Sanitation Situation Deteriorates in Delhi as Strike by Workers Enters 10th Day

For the fourth year in a row, sanitation workers are protesting the delay in wage and arrear payments, non-regularisation of casual employees. With a complex structure of release of grants, political differences are only worsening the situation.

New Delhi: For the fourth year in succession, Delhi is currently witnessing a strike by thousands of sanitation workers and the reasons are not very different those on previous occasions – non-payment of salaries and arrears and refusal to regularise contractual workers. This time, the impact in the form of overflowing garbage at the ‘dhalaos’ or collection bins as also on the streets and by-lanes has so far only been felt in areas coming under the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC) where the sanitation workers have been on strike for the last ten days.

At the time of declaring the strike, Sanjay Gahlot, the president of MCD Swachhata Karmchari Union, had stated that the sanitation workers had been left with no option but to protest since they have not been paid their salaries – in some cases for up to eight months – their arrears have not been cleared, and the job of many who had been inducted on a temporary basis had not been regularised.

RWAs fear spread of disease

With the sanitation workers not collecting garbage from the collection points for the last many days, many colonies in East Delhi are now staring at a major health and sanitation crisis.

With garbage collection affected by the strike, concern is growing among the residents’ welfare associations as they fear the outbreak of a major epidemic due to unhygienic conditions. The president of East Delhi RWA’s Joint Front, B.S Vohra, has cautioned that while the RWAs have started getting garbage from homes collected by privately engaged people, the fear of spread of disease looms large as the streets are not being swept.

Talks fail to break impasse

There have been several rounds of talks between the representatives of the agitating workers and the EDMC functionaries, including mayor Bipin Bihari, but these have failed to end the impasse.

After two meetings with the mayor, Gahlot had accused the BJP leadership of not doing enough to resolve the crisis and find a long term solution to the recurring problem of delay in payment of wages.

BJP-ruled EDMC accuses AAP government of not releasing funds

For its part, the EDMC has been claiming that it could not pay the salaries and arrears as the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi has not been releasing the funds on time.

Bihari has been quoted as saying that the EDMC has been facing a financial crunch. “The corporation is not able to pay its employees and workers since it has not received any funds from the Delhi government. I appeal the CM to release all the funds of the corporation.” On the issue of regularisation of workers, the Mayor had declared that the officials have been told to prepare a list of temporary workers and start the process.

Earlier, the leader of the house in EDMC, Nirmal Jain, had stated that the union had been urged to give up the strike. “The EDMC is in a poor financial situation, we need funds from the Delhi government to be able to meet their demands,” he had argued.

Complex nature of funding compounds situation

With the BJP in power in all the three municipal corporations in Delhi, such allegations of the Delhi Government not releasing funds have been made in the past as well at the time of strikes by sanitation workers.

The reason lies in the complex nature of financing of the municipal bodies. While the three civic bodies report to the Centre, or more precisely to the Union ministry of home affairs, through the lieutenant governor, they remain dependent on the elected Delhi government for the grants-in-aid as even the money sent by MHA for the corporations is routed through it. The coordination between the corporations and the Delhi government takes place through the office of the Director of Local Bodies.

Financial burden on corporations increased after trifurcation in 2002

Ever since the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) was trifurcated in 2012, the three corporations borne out of it have been facing a financial crunch since their administrative expenses have increased. And apart from the political differences, this has been the main reason behind regular strikes by sanitation staff since 2015, when the AAP government came to power in Delhi for the second time.

Last year, about 16,000 of the 54,000 sanitation workers in Delhi had gone on strike demanding timely release of salaries, payment of arrears, cashless health cards and regularisation of jobs. The protesters had claimed that only about 20% of all sanitation workers were regular employees of the corporations. Many of them had lamented that despite working as contractual labour for the last nearly 20 years for the corporations, they had only been getting 10 to 15 days in a work, which made survival difficult for them.

The EDMC had then stated that it needed Rs 2,000 crores to clear the dues. Following a prolonged strike by the sanitation workers around Diwali last year, the matter had even gone to Delhi High Court but it had refrained from issuing any clear directives to any of the parties concerned.

The bench of then acting chief justice Gita Mittal and Justice C. Hari Shankar had, however, called upon all parties to play their roles saying: “Don’t bring such cases to us in courts. There must be somebody with whom you (Delhi government) are not at war. Be it the Union of India, MCDs or NDMC. If you have public interest in mind, then you will ensure that the MCDs do their job properly. Safai karamchari shall ensure that they seriously carry out the assigned duties of MCDs and no obstruction shall be caused. There can be no stoppage of essential work of cleaning and removal of garbage. Doing so imperils lives of public at large.”

BJP did not keep promise of finding a long-term solution

But a year later, the same old story is repeating itself. The BJP, which upon winning all the three corporations in the April 2017 had promised to fight for the rights of the sanitation workers by involving the Central government in its efforts, has not drawn any new plans to tide over the recurring problem of delays in payment of salaries. This could have been achieved through necessary amendments in the Central Act governing the civic bodies.