Every day, Gurcharan Singh and his wife Sunderan of Jalandhar get up at 5 in the morning, pick up broomsticks, sweep around 30 streets, unclog drains, and aim, often unsuccessfully, to turn back home by 10 am. And in return, each of them gets a monthly honorarium of Rs 300 from their employers — Gram Panchayats — and a cup of atta from each of the 500 houses of Tut Kalan and Billa Nawab villages every week.
But the last time, around 16,000 safai karamcharis like Singh and his wife working for 13,018 gram panchayats of Punjab’s 22 districts, got their government-allotted pay was in 2014.
“I have been cleaning my village since 1984, and after my marriage, my wife also started working in the neighbouring gram panchayat. Earlier we used to get a small bowl of ‘atta’ from every house in the village in return for our work, and since 2007 Punjab government started paying Rs 300 monthly for this work,” said Gurcharan.
Since the government job doesn’t pay enough to sustain their family of four school-going children, they rear pigs and cows. “We rear pigs to meet our basic needs,” he said.
The lack of a living wage has cast a shadow on the central government’s ambitious Swachh Bharat campaign. The Punjab government began paying the honorarium since 2007, which has been held up since 2014. Though in June this year, the Rural Development and Panchayats Department of Punjab released Rs 4.69 crore to 13,018 Gram Panchayats as one year’s (2018-19) stipend, the money hasn’t reached the workers. The pending honorarium was to be credited to workers’ bank accounts by the District Development and Panchayat Officer (DDPO).
Jalandhar DDPO Ajay Kumar said they were collecting the account details of workers and the money would be released soon. “Rs 300 per month is quite a meagre amount,” he said, adding that the delay was because sometimes “if one account number if not correct then the entire amount gets stuck. We will utilise this year’s amount”.
However, there is no word from the government on three years’ arrears.
Department of Rural Development and Panchayat secretary Anurag Verma said: “The honorarium is quite low”. He said they would “first take up the case of pending pay for three years” (2015 to 2017). The department’s director Jaskaran Singh too said he “will take up the matter of enhancement of their honorarium which is quite low at the moment”.
Gurcharan is luckier than his peers in other villages. “My wife is still working on honorarium and flour but after three decades of service, my village panchayat has started paying me Rs 2,000 salary but that too comes after a wait of several months”.
Pendu Safai Mazdoor Union (Punjab) President Prem Lal Sarthar said: “There are around 16,000 employees who get just the honorarium while around 10% panchayats in the state pay Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 under sanitation head”.
“In today’s time, how can somebody justify Rs 300 honorarium. Even neighbouring Haryana, which began with a monthly stipend of Rs 3,500, now pays Rs 10,500 to such workers,” he said. Pendu Mazdoor Union leader Tarsem Peter, said they are taking up the case with the government.
Asked about the low pay and the red tape holding up payment, Punjab Panchayat and Rural Development Minister Tripat Rajinder Bajwa said he “will check it”.