Bengaluru’s Sanitation Workers Say No to the System’s Scraps
If the city’s ragpickers and pourakarmikas stopped working for even a day, Bengaluru would plunge into disease and chaos.
BENGALURU, INDIA —Travel a few miles south of the upmarket enclave of Whitefield (home to the offices of Dell, IBM and Cisco) and you’ll find a settlement of shanties amid a vast tract of garbage. Thousands of Muslim migrant laborers from eastern India and neighboring Bangladesh live here.
In a city famous for being India’s tech hub, workers sort garbage and clean sewers manually, under hazardous conditions, often without safety equipment. Sujith Sheikh, who came to Bengaluru a decade ago and works as a wastepicker, tells In These Times that he “segregates all the waste — broken glass, rotting food, plastic bottles, condoms — by hand, and the contractors don’t even give us gloves.” Their labor is necessary for the city’s recycling efforts, but these workers receive no salary, earning only a few cents for every few pounds of sorted garbage.
Bengaluru’s sanitation workers are stratified by degrees of vulnerability. City government employees, known as pourakarmikas, are at the top of the pyramid. Even though some of them only have subcontracted or temporary jobs, pourakarmikas — who are predominantly Dalit (oppressed caste) workers — are often unionized. Pourakarmika positions include sweepers, who scour the streets and pile garbage into heaps, as well as drivers, helpers and loaders, who move garbage to dumping spots.
At the bottom of the pyramid are Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants, who labor without even the nominal protection of a government job. Asked if he works for the municipal corporation responsible for Bengaluru’s upkeep, Shakir Ali Sheikh, a migrant from Bangladesh, shakes his head: “No. Commercial.” Migrants like Shakir Ali Sheikh are paid by contractors who act as middlemen between workers and employers (such as the city and the corporations selling water, soda and food).
R. Khalim Ullah, an activist working with the Swaraj India political party and a prominent advocate of migrant workers’ rights, explains that the workers were “peasants and farmers who had to leave because the profession is completely untenable [in the West Bengal/Bangladesh region].” Ever since India’s neoliberal economic reforms in the 1990s, the number of its full-time farmers has been plummeting as cultivation becomes financially infeasible, a situation exacerbated by droughts. Many who flee have turned to itinerant wage labor. Journalist Sudipto Mondal characterizes this phenomenon as the rise of “a new wastepicking class,” including millions of Bengali-speaking Muslims across India. Many are recent entrants to Bengaluru’s sanitation labor pyramid.
While caste remains a deciding factor in how the labor force is organized, decades of Dalit mobilization have given pourakarmikas a modicum of bargaining power. Over the past 15 years, pourakarmikas have organized under the umbrella of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). In 2016, pourakarmika sweepers in Bengaluru went on strike and managed to get on the city’s payroll, which workers said allowed them to escape the mediation of corrupt contractors. In July 2022, pourakarmikas once again went on strike, this time across the entire state, to demand that all their positions be turned into permanent government jobs.
According to reporting in The Hindu newspaper, striking workers alleged that contractors paid them less than minimum wage with payments sometimes delayed for months. “Any demand for basic rights is met with threats of termination,” one worker told The Hindu. “We demand that the contract system be abolished.”
The strike, which halted garbage collection across the state for four days, was partially successful. By January, the government had agreed to convert more than 24,000 out of the state’s 33,000 pourakarmika positions into permanent jobs. The government also vowed to abolish the contract labor system and bring more drivers and helpers into a direct payment system. If this promise is fulfilled, it will usher tens of thousands of workers into more secure conditions.
Even as some pourakarmika workers move up, the city’s Muslim migrant workers are replacing them at the bottom. Maitreyi, a state committee member of the AICCTU who does not use a last name, says organizing these workers is posing new difficulties. Many of them do not have addresses and voter ID cards, which makes them difficult to contact. And unlike pourakarmikas mobilized by decades of Dalit agitation, Mondal explains, migrant workers lack local organizing structures or institutions. Fissures among migrants — between Indians from the state of West Bengal and Bangladeshi immigrants, for example — only complicate the situation.
But there is precedent for Bengali-speaking Muslims organizing in Bengaluru: Maitreyi says many are members of the pourakarmika union. “Yes, there is a difficulty in terms of language, but there is definitely a solidarity between them and the other pourakarmikas,” she says. “People are coming together … to fight and end the contract system.”
If the city’s ragpickers and pourakarmikas stopped working for even a day, Bengaluru would plunge into disease and chaos. But, amid widespread unemployment and poverty, organizing such a movement is hard. Akbar Ali, a migrant ragpicker from West Bengal, says “All I want is a regular job, so that I can take care of my family.” Bengaluru pourakarmikas’ recent victory has shown this desire to be achievable; the challenge now is to achieve it without leaving anyone behind.
Srikar Raghavan is an independent writer and researcher from Mysore, India. He is presently working on a narrative history of social movements in the state of Karnataka.