recruitment is being made. “There is also a scale of badli workers who get Rs 404 per day, but their number is fast dwindling,” Ram further informed.

For Narayan Yadav (58), who hails from Giridih as well, and is a dalit worker, life in Kolkata is hectic. His main contention is that since 2020 the conservancy mazdoors have not got any holiday, either calendar holidays or paid leaves. “That system has also stopped and now there are no holidays for the conservancy mazdoors in the city of Kolkata. It is physically not possible to work without any holiday. Even if we have fever or illness we are made to work like a bullock works in the field,” says Yadav.

Another problem that the conservancy mazdoors are facing is that many of them do not even get the dingy quarters which are now occupied by outsiders. “If you do a survey on our quarters you will see that over 60% of the rooms are occupied with outsiders and we have to live in shanties near our work area,” Yadav added.

Talking to NewsClick Anutosh Sarkar, secretary of KMC Workers’ Union seconded all the complaints raised by Ram and Yadav, and added that his organisation was building up movements to help the conservancy mazdoors. “They do not get holidays and not only that, but during the Covid period they were not given PPE kits and were made to work to remove sanitation wastes. If any of them contracted Covid the Corporation would not pay any amount for their treatment,” Sarkar alleged.

“During the earlier Left Front controlled boards (it was till in 2010 that the Left Front headed the KMC board) the workers used to get two shirts, raincoats and gumboots to work as their work nature is hazardous, but now all that has stopped. We are demanding the corporation to start giving the kit again. Earlier there were attempts to improve the infrastructure of the quarters of the conservancy workers; now all that has stopped. Using a scheme of 100 days urban employment generation programme wrongly, the present board is employing conservancy mazdoors paying them only Rs 202 per day and in the 144 wards of Kolkata Corporation there are about 10,000 such mazdoors who are working on permanent nature job with meagre pay. This violates the same work same pay verdict of the Supreme Court. There are casual leaves, earned leaves and medical leaves of the mazdoors but they exist only on paper.” Sarkar told NewsClick.

The union is also demanding permanent status for contract mazdoors of the KMC, with which the present board is dilly-dallying with.

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