On the last day of May, 53 sanitation workers were unceremoniously dismissed from their jobs at the three campuses of the Ambedkar University in Delhi. Some of these workers had been employed at the AUD for nearly a decade; all were given notice of mere hours. The workers had been employed through Sulabh International, a non-profit organisation that has been feted by the United Nations for its work on sanitation. The AUD ostensibly let them go in favour of a cheaper contractor, a private firm named Bhagwati International. In early June, the sanitation workers began protesting at the university’s Kashmere Gate campus. Students from organisations such as the Students Federation of India, the student-wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the Progressive and Democratic Students Community and the Dalit and Bahujan Adivasi Collective—student organisations of AUD—supported the protest. The Krantikari Yuva Sangathan, a youth organisation that works for the rights of marginalised sections of society and the Safai Karamchari Union, a union of sanitation workers, also joined the protests.
The sanitation workers demanded that they be reinstated, given permanent jobs and employed directly by the AUD, and accused the university and its professors of caste discrimination. They specifically singled out Lokesh Garg, the university’s deputy registrar, for what the workers described as “blatant casteism.” The protests continued until 6 June to no avail, and six days later, they met the Aam Aadmi Party leader Gopal Rai, who is the labour minister of Delhi. After continued negotiations between the administration and the workers—with support from the student organisations and SKU—on 13 June, the AUD finally relented and reinstated all the employees who had been let go. The contract with Bhagwati International was also cancelled.
While the workers’ contracts have now been renewed, the issues that they raised during their protests remain unaddressed. Anshu Singh, the spokesperson for AUD, told me that “all the staff have been engaged on outsourcing basis” by Broadcast Engineering Consultant India Limited, a government enterprise that provides consultancy services. Singh did not have any information on whether the workers had been rehired on a permanent or a contractual basis and what benefits would they receive. The workers had also demanded the constitution of a committee comprising two professors, two students and two workers to independently assess the charges of caste discrimination against Garg. When I asked her if the university would take any action on the complaints against Garg, Singh told me that “no formal complaint was ever received in the University,” so there was no question of reprimanding him. Garg has, however, been divested of his charge of the estates division—an administrative unit of the university which manages services within the campus and supervises all the workers. Sunny, a 35-year-old who supervises the sanitation workers, told me that “there are rumours he is going to be transferred to another campus within the same university.”
The protests began on 3 June, when the sanitation workers and members of the student organisations, gathered at the AUD’s Kashmere Gate campus, outside the office of the vice chancellor, Anu Singh Lather. Three days earlier, the staff had all arrived in the morning, only to be told that it would be their last day at work. Anita, one of the workers, was shocked by how sudden the termination was and how the AUD gave them no time to look for other jobs. “How are we supposed to pay bills?” she said. The students and workers sat outside the office, and raised slogans, such as, “Hum Apna Adhikaaar Maangte, Hum Kisi Se Bheekh Nahi Maangte”—We are asking for our rights, we are not begging.
The workers’ primary demand was that their employment should be secure and they should be treated with dignity. At the protest, Sunny’s constant refrain was, “Jo safaai ka kaam hai wo roz ka hota hai. Agar ye kaam permanent hai, to job permanent kyu nahi hai?”—The work of cleaning is on a daily basis. If the work is permanent, why isn’t the job permanent too? Chaitanya, a doctoral student and a member of the PDSC, also raised the issue that the AUD’s decision to not give permanent status to sanitation workers “was casteist in itself.”