Who is going to Clean the “Swachh Delhi” Programme Of Its Indifference Towards Municipal Workers?

MCD workers burn an effigy of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on 1 December 2015. Hindustan Times
15 December, 2015

Last month, in a rare show of federal cooperation, the Delhi and the Central governments joined hands amidst much fanfare for the cleanliness drive publicised as the “Swachh Delhi Abhiyaan.” The flagship project was launched by the chief minister (CM) of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, on 16 November in the form of the Swachh Delhi Android app. The app encouraged users to photograph and upload pictures of garbage and debris that accumulated around the city. These geo-tagged photographs were then sent to the Department of Urban Development (DoUD) in the Delhi Secretariat. The department then sorted these images area-wise, identified them as either garbage or debris—the former being the responsibility of the Bharatiya Janata Party-controlled Municipal Corporation of Delhi, and the latter, of the Public Works Department (PWD) under the Delhi government—and forwarded to the concerned agencies, who would then send the details to officials of the respective area, or ward. They would, in turn, arrange for workers to clear the garbage or debris.

Following the launch of the app, the centre allocated Rs 96.7 crore to the Delhi government for the initiative on 22 November. The goal was to resolve all the complaints received by 30 November. When the day approached, Sandeep Mishra, additional secretary at DoUD and the Swachh Delhi mission director, praised the positive response of the app, revealing that it had received over 42,000 complaints during its trial period, of which about 25,000 had been resolved and 6,000 were found to be junk. He went on to claim that the unattended complaints would soon be taken care of, and that the decision to continue the app system would be made after a formal review.

Over the course of my reporting—amid all the valid concerns of technical glitches, low redressal rate, structural problems, and the short-sightedness of the mission in terms of garbage disposal—I realised that one of the key failings of this process was not discussed at all. After talking to more than a dozen sanitation workers from the north and east corporations of the MCD, it became apparent that the plight of the men and women who actually do the cleaning has rarely been addressed.

On 27 November, Sanjay Gehlot led me to his tiny office, situated inside the complex of public toilets and washrooms, adjacent to the Ambedkar Institute of Technology at Geeta colony in east Delhi. Gehlot is the president of the Swatantra Mazdoor Vikas Sanyukt Morcha (SMVSM), an umbrella group of 28 unions, consisting of nearly all of the approximately 80,000 sanitation workers employed by the MCD. This year alone the SMVSM has gone on strike four times: in March (for a week), June (for 12 days), October (till Diwali in November), and now on 1 December when some of its members began a relay hunger strike at the Jantar Mantar.

During the next hour, over cups of tea and the pervading stench of ammonia, Gehlot and his companions, Prem Chand and Joginder Bahot—both class-four sanitation workers from the East Delhi Municipal Corporation—told me about the cleanliness woes of Delhi, and those of their own as foot soldiers of the MCD.

There are three categories of MCD workers. The wages they receive, rarely on time if at all, are a pittance. The lowest rung is that of the substitute workers who fill in whenever regular employees are unavailable. Depending on the number of days that they have worked for, they typically do not earn more than Rs 1000 a month. Next are the daily wagers, who earn about Rs 9000 as minimum wages. After about 20 years of service, daily wagers are finally made regular employees with a monthly salary of Rs 15-25,000 depending on their seniority. Arrears have been running into months and years for most. This issue has led to numerous strikes, but the resolution, especially since 2014 when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the BJP took over the Delhi and Central governments respectively, remains jammed amid the tug of war between state and centre.

According to Gehlot, the problems began in 2012 when Sheila Dixit, the chief minister of Delhi at that time, trifurcated the MCD. “Back then, everything was controlled by the centre, so the salary situation wasn’t bad. But Dixit split the corporations to try and weaken the BJP’s hold over the municipal elections. Now, things have grown worse since AAP took over.” Under the new system, the MCD has been divided into north, south and east corporations that comprised 12 zones and over 270 wards across the city. Each corporation bears several responsibilities in terms of education, health, sanitation, horticulture, drainage, electricity and infrastructure within its areas of jurisdiction. In addition to the revenues earned through taxes, licensing, and parking fees, the corporations are supposed to receive funds from the Delhi government out of the money allocated to it by the centre.

