Kashmir’s sanitation workers, who include local Muslims and Valmiki labourers, are being paid Rs. 100 or Rs. 500 per month by the government, reports RAJA MUZAFFAR BHAT from Srinagar. The situation has not changed for decades in the Valley or Jammu despite a High Court order and tall claims made during and after the abrogation of Article 370.
FROZA has been a part-time sweeper in the Jammu and Kashmir Health Department for more than 22 years. Her engagement order, issued on 27 January 1998 by the Block Medical Officer at Pulwama, says that she has to keep the sub-center at Tiken clean “at the dues of Rs. 100 per month”.
If the wages were not already low enough, what is shocking is that even after more than two decades, her services have not been regularised— though she was hired against a vacant sweeper position—and her wages have not changed either. Afroza is not even paid wages as per the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. At present, she is working at the Government Sub-Health Center, Chewa Kalan, in Pulwama district of South Kashmir.
In violation of all labour laws, Afroza and hundreds of other workers, who are known as “consolidated health department workers” are being paid very meager monthly remunerations. This author learned of the injustice being committed by the government of the J&K Health Department, particularly in the Kashmir valley, after researching Afroza’s case.
The sweepers who work in the sub-centers, primary health centers (PHCs), sub-district hospitals (SDHs), and district hospitals in almost all the districts of J&K, particularly in the Valley, have the same fate.
When Article 370 was repealed a lot was said about how it would give the Valmiki community of Jammu the rights due to them. This community, which has lived in Jammu for the last more than 64 years, is mostly employed as sanitation workers in the Jammu Municipal Corporation or in private institutions. However, their conditions are still being neglected despite the miserable lives they are forced to live. The challenges they face at the workplace are not even recognised or documented.
Ironically, the rest of the country is hardly aware that even Kashmiri Muslims work as sweepers and sanitation workers. They, too, are paid as little as Rs. 100 or Rs. 500 per month. The government must identify all such neglected and exploited workers and address their grievances. If on the one hand, the government enacts laws to ensure social justice and empower disadvantaged communities, how can people then be used as bonded labourers in government institutions?
As she belongs to a community that has traditionally been made to perform menial tasks, Afroza accepted the job she got, but with the hope that one day her position would be regularised as she was appointed against a “clear vacancy”, but that did not happen.
“Getting regularised is only a dream now. I ruined my youth for the government and got nothing in return. I am already 42 years old. I and hundreds of sweepers and others who work in the health department are not even paid the minimum statutory wages of Rs. 225 a day [Rs. 6,750 a month]. In Delhi the pay is higher, Rs. 596 a day [Rs. 15,492 a month],” Afroza told The Leaflet.
Afroza was made to work in many government-run health institutions in Pulwama district. She was posted at the Sub-Health Centre at Tikin for six years, then asked to work as a sweeper at the PHC at Manghama for five years. She was then sent to the PHC at Puchal where she worked for two years, after which she was posted at the PHC, Newa, where she even worked during the night shift. Since 2010, she has been working at the Sub-Health Center at Chewa Kalan.
“During the last 20 years, I have spent huge money on travelling [to work] using public transport. Had the doctors and other paramedical staff not been cooperative and helpful, I would have left the job long back. They have helped me a lot. On holidays and Sundays, I work on local farms to make ends meet. My husband does menial jobs like removing dung from the cattle sheds and carrying it to the fields. Even in our abject poverty, we did not compromise on our children’s education,” she says. Her sons are in classes X and III and her daughters study in classes IV and VII. “I have only one dream now, and that is to give my children the best education,” Afroza says.
Consolidated workers get organised
The so-called consolidated workers are mostly the sweepers who work in the Health Department. Earlier, they were not organised, but six months back, some workers initiated attempts to organise their tribe. Gulzar Ahmad, Abdul Ahad Sheikh and dozens of other workers have united to fight this long battle under the aegis of the Consolidated Health Workers Union J&K. They went to several districts of Kashmir Valley to get actual details of these health department workers and the remuneration they get.
Gulzar belongs to an economically and socially backward community and is employed as a driver in the Health Department, Budgam, also on a meagre wage of Rs. 3,000 per month for 15 years. As a skilled worker, he is supposed to be paid Rs. 350 per day [Rs. 10,500 per month]. Abdul Ahad Sheikh, who is 54, belongs to the border district of Kupwara and is paid Rs. 100 per month.
“Had my sons not been running a small dhaba it would have been a miserable life. I am already 54 and have suffered a lot in the last 25 years of service, but I will now fight for the other people who should not be discriminated against. Even if we have to go to the Supreme Court we will fight against this injustice and bonded labour,” says Abdul Ahad.
Earlier, Gulzar had been fighting for consolidated workers alone, but now he feels stronger, having got the support of colleagues and as the patron of their united front. In 2011, he met the then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who sought a detailed report from the J&K Finance Department. The Finance Department issued a circular asking the Health Department to provide details of people working on a consolidated basis. After a long struggle, the department prepared a list of 1,541 persons (mostly sweepers and helpers).
