On the afternoon of 22 August, in Telangana, at the bank of the river Krishna at Wadapally ghat, around 20 people—dalits and tribal people waited for their names to be called. The twelve-day long Krishna Pushkaralu festival, which occurs every 12 years, had began on 12 August. Over 13 lakh of people had taken a dip in the river (there had been 8 lakh in Wadapally alone), and the area had to be sanitized. The people gathered there—elderly men, teenagers, women and college students from the nearby Wadapalli village—were to collect the religious and human waste.
They gathered around a well-built middle-aged man while he read out names from his register. The man was a supervisor for the sanitation work at Krishna Pushkaralu. He and an executive officer (EO) were there to hire workers for the state, to clean the area. But these workers’ names were never called. They had already worked for five days, but their names had now disappeared from the supervisor’s register.
For the first few days, the payment for the workers was going through the contractors who hired them, and who were in turn paid by the government. On 13 August, the district collector announced that the money would be handed directly to the sanitation workers instead. Those who cleaned the grounds would be paid Rs 415 per day, plus a meal worth Rs 75; and those cleaning the toilets would get Rs 500, as well as the meal. The collector said that district officials would directly oversee the payment distribution. The collector appeared to be reacting to a story published in the Telugu newspaper Eenadu that very day, which reported that the workers received less than half the money that the government had sanctioned them.
The EO asked the workers to leave. “Please go and ask the person who has brought you here,” the EO told them. “The 30 members whom the contractor has brought here are there in my list. My job is to see to it that these thirty people work properly.” Most of the people who were kicked out from the site wore their uniforms–flashy plastic coats and cloth caps—as if wearing the uniform would bring them work. Those whose names were missing complained that the contractors must have removed their names from the register because they were demanding the entire amount due to them.
“The contractors said they will pay us Rs 200 for this work, then the sirs”—district officials—“came and told us they will pay us Rs 400, since then the contractors have stopped talking to us,” Sundaramma, who was waiting for work, told me. “We have been telling the contractors that we will not pay them any cut from the money we earn. How can we pay them that money?” An older, more experienced worker said that the people whose names were on the lists were from far-off villages,and who had very little bargaining power. So,the contractors would get their money.