Since 2015, sanitation workers of the East civic body have gone on strike eight times. The reason — delay in payment of salaries. Each time, the corporation has blamed the MCD trifurcation and lack of funds from the government for its empty coffers. Abhinav Rajput looks at the crisis
Under a tin shed outside Ambedkar College in east Delhi’s Geeta Colony on Thursday, Sunil Bagri (42) addresses around 50 workers of the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC). The men have just returned after dumping garbage outside the mayor’s residence, in protest against the delay in releasing salaries to over 17,000 safai karamcharis.
Holding a water bottle in one hand and sipping tea from the other, Bagri reminds the workers of the reason behind the strike: “Every time we hold a strike, officials pacify us by giving our salaries. But what about the arrears which have been pending since 2003? Our people have committed suicide in the past due to their financial condition. This time, we must not relent.”
Bagri is a permanent worker with the corporation and earns around Rs 25,000 a month. “More than 5,000 workers were made permanent in 2003 and around 2,000 in 2004. But their salaries were revised only in 2013-2014. We want our arrears now,” he said.
Since October 11, thousands of workers have been on an indefinite strike, leading to overflowing dhalaos and garbage piling up on East Delhi’s streets. The Indian Express looks at why the EDMC struggles to pay its workers on time, leaving them in dire straits.
Consider this. As per last year’s budget, the civic body has an outstanding amount of Rs 65 crore in medical bills. This, along with salaries it owes its employees, amount to a total of Rs 1,525 crore in dues. The civic body also generates Rs 70 crore as revenue per month or Rs 840 crore a year. To pay off its dues, the EDMC needs to stop all expenses for close to two years. According to sources, both the East and North civic bodies need a Rs 7,000-crore bailout package to pull them out of the crisis.
Strikes galore, but no change
Eight — that is the number of times safai karamcharis have gone off the streets since 2015, in protest against the salary delay. This time, workers said all their demands must be met — including Diwali bonuses and cashless medical cards. Bagri recalled how he was forced to withdraw his son from school last year, as he couldn’t pay the fee. “My son used to study in a private school. But he faced constant humiliation as I couldn’t pay the fee on time; he was pulled up by teachers in class. I had no option but to admit him to an open school,” he said.
Seated amidst the gathering is Bhim Sen (35), a temporary worker who got the job after his mother — a safai karamchari — died following an illness in 2008. “We used up all our savings on her treatment. I have a daughter, aged 17, and two sons, aged 14 and 12. I never get paid on time and end up borrowing money on interest… I don’t want my children to enter this profession. If I fall sick tomorrow, we will have no money for treatment. This is why we are demanding cashless medical cards,” he said.
A few feet away, Ved Prakash (42) smokes a beedi. A substitute worker with the EDMC, he gets work only when permanent employees are on leave. He has been without work for the past 15 days. “I get work for just 10 days a month, during which I earn around Rs 5,000 — I get paid Rs 513 for a day’s work. On other days, I look for work elsewhere as I have a family of five to feed, and Rs 5,000 rent to pay for our house in Rani Garden,” he said.
While the three men represent different grades of sanitation workers, they are all affected by the crippling financial crisis assailing the east civic body — which caters to over one-third of Delhi’s population. However, with a budget deficit of over
Rs 200 crore, EDMC officials said they just don’t have the money. Every month, salary expenses of over 30,000 employees add up to Rs 170 crore, while arrears of 17,000 workers are over Rs 500 crore.
EDMC commissioner Ranbir Singh told The Indian Express: “We get about Rs 570 crore from the Delhi government each year… But salary is not the only expense. We have hospitals and schools to maintain… There are various other expenses for which we pay Rs 50 crore each month. Last year, we took a loan of Rs 330 crore from the government. This year, we have asked for Rs 650 crore. But as we always have a budget deficit, the interest keeps piling up and adds to our problems.”
Singh, however, claimed that the EDMC has credited salaries of workers till October. “But we are not in a position to pay them arrears and Diwali bonuses,” he said.
Trouble started in 2012
This is the third strike this year by sanitation workers over non-payment of salaries as well as issues with regularisation of jobs, insurance and health cards — issues they have raised since the trifurcation of the MCD in 2012. Delhi Pradesh Swachata Workers’ Union President, Sanjay Gehlot, said, “Things were fine before trifurcation. After that, there was delay in salaries, but the Congress — which was in power at the Centre and in Delhi — gave funds to the corporation. Trouble escalated after the AAP came to power in 2015.”
According to officials, the trifurcation is at the heart of the EDMC’s financial crisis. While the move was aimed at decentralising municipal governance in Delhi, officials said it only “tripled the number of officers, increased costs and resulted in unequal distribution of assets in the three civic bodies”.
As a result, while the South Corporation enjoys a surplus of Rs 15.52 crore (as per last year’s budget), the East Corporation — which is the worst off — is struggling with a deficit of Rs 2,041 crore.