However, since 2014, when the two parties came to power, the BJP has accused the AAP of corruption and inefficiency in doling out funds. The Delhi government responded by repeating that the MCD was controlled by the BJP, and that the centre wasn’t allocating enough money to bail out the loss-making corporations of north and east Delhi. Most sanitation workers across the city have not been paid for the past three to four months and permanent employees have arrears running into years. Pramod Arya, a sanitation worker from north MCD summarised, “Sarkaaron ki aapsi ladai mein hum log pis rahe hain. Yeh chakki hain, toh hum gehun.We are being threshed in a quarrel between governments. They are the pestle, we are wheat.”

On top of late or non-payments, these workers must also contend with the worry that reimbursements for any injury or accident sustained in the line of work may take years. Prem Chand, a permanent sanitation worker with East MCD quipped, “We deserve better. Forget gloves or gum boots, we even have to buy our own broomsticks for 100 rupees! Kehte hain Swachh Abhiyaan pe croron laga diye, lekin hum log jo safai karte hain, humaara koi khayaal nahi.-They say they spent several crores on the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan but those of us who do the work haven’t seen any of it.”

On this point, Gehlot declared, “Sab dikhawa hai, bas baatein banaati hai sarkaar—It is all a façade, the government only spins tales.” He felt that neither the government nor the public understood the ground realities of keeping the city clean. Part of his frustration appeared to stem from reading about the vast sums being set aside for this project while the MCD sanitation workers remain unpaid or underpaid. “Hum CM (Kejriwal) se kai baar miley...Har baar kehte hain ki paisa bhej diya hai—jaata kahaan hai phir—We’ve met the chief minister multiple times. Each time, he tells us that the funds have been sent, where are these going then?” For all the praise the app has garnered, Gehlot sees it as business as usual, "Kaagazi safai hai ji—These are just achievements on paper. Who can check the authenticity of their claims? Baaki safai toh roz hoti hi hai, hum karte hain—Cleaning takes place every day otherwise, we do it.” 

Gehlot and many of the other sanitation workers I spoke to feel betrayed by Kejriwal, for they believed that he would pay heed to their plight,“Jab shuruat mein AAP aayi thi, jhaadu ka nishaan dekhkar humein laga ki ye humaare liye kaam karenge, lekin humein bewakoof banaya gaya.—When AAP first came into power, we saw its symbol of the broom and thought that it would represent us, but the party has fooled us.”“Since then [2014], we have burnt over 150 effigies of the CM,” Gehlot stated with pride. He showed me a copy of the minutes of a meeting held with the Delhi government’s minister for SC/ST Welfare and Women and Child Welfare, Sandeep Kumar, at the Delhi Secretariat on 23 October 2015. On the subject of “pending arrears of back wages,” the minutes stated that “it was agreed that adequate amount will be released by the Delhi government next week.” The meeting appeared to have ended with an appeal by the minister to the SMVSM to end the ongoing strike and resume work. The workers ended the strike two days later. However, a little less than two months later, the class-four employees working at the ground level are still waiting for the money they have earned. “It was the latest false promise,” Gehlot concluded.

When asked about how the problems may be solved, he replied, “Combine all the corporations again.” Since the east and north operations continue to incur losses while the south brings in the most profits, Gehlot seemed to believe that bringing all three together would balance revenues. He also suggested that the centre grant direct funding to the MCD. Additionally, SMVSM has demanded the implementation of the fourth finance commission report, which would increase the Delhi government’s grant to the MCD from 10 to 17 percent.

Gehlot’s biggest concern, however, was that none of this would make a difference to the status quo because, “the people in power need to change their mindsets about caste and sanitation workers, and show some sympathy towards us.”