Ambedkar University reinstates 53 sanitation workers but allegations of casteism persist

The sanitation workers of the Ambedkar University in Delhi, outside the state labour minister Gopal Rai’s office on 12 June. The workers approached Rai to help resolve the issue of unfair dismissal and allegations of caste discrimination against the university administration. Safai Karamchari Union, Delhi
26 July, 2019

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.”

That day, the administration also asked Garg to address the protesting workers. Garg’s behaviour with the housekeeping staff was a major area of concern for majority of the workers. According to Rajkumari, a 29-year-old worker, “We are not allowed to sit on chairs. He saw a few of us sitting on the chairs and got very agitated, and instructed not to sit on them.” She told me that on “15th August, we were supposed to distribute sweets in campus, as is customary. But this time, Lokesh Garg delegated this duty to the guards, because it did not sit well with him that safai karamcharis should distribute the sweets.” Garg also refused to allow the workers access to drinking water from the water cooler in the campus. A pamphlet being distributed by the students also alleged that after Rajiv Kumar, the assistant registrar at the Kashmere Gate campus, left to join the Karampura campus, Garg conducted a “purification ceremony” in his office. Sunny told me that Garg asked for four or five male workers to thoroughly clean the office and that “I do not know if it’s because Rajiv sir was Dalit, or if the room actually was dirty, but the nature of this cleaning was extremely unusual.”

Garg issued an apology and told the workers that, “If someone was hurt due to anything I said, I regret it and I apologise.” A member of Dalit Bahujan Adivasi Collective, or the DBAC, who was present at the protest interrupted him and asked him to “state specifically what you are apologising for. Say that you did not allow them to eat from the same plate, say that you discriminated against them because they are workers.” Garg went on to deny all the allegations against him.

The AUD has run into trouble before on issues regarding the rights of sanitation workers. In September 2018, students from the DBAC came across some workers manually cleaning the sewers. The workers were unaware that manual scavenging was illegal. The workers and the DBAC then led multiple protests in the campus over the next few months. “Despite the protests against the practice, the workers were still made to manually handle the sewer. But they were told not to do it in front of the students and be more discreet about it,” Sunny told me. Singh, however, denied that manual scavenging takes place within the AUD’s premises.

Later in the day on 3 June, Satyaketu Sankrit, the officer on special duty—a civil services official who acts as a liaison between the government and the university—of the campus and Mohammad Sharique Farooqui, the registrar of AUD, told the workers that they would be reinstated and asked them to report to their respective campuses the next day.

On 4 June, when the housekeeping staff arrived at the campuses, they were told that they had not been rehired. The protest outside Lather’s office was restarted. The workers and students sat outside Lather’s office till 10.15 pm and decided to continue the protest on 6 June. The AUD’s prevarication continued on 6 June, as Sankrit and Farooqui, who were acting as the mediators, kept giving contradictory assurances orally but did not put anything in writing.

Finally, on 12 June, the workers, along with their family members, approached Rai, the labour minister, who assured them that he would act on their behalf. Sunny told me that they appealed to Rai as the AUD “refused to give us clarity on the matter, and there was a lot of agitation amongst the workers because nobody had any idea what was going to happen.” He added that they had even written to Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi, on 1 June, “but he did not get back to us either.” Sunny told me that Rai “was receptive to what we had to say.” The next day, Rai visited the campus and directed the administration to employ all the workers within the university.

The workers now have their jobs back but there is no clarity on the terms and conditions of their employment or even the benefits that will accrue to them. Sunny told me that earlier the staff was paid Rs 13,350 per month sans provident fund and employees’ state insurance. He did not know if the new contracts had PF and ESI provisions. Meanwhile, Dinesh, a doctoral student at the AUD told me that “the university is running on Ambedkar’s name, but there is no semblance of justice here. Dalits are still discriminated against.”