Property tax is one of the main sources of revenue for the three MCDs, and is used to pay salaries, pensions and other development works. Till December 2016, the East corporation collected Rs 192 crore as tax — lower than both the North (Rs 404 crore) and South (Rs 775 crore).
The East also loses out on property tax, as most its areas come under category H — the lowest of the eight categories into which properties in Delhi are divided. It also has the highest number of unauthorised colonies, from which no tax is collected. The EDMC has 253 unauthorised colonies that were later regularised, and 245 unauthorised colonies. Only 90 colonies are planned.
Former MCD commissioner Rakesh Mehta, however, said trifurcation was not the issue. “How are other corporations surviving? There is never a strike in the South and hardly any in the North. The EDMC lacks resources to generate revenue and needs timely financial assistance from the Delhi government or the Centre. It should also try to look for other ways to generate revenue,” he said.
Another former commissioner, K S Mehra, added, “Of 40 lakh properties in Delhi, only 15 lakh pay property tax; the ratio is worse in East Delhi. So, the corporation needs to augment more resources to generate revenue. This can be done if they collect taxes from unauthorised colonies as well. If garbage is being picked up and other civic amenities provided in these areas, why can’t house tax be collected from them?”
‘Need our dues’
In June this year, EDMC mayor Neema Bhagat had met Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal seeking funds to the tune of Rs 9,845 crore — “pending” since 2012-13. However, alleging “massive corruption” in the EDMC, Kejriwal had said, “The government has released all funds to the MCDs under the existing finance commission. Where is all the money going? Why are sanitation staff not being paid salaries regularly?”
Bhagat said, “We want the Delhi government to pay as per the recommendations of the Fourth Finance Commission (see box). This should have been implemented by 2012. It would have allowed us to get 12.5% of the government’s global share. But the government isn’t willing to do anything.”
The Delhi government presently pays a fixed percentage of its global share to the MCDs. These are taxes collected by the government which are given to the MCDs as grants — Rs 570 crore for East and over Rs 1,000 crore each for North and South.
The government had also provided financial assistance to the EDMC two times earlier this year — Rs 119 crore in January and
Rs 200 crore in February. A Delhi government spokesperson said, “In the last two years, the government has not deducted the loan amount that it pays to the MCD. To resolve the ongoing crisis, we have given Rs 108 crore as advance to the corporation.”
The EDMC commissioner also demanded that the government pay the civic body as per the Fourth Finance Committee recommendations — which has provisions for civic bodies that are financially weak to get more funds. “If they agree, we will get Rs 1,447 crore annually. As of now, the government has paid its share as per the Third Finance Commission, which is Rs 570 crore.”
He added, “The Fifth Finance Commission recommendations are expected in a month’s time, we hope it is implemented. Also, if the EDMC is given a Rs 2,000-crore bailout, we will be able to fix the salary issue. In the meantime, we are conducting a survey to find out the exact number of houses in unauthorised colonies to help us collect taxes. We are also thinking of ways to collect conversion charges… We also want to develop better parking facilities to generate more revenue.”
Back at the protest site, Gehlot said the workers will not back down till their demands are met. “We also live in Delhi, but what option do we have? One month of demonetisation troubled you so much. Imagine our people, living in the same state for years,” he said.
What is the Fourth Finance Commission?
It was set up in 2009 to review the financial position of the MCDs and make recommendations on sharing the net proceeds of taxes, duties, tolls and fees levied by the Delhi government. Following the trifurcation of the MCD, the North and East civic bodies slipped into an acute financial crisis.
Government funding to the corporations are largely in the form of a “global share” of taxes collected by the Delhi government. The Third Finance Commission had recommended a 5.5% share of the tax; the Fourth Commission has recommended that civic bodies’ share be increased to 12.5%.
The report was finally tabled in the Delhi Assembly in December 2015, and accepted by the AAP government. However, the government said it will release funds only when the Centre releases its share. Ever since then, the BJP-ruled MCDs have been demanding the implementation of the commission’s recommendations.
A Delhi government spokesperson said, “The recommendations were placed on the floor of the Delhi Assembly in December 2015, along with an action taken report. But it cannot be implemented in bits and pieces. For it to be implemented in totality, Rs 25,000 crore fixed deposit should be handed over to Delhi government by the DDA.”
Safai karamcharis employed by EDMC
Permanent Workers: 8,000
Salary: Rs 22,000-Rs 35,000
Temporary Workers: 7,000
Salary: Rs 12,000
Substitute Workers: 2,000
Salary: Rs 513 per day’s work
Medical facilities: Rs 25 cr
Medicines purchased: Rs 40 cr
Others (paying vendors to purchase cleaning items, contractors for constructing community halls, parks etc) Rs 400 cr
Salaries Retired employees: Rs 800 cr
Contractors: Rs 150 cr
Grade A & Grade B employees: Rs 110 cr
Unpaid dues: Rs 1,525 cr (till Dec 2016)