Interview with Nirmala M, President of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike Pourakarmika UNION
(A version of this interview was first published in The Awakened, Spring, 2023)
Nirmala M is the President of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike BBMP) Pourakarmika( Sweepers) Sangha (Union), which is affiliated to the All India Central Council of Trade Unions. She is also the Karnataka State President of the All India Progressive Womens Association (AIPWA). She is originally from Bidar, Karnataka. Prior to her joining the BBMP Pourakarmikas union she worked in Karnataka Farmers Association. She worked in Mahila Jagruti after moving to Bengaluru where she fought for women who had faced sexual harassment and survivors of rape and acid attacks. As a strong leader of the union she is known for her powerful speeches when attacking the Karnataka government for its apathy towards the hardworking workers who keep the streets clean across Bengaluru and the rest of the state. I have met Nirmala on my several trips to Bengaluru, I was struck by her gentle and humble demeanor which always reflected compassion and commitment for her fellow workers.
I asked her the questions in English which were translated into Kannada her mother tongue.
1. How many sweepers are there in your union? What is the gender and caste composition?
There are 5000 Pourakarmikas who are members of the Union. More than 90% of them are women and almost all of them belong to the Dalit community.
2. Your union has organized militant struggles for several years for the sweepers in the city. In 2016 your militant struggles led to increase in wages and in 2017 after a successful struggle and several strikes, contractors were removed and direct payment system was brought into effect. Could you tell us a little more about this and if it improved the situation for the workers?
Pourakarmikas (Sanitation Workers) are performing this work, not out of choice. This is a caste ordained occupation. They are almost entirely from the Dalit community and almost 90% of them are women. Earlier there was the contract system. Workers have worked for more than 2 to 4 decades. The contractors would change, but the workers would remain the same.
Powrakarmikas work under extremely harsh conditions from early morning to late afternoon. They sweep the streets with short brooms, collect rotting garbage, sometimes carcasses of dead animals and other waste with their bare hands, clean open drains, and do door-to-door collection, etc. For this they were paid meagre wages with no benefits whatsoever, and also had no security of tenure despite having worked for over three decades as contract Powrakarmikas. The work performed by them is extremely hazardous and causes great harm to their health. Under the contract system, workers lived under great fear and were constantly threatened with termination. Since most of them and Dalit women, they face the triple oppression of caste, class and gender.
However, they overcame this fear to unionize and it was through their concerted struggle that they contract system was brought to an end, and ensured that changes have been made in their working conditions.
In 2016, their wages were merely about Rs. 5,000- Rs. 6,000. Many of the workers did not even have their ATM cards with them, and the ATM card was kept in the possession of the contractor who would use it and pay them money in cash. It is in this atmosphere of great exploitation that the Union was formed.
In 2016, there were several protests and we had gheroed the Labour Department, after which they increased the minimum wages. From about 5,000 – 6,000, the wages were increased to Rs. 14,040/-. This was a big victory for the workers.
In 2017, there was a 3-day strike after which the Government agreed to remove the contract labour system and bring the workers on direct payment, under which the workers would directly be paid by the Municipal Corporation. However, when they brought in the direct payment system, they brought it in for those who were sweeping the streets, but left those who were driving and working on the waste transportation vehicle out of this, and retained those workers under contract. That has resulted in workers who are working as drivers and loaders in waste management transportation vehicles under the contract labour system, and they remain highly exploited. We continue to fight for the removal of the contract system and for these workers to also be made permanent.
Our organizing and fight has been not only for economic demands, but also for dignity. Since this is a caste-ordained occupation, and the workers are almost entirely Dalit women, the fight for dignity is very core to our work. Workers are subject to untouchability, not given drinking water, and didn’t have basic amenities. For instance in one case, 10 pourakarmikas were subject to sexual and physical violence and casteist abuse by the contractor. It was through this fight that not only was a criminal case registered against the contractor, but this because the first sexual harassment case in the Bangalore Municipal Corporation. In fact, it was after this case, that the Internal Complaints Committee for Sexual Harassment was set up in the BBMP.
Workers face casteist and classist behaviour on a daily basis, and our fight has always been against this, on a daily basis. If workers ask for water to drink, they are given water in the bathroom jug. They are not even given a glass. They are told that they cannot touch the gate. Every day, untouchability is practiced. We fight against this on an everyday basis. Let me give you an example.
Workers are called and often given leftover food from the homes, where they pick up the garbage. We have always said, we won’t take leftover spoilt food. We reject this practice. One of the leaders of our Union, Com. Nanjamma was called by a lady when she was picking the garbage and given a plastic packet with cold spoilt food in it. Com Nanjamma asked the lady, whether she had children, and the lady told her she had a son who would come home. Com Nanjamma returned the packet to the lady and told her, when your son comes heat up this food and give it to him, we don’t take leftover food. The fight for dignity and respect is an everyday affair. We have taken the stand from our Union, if any person speaks rudely, or doesn’t give respect, we will not collect the garbage from their homes. We conduct regular area level rallies that if anyone treats us disrespectfully, we will take action against them.
Our fight has always been that with economic justice, there must be social justice. Our fight is for dignified working and living conditions, permanency, fair wages, the annihilation of caste and the emancipation of women.
3. In July 2022, Pourakarmikas across Karnataka went on a strike for 4 days demanding permanent jobs with the slogan "Equal Pay For Equal Work" highlighting the significant differences in pay and benefits for permanent workers versus the vast majority who had been contract workers for decades. Promises were made by the government and the strike was called off. Several months passed and the promises were not kept. How did your union respond?
In 2022 July, from 1st to 4th there was a 4 day strike of sanitation workers across the State after which the government agreed that they would make all the Pourakarmikas permanent. This written assurance was given by the Government.
After this, we continued with our struggles demanding that the assurance of the Government be kept to. In November, 2022, we had a State Level Convention where we put forward that until all workers were made permanent, we would continue the fight. In the convention, we resolved that we would continue our fight for the annihilation of caste, against caste discrimination, for the emancipation of women from exploitation and harassment and for all workers to have dignified working conditions.
4. On February 27, 2023 there was huge protest by the union as the Government issued an order to make only 3673 workers permanent out of a total of 16,000. You called off the strike after the Government assured you that all the workers would be made permanent. Is it too early to celebrate?
There are about 15,000 Pourakarmikas who sweep the streets in Bangalore. However, the Government issues a notification calling for 3673 posts, leaving out about 11,500 Pourakarmikas. Protesting against this move to divide workers and demanding that the Chief Minister keep to his assurance, there was a 2 day strike before the Bangalore Municipal Corporation. The file for the approval of permanency for the other Pourakarmikas was pending before the Chief Minister. It was after this 2 day strike that the Chief Minister approved the same and the notification was issued in regard to the other workers.
We believe that it is only through constant struggle that rights are achieved. If the Government fails to keep its assurance, we will once again take to the streets. There is no backing down. We will continue our struggle till fair and dignified working conditions are achieved.
4. You have faced the challenges of the triple oppression of caste, class and gender in the Indian society and have worked hard to become the president of a militant union that represents some of the most exploited front-line workers in Bengaluru. What is your advice to young people who are working for economic and social justice?
We are in a very grave situation. Violence against women is on the rise. Caste atrocities are on the rise. Inequalities are on the rise. Its important that youth come forward to take up foundational issues of inequality to strive for a society that is just and equal. Babasaheb Ambedkar showed us the way - Educate, Agitate, Organize. People are the only force that can bring a change in society. There is no short-cut. It is only through organizing and agitating for our rights that we will be able to build a society that is equal, fair and humane.