Mumbai: A row of police vans lined the gate of the Azad Maidan on Friday, nearly blocking its entrance. A vehicle with a powerful water canon was positioned close by and companies of local and riot control police stood guard as incoming private buses spewed crowds of people marching to the iconic agitational venue.
Amid such tight security arrangements, thousands of safai kamgaar (sanitation workers) from all over Maharashtra, under the banner of New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) staged a rally, seeking a resolution to their long-pending demands of equal pay for equal work, payment of wage arrears, minimum wage and work security.
Adding an extra edge and heft to the rally was the presence of Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mewani, who addressed and charged up the crowds.
In a packed Azad Maidan, thousands of workers trooped in from Satara, Miraj, Kolhapur, Nashik, Yavatmal, Amravati, Nagpur, Nanded, Vashi, Thane and Mumbai.
Among them was Geetabai Kamble, who came all the way from Sangli district. She has been working as a conservancy worker on ad hoc basis for 22 years. All those years of cleaning roads earns her only Rs. 800 a month.
“Despite cleaning all the dirt in the villages, we are still hungry,” she says. Being an ad hoc worker, she has to mark her attendance with the local municipal corporation daily, but that does not guarantee any work. In a month, she gets work for only about eight days and a daily wage of Rs. 192.
The high security was clearly because of the participation of Kumar and Una agitation leader Mewani. IN his speech, Mewani focused on the need to break the cycle of caste-based occupation. Most sanitation workers are from Dalit communities.
“When the government implements the seventh pay commission scale for these workers, their next generation will be able to free themselves of this caste-based work,” he told The Wire on the sidelines of the rally. To achieve this end, he backed the workers demands for equal pay for equal work.
“In our country, who is a zamindar and who is landless, who is a purohit and who cleans the gutters is pre-decided by caste. We want freedom from this financial slavery. We have to rise against this caste-based oppression. It is a battle for pride and self-respect. So along with the agitation for Rohith Vemula and Una, we also have to fight for roti, kapda aur makan,” he told the rapt gathering.
He said the government should “professionalise” conservancy work and use modern technology so that the next generations are not forced to take up the same work.
Kumar’s trademark Azadi slogans charged up the sultry afternoon mood. He and Mewani came down from the stage to join a group of drainage workers, who covered their mouths with black bands to protest against pending wage arrears.
He said the BJP had only managed to change the Congress government, not the country. “This government is only here on a five-year recharge, not a lifetime recharge,” he told the crowds amid cheers.
Kumar said his support for the agitation is as a student. “After I complete my education I will join the workforce. As a student, therefore, I will support labour agitations.” Asked is he had plans to contest elections, Kumar said, “Fighting polls has become a business today. We will do sangharsh (struggle).”
Mewani did not rule out conesting elections at some point, but at the moment he said he did not have a political agenda. He has resigned from the Aam Aadmi Party.
Both leaders also criticised the Modi government, accusing it of being anti-workers’ rights and called demonetisation a ‘debacle.’
Mewani termed the BJP, RSS and ABVP “internal security threats.” He said the government had not learnt any lesson from Rohith Vemula’s death. “Had it learnt a lesson Najeeb (Ahmed, missing student of JNU) would not have happened.”