Ahmedabad: Hiru Parmar retired last month after serving the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) for 22 years. He does not have any retirement benefits, no life savings under provident fund schemes or medical benefits for him or his family. Parmar is among those AMC workers who got by on the average daily minimum wage of Rs. 270.
Though Parmar, who was retiring, knew he was unlikely to benefit from the demand for better working conditions, he too had plunged into the battle for basic amenities, permanency and other work-related benefits when the landmark strike by sanitation workers under the banner of the Gujarat Federation of Trade Unions, Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha and Jan Sangharsh Manch began on August 22.
On September 27, after 36 days of struggle in which the workers refused to collect garbage and protested police efforts to clear the streets using private companies, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation finally agreed to all the demands of the “safai kamdar” workers.
Along with his former colleagues, Parmar also rejoiced in the celebratory rally. “I shall probably not get the benefits. But I am happy that there are so many who will have a secure future now – and a dignity of work that we never had,” he said.
Hiten Makwana, who led the historic movement, said in a statement that the civic body has asked for three months to fulfill the workers’ demands. “The workers of west zone shall resume work from September 28,” he said.
The 178 square kilometre west zone of the city has 25% of the total strength of 6000 workers of the civic body, many of whom are women from the Valmiki community. However, only about 219 of them have been regularised. The rest have the status of contractual workers who get paid on a daily wage basis. Many of the sanitation workers have served for more than a decade as daily wage earners without any employment benefits.
Their usual work regime includes picking up garbage, spraying anti-mosquito chemicals, cleaning sewage tanks and even manual scavenging. For a decade or more, these safai kamdar workers have been doing these jobs without any health and safety gear.
“Many workers die as they are not provided any safety gear. The work of cleaning a gutter (sewage tanks) is particularly hazardous,” said Ishwarbhai Vaghela, an activist of the Rashtriya Safai Karmchari Andolan Samiti, an organisation that has been fighting for the rights of sanitation workers nationwide.
“I have been trying to document the number of deaths of sanitation workers who have to clean gutters. I found from various sources that at least 65 workers have died in Ahmedabad alone while trying to work inside,” said Vaghela, who had come to support the protest of safai kamdar workers on September 26.
The long awaited victory, however, has not come easy for AMC’s sanitation workers.
In the course of the 36-day strike, the workers were threatened with termination, detained numerous times by the police, manhandled while protesting for their demands, and had FIRs filed against them.
On September 2, around 25 striking workers in the west zone returned to their duties in the face of the AMC’s threat of termination. In response, Amrish Patel, president of the Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha declared that the strike would carry on until demands were met.
The same week an FIR was lodged against some sanitation workers after garbage was reportedly dumped in front of the house of senior BJP leaders of the city. While acceding to the workers’ demands on September 27, the civic body also agreed to take back the FIR.
As the strike entered its third week, the AMC found it difficult to cope with the heaps of garbage that had collected all through the western zone of the city. Vowing to resolve the issue, the civic body pressed three JCB machines on three consecutive nights. However, the striking sanitation workers obstructed the process. When residents of different areas started complaining of the stench from accumulating garbage, the AMC called in the police.
The city police was tasked with ensuring the city was cleared of garbage. The AMC made five teams of workers from private companies and police inspectors were entrusted with leading them. Starting September 20, the teams would report to respective police stations as per the areas assigned to them by 12.30 am and carry out the work at night to avoid obstruction by striking sanitation workers. This arrangement was to be operational till October 30.
Following the move by the civic body, the safai kamdar workers decided to gherao the building of the AMC in Danapith on September 26.
On September 26, the police used massive strength to disperse the agitating workers. In the process, many protestors were roughed up by the police and some female workers were even manhandled.
Reportedly, a pregnant sanitation worker, Kanchanben Hemubhai, was beaten up by the police and had to be rushed to hospital. She received injuries on her head. However after primary treatment, constables bought her back to police headquarter at Shahibaug to be detained along with other workers and leaders.
The same day, drivers and conductors of the Ahmedabad Municipal Transport System (AMTS) also staged a protest demanding work benefits and permanency of their jobs. The police detained about 1500 protestors on September 26 following the two protests.
Amongst the leaders, those detained for more than eight hours that day were Jignesh Mewani, Shamshad Pathan, Amrish Patel, Hiten Makwana, Subodh Parmar and Nirjhari Sinha.
Rough treatment by the police was again witnessed on September 27 when they manhandled many protestors to clear the “rasta roko” (road block) movement by the sanitation and AMTS workers.
The protestors, including Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani ,were dragged from the road as some of the workers lay on Mewani attempting to save him from being injured. A woman named Diyuben was pulled by her hair by a lady constable as she was protecting a female protestor. One woman was rendered unconscious and was left to lie on the road without treatment while the police took away several vans full of agitators.
However, the ‘rasta roko’ movement turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back and the same evening the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation acceded to all the demands of the sanitation workers.
“This is historical,” said Jignesh Mewani in a statement, “And the credit for this remarkable victory goes to the workers who have been so resilient under all kinds of pressure put out against them in the past 36 days,” he added.