Gyanendra Ingle works the graveyard shift everyday hauling cattle carcasses that are discarded from the tanneries of Dharavi and piles them on the garbage truck with his bare hands. His foot still bears the deep scar left behind by a scissor tucked away inside a carcass that tore through his flesh many years ago.
Ingle, being one of the 5,000-odd conservancy workers working with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) on contract, was never provided protective masks, gloves or gumboots. Nor was he eligible for any kind of healthcare benefits like the 28,000-odd conservancy workers employed on a permanent basis with the BMC.
With no provision to take paid sick leave, Ingle had to continue scooping the garbage and ferrying it in trucks to the dumping ground where he would unload it.
“Within days my wound turned septic and I was forced to stay home for more than a week without pay,” he recalls.
In a major victory for Ingle and many like him, the Industrial Tribunal has recently ordered the BMC to accord permanent status to 2700 conservancy workers on contract. The tribunal has directed the BMC to extend to them the status and benefits provided to permanent workers “retrospectively from the date of completion of 240 days of service from their dates of joining”.
This would not only mean an almost three times increase in their monthly pay but also basic securities such as provident fund, gratuity and access to protective gear.
For many like Nitin Bhigardive, a resident of Govandi’s Baiganwadi slum, who has been working as a safai karamchari for 15 years now, permanency would also bring with it the security of free periodic medical check-ups in civic hospitals.
“Many of my co-workers have died of tuberculosis and I too often have persistent coughs. But despite several pleas we have not even been provided with masks to cover our nose and mouths while at work,” said Bhigardive, who is now relieved about the fact that his monthly salary would no longer come 15 days late.
“Cleaning the streets is a kind of work that is perennial and statutory in nature and hence it had to be removed from the purview of contract work. There have been times when BMC, as the principle employer, delays payments to the contractor by a month or two, the workers too are paid late,” said Milind Ranade from the workers’ union Kachara Vahatuk Shramik Sangh (KVSS) which filed the petition in the tribunal in 2007.
Ranade added that these workers will now also get the benefit of leave travel allowance, loans from BMC and regular uniforms, workers’ quarters and their children would also be able to apply for jobs after their death as in case of permanent conservancy labourers.