With GPS Watches, Nagpur Municipal Corporation Ups Surveillance on Sanitation Workers

Sanitation workers have opposed this micro-level surveillance and termed it as a breach of both their privacy and dignity.

Mumbai: On July 27, Nagpur municipal commissioner Tukaram Mundhe took to social media to publicise the use of technology to “improve governance” in the city. In a minute-long video, he explained how the sanitation workers in the city were made to wear GPS watches and their movements were closely tracked. This, he claimed, was done to increase “efficiency & better utilization of resources”.

What Mundhe was promoting on social media is actually a two-year-old project which had, on multiple occasions, been opposed by sanitation workers and rights activists in the city. The large-dial watches are used to live-track their movements, and sanitation workers have opposed this micro-level surveillance and termed it as a breach of both their privacy and dignity.

But each time, the Nagpur Municipal Corporation (NMC) has found a way to re-introduce the system. This time, the corporation has not just made watches compulsory, but has already begun docking salaries of those clocking in less hours and in some cases even suspending them from work.

Mundhe, who took over as a municipal commissioner in January this year, has worked towards the revival of the IT-enabled tracking system in the city. The activities of workers on the street can be monitored by officials sitting in their offices. Not just their locations, but also their “active hours” are computed by this GPS system.

Mundhe’s work to revive this initiative, however, coincided with the sanitation workers’ agitation for better working conditions. On social media too, the commissioner was accused of blatant casteism and of subjecting the class IV employees to “surveillance slavery”.

Over 7,000 sanitary workers are employed by the corporation. The workers, both permanent and contractual employees, have for long demanded safety gear and a dignified work atmosphere. Gajanan Kamble, who has worked in the sanitation department for over a decade and a half, says that he has to buy the most basic equipment – gloves, a broom and his uniform – from his own money. “We have forever been demanding that we are provided with basic safety gear. But the corporation has never paid heed to our requests. Instead, they bring in newer ways to police and micromanage us,” he says.

Since March, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, workers have been made to clock in more hours and cover more ground than earlier. This, they say, was expected of them without any provisions made by the corporation. “Safety gear aside, the corporation would not even assure us that if we were to get infected, we would be taken care of. We are all on our own with little to no support from the corporation,” said a 46-year-old woman who has worked with the corporation for 21 years.

Also read: Many Frontline Workers Have Been Left to Fend for Themselves in the Pandemic

Many sanitation workers complained that they were not provided masks or gloves even when they threatened to go on strike. In the video uploaded by Mundhe, he can be seen wearing a sturdy mask, but the sanitation worker is only covering her mouth and nose with her thin blue saree. “The commissioner is so nonchalant about our condition that he did not even care to cover it up in his promotional video. You can only imagine our condition off camera,” one of the workers said.

One of the workers’ primary demands during the pandemic was making transport available for them. Sita Salvi, a senior worker with the corporation, shared that with the lockdown in the city, the workers, especially women, have had issues reaching their workplace on time. “I live over five km from Sitabuldi, the area where I work. Earlier, I would use public transport. But since the lockdown, I have been walking all the way to work,” Salvi says. And what is worse? “If I end up reaching work even a few minutes late, the GPS tracker marks me late and I lose out on my salary.”

The watch, many say, has not been giving accurate readings either. The earlier roster system was done away with to use the “information and communication technology (ICT)”-enabled system in the corporation.

Sanitation workers are the lowest in the corporation’s hierarchy and their work is closely controlled and monitored by those working above them. “The assumption is that we don’t work enough and that we slacked off without a tracker dangling over our heads. But the truth is we have continued to work in abysmal conditions under pressures from our seniors and not once have been considered worthy of better work and living conditions,” Kamble rues.

This, Rohit Bhagat, a Nagpur-based social activist who has been working with sanitation workers, says, is also ingrained in the deep-seated casteist mindset. “Sanitation is one department where you have a disproportionate number of people from marginalised communities, particularly the Scheduled Castes, working. Only when a community is completely under your control can you think of bringing in ways to track and put them under surveillance like this. Can the commissioner imagine himself or any class I officials working with a GPS system strapped around their wrists and every step monitored?” Bhagat asks.

Also read: Rajasthan: Sanitation Worker Made to Pack COVID-19 Patient’s Body Without PPE

The NMC collaborated with a Bengaluru-based company, ITI Limited, and introduced the tracking system in early 2018. At present, the corporation covers around 8,000 employees, all from the sanitation and water department. The NMC officials say a rent of Rs 207 per watch per month is paid and as many as 8,000 watches have been rented by the corporation – that means a whopping Rs 17 lakh spent every month on just the watches. “The upkeep of the GPS monitoring device and other connected activities cost more,” an official from the health (sanitation) department explained.

Nagpur’s case is not unique. In at least seven municipal corporations across India, such GPS-enabled tracking devices have been introduced. Most of this was done as a part of the Swachh Bharat Mission, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project during his first tenure. Other municipal corporations tracking sanitation workers include Chandigarh, Panchkula, Lucknow, Mysore, Navi Mumbai and Thane. Most of these initiatives were taken up in BJP-led states. In Maharashtra, the digitisation process was put in place during the BJP government under Devendra Fadnavis.