You see them every morning, all across the city. Pourakarmikas, pushing their rickety handcarts, sweeping the streets and collecting the garbage that residents, shops and others have just left by the roadside for them to clear. Bangalore actually needs many more of these unrecognised and overworked workers, who provide a truly essential service, keeping the city clean. But have you ever wondered what does their work mean to them? Is it a choice or a compulsion?
Pourakarmikas toil in working conditions that are far from perfect, as numerous reports and studies have shown. Hired by contractors selected by the city municipal corporation, there have been occasions when they have not received their salary for more than six months. Deep financial distress has even led to an instance of suicide by a pourakarmika.
Many a time, they are paid much less than the minimum salary of Rs 14040, which they are entitled to. Often they are not even aware of the additional benefits like Provident Fund that they should be getting.
When a biometric system was introduced to record their finger prints for attendance (to eliminate fake salaries being claimed by contractors), many Pourakarmikas failed to get their fingerprints read by the machines, as their fingers were badly affected by years of pushing heavy trolleys. That’s when it also came to light that many of the pushcarts they use to collect garbage are damaged and have never been replaced and pose an injury threat.
A Pourakarmika is out on the roads for hours, with no accessories, no toilet facilities and in unhygienic conditions — all for meagre, and often erratic, compensation. And yet they slog on in the occupation for years.
Why? Is it because they have no alternative? Does their caste identity affect their ability to find other employment opportunities in Bangalore? Research on this question was conducted in Whitefield, Bangalore based on semi-structured interviews with 15 pourakarmikas and 4 house-keeping staff.
Most of the women surveyed said this is the only government job that an illiterate, uneducated woman can get. According to 52-year-old Jaya from Bengaluru, “This timing suits me better than other jobs I have access to. I leave home at 5.30 am, start work at 6 am and am done by 2 pm. I have tried working as a domestic help, but had to work through the day and climb stairs repeatedly and couldn’t do it.”
Pourakarmikas brought to the city by contractors from other parts of the state like Raichur and Mantralaya, stick on for different reasons. When asked if she had looked for other job opportunities, 23-year-old Eashwari from Raichur said: “Do you know what happened to people who tried to shift to other jobs? Two of them were called to clean the septic tank of a restaurant and died while cleaning it.” They do not trust any new place and fear exploitation.
Contractors bring in groups of men and women from different villages who are accommodated in temporary tent-like structures in the wards where they work. Women of a particular village prefer to live and work together in the same place. They rarely interact with others, as their dialect or language is different and the city is an unfamiliar place for them. Also, sweeping and cleaning as jobs are something they are familiar with and does not require them to learn something new.
Life as a Pourakarmika and the choices available also depend on where one is from. Jaya, grew up in Bengaluru and has been a Pourakarmika for the past 15 years. But both her sons are in other professions. It’s interesting to note that though they have not passed the 10th grade, which is a basic eligibility requirement for many jobs, being in Bengaluru has provided them enough social capital to be able to avail alternative opportunities.
Jaya has been living in Kadugodi from the time she got married when she moved in with her husband. Her husband worked in a factory but passed away 15 years ago. Her two boys grew up with her, but did not complete school. However, they didn’t want to become a Pourakarmika as they found other jobs, thanks to connections and friends in the area.
Jaya’s older son, 35, works as a painter, while the younger, 32, works in an agency which supplies water to offices and apartments. But people who come from outside Bengaluru lack this social capital and are unable to secure alternative means of livelihood in the city.
The caste angle
The practice of caste-based occupation – for example, employment of the Valmiki community in cleaning toilets and drains – is believed to be relatively less dominant in cities. But the caste factor does rear its ugly head in certain jobs in the waste clearance sector. For example, the preferred jobs in this sector are that of drivers and sweepers, while the actual physical collection of garbage has few takers. Contractors therefore bring in marginalized groups like the Madiga caste from villages on the Karnataka and Andhra border for this.
Research conducted in a Delhi mall in 2008 showed that out of the 40 housekeeping staff at the mall, 25 were from families which had never seen members employed in cleaning toilets/ sweeping. It was also found that though street cleaners were paid more than the housekeeping staff in the mall, the latter refused to work on cleaning streets. A similar story is revealed in Bengaluru.
People who have been in Bengaluru for years or generations, refuse to do the physical collection of garbage. Marginalised groups from outside Bengaluru are brought in to do these jobs. In fact, Bengaluru exploits these marginalized people, as it does not offer them alternative work avenues. As a result, they continue to slog in sanitation jobs such as cleaning septic tanks, public toilets or collecting garbage. How Bengaluru can make the lives of these Pourakarmikas better is a question for every one of us to ponder upon.