“We have no update on how many are working in the Jammu region as consolidated workers but we are trying our best to organise this [information] as well,” Gulzar says.
Initially, the Finance Department raised the query whether these 1,541 workers are employed part-time or full-time. The Directorate of Health and the Drawing and Disbursing officers (DDOs), such as the Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) and Block Medical Officers (BMOs), clarified that all 1,541 were full-time workers in the Health Department, on the job from 9 am to 5 pm, and many at night too.
The Finance Department once again asked the Director, Health Services, Kashmir, about the accounting head under which these consolidated workers were being paid wages. The director responded that the workers were paid “wages”, and not “salary” in terms of the accounting head, says Gulzar Ahmad.
In 2016, the Health Department civil secretariat [Communication No: HD/NG/06/2011 dated 4 August 2016] recommended a hike in the wages of the consolidated health workers. Workers being paid Rs. 100 were to get Rs. 500 a month, those paid Rs. 500 a month were recommended wages of Rs. 1,000 a month and a wage of Rs. 1,500 was fixed for the workers who were already being paid Rs. 1,000 per month. The maximum wages were fixed at Rs. 3,000 a month, which would be paid to only a handful of drivers.
However, even this small increase has not been implemented by the government, except for a handful of drivers who now get paid Rs. 3,000 a month. On 26 October 2017, the J&K government notified [under SRO 460] the revised wages under the Minimum Wages Act. Then onwards, unskilled labourers became entitled to a minimum wage of Rs. 225 a day, skilled workers to Rs, 350 a day, and highly-skilled workers to Rs. 400 per day.
As the revised wages were not implemented for the consolidated health workers, Gulzar Ahmad gave a written representation to the Secretary, Finance, J&K government, with demand for implementation. The Finance Secretary forwarded the case to the Health Department and sought an update. The Director forwarded a detailed report and recommended the implementation of the Minimum Wages Act for part-time workers as well as consolidated cleaners and helpers.
Recommendations of Director, Health Services
The Director, Health Services, Kashmir, sent an official communication on 12 October 2020 requesting the Administrative Department to implement the Minimum Wages Act. He told the Financial Commissioner, Health and Medical Education, that as per the Budget Estimates for the financial year 2021-22, submitted by the subordinate drawing and disbursing officers of the department, there are 1,541 consolidated safaiwalas, part-time workers and helpers in the department, who fall in the category of unskilled labourers.
“These workers do menial work like sweeping and scavenging and are paid remuneration rates ranging from Rs. 30 (thirty only) to Rs. 4,000 a month and are regularly pleading for payment of remuneration as per the rates applicable under the Minimum Wages Act,” says his letter.
A petition was also filed by some workers before the High Court of J&K [Writ Petition 3840/2019, Nazir Ahmad Hajam and others vs Union Territory of J&K]. The High Court directed the government to determine the eligibility of the petitioners on the touchstone of the SRO No. 469 of 2017, read with the government order no 27-F of 2018, issued on 25 January 2018. The High Court also said that necessary orders are to be passed and the payments cleared.
The Director, Health Services, Kashmir, also referred to this petition in his letter. He sought a budgetary allocation of Rs. 12,92,64,750.00 [Rs.12.9 crore] so that the 1,541 workers could be paid wages as per the Minimum Wages Act.
As of now, the government only provides Rs. 1.50 crores annually to the Directorate of Health, Kashmir, for this purpose. Some officers in the Finance Department claim that consolidated workers such as sweepers and helpers are part-time employees and do not fall under the definition of “scheduled employment”. However, the respective Drawing and Disbursing Officers have already made it clear that all 1,541 workers were employed full-time and even during night hours.
During the Novel Coronavirus pandemic, sanitation workers were at the forefront of fighting the dreaded COVID-19 disease. These workers, helpers, and drivers risked their lives when most of the country did not even dare come out of their homes. These workers, along with medics and paramedics, fought COVID-19 bravely, yet their services go unrecognised.
Violation of Human Rights
According to section 22A of the Minimum Wages Act, any employer found in violation of the act in regards to minimum wages, working hours can be penalized for five years of imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 10,000. The government of J&K is not only violating this act but also the human rights of these workers as per the provisions of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976.
How sanitation workers, helpers, and drivers working on a “consolidated basis” in the J&K Health Department are being made to work on a pittance for the last 15-20 years or more is simply criminal. The authorities can be held liable under the Bonded Labour Abolition Act for this.
The government had claimed that people belonging to the weaker sections of society would get justice after the abrogation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. However, people like Afroza and Abdul Ahad in Kashmir, and thousands of others who belong to the so-called sweeper community, continue to face gross neglect and discrimination.
If central laws have been applicable in J&K for more than 19 months since 5 August 2019, then why are people being denied their benefits? Afroza does not want a government job for the sake of it. She wants to get paid as per the Minimum Wages Act, which is her right. If this right is also snatched and she remains tied to a bonded-labor-like situation for 22 years and counting, who will take the government to task for violating its own laws?
(Raja Muzaffar Bhat is a Srinagar-based activist, columnist, and independent researcher. The views are personal.)