“Stop this casteist behaviour. Abolish contract labour,” demanded the Powrakarmikas, or the sanitation workers of Bangalore, who hit the streets on International Women’s day to fight for their rights.

Subjugated due to patriarchal oppression and the system of caste hierarchy, the Powrakarmikas primarily consist of women. They belong to a dalit community in the Indian society called the “Madigas,” who have been historically  treated as the “untouchables”, confined to work as cleaners for the upper castes.

Powrakarmikas cleaning the streets. Picture:BBMP Contract Powrakarmikara Union

“I always wanted to work as a teacher but my caste decided my profession, making me clean the streets and pick up garbage on a daily basis,” said Shantamma. She is a Powrakarmika who has been working tirelessly for the past 30 years.

“We get no holidays. Even on national holidays we work. Our wages are irregular and we are even  victims of sexual abuse,” she said.

Powrakarmikas fighting for their rights

Like Shantamma, many  Powrakarmikas work diligently for the government and contractors belonging to the male dominated “Reddy” community to earn a living.

But according to a press release from the BBMP Powrakarmikara Contract Union, though the government hiked their wages, most of them have not been paid regularly. Many of them are not guaranteed permanent jobs, while those who plan to retire in the near future are not sure if they will get a pension.

Neelamma-A sanitation worker, scared for her future

“I am scared for my children,” said Neelamma, another Powrakarmika at the strike. I have not got my salary for the last three months. I work every single day. How will I sustain my family?”

The BBMP Powrakarmikara Contract Union stated that most of these women are not paid regularly. If paid, they are given a salary between Rs5,000-Rs7,000 which is less than their minimum wage. Moreover, though the country’s Supreme Court recognises such a case as forced labour, the situation has not improved.

But Neelamma also cited her identity as a Madiga, as one of the key issues contributing to her problems. She said “If I belonged to an upper caste, I might have got the Rs 14,400 I am legally entitled to.”

Geeta Menon from Stree Jagruti Samiti, an organisation working for the rights of the unorganised sector , expressed that the Powrakarmikas struggle, has to do with their caste to quite a large extent.

She said “Their whole issue is not just work related but  is the case of “purity and pollution,” a vital concept in caste hierarchy. In other words, those who execute work with their hands are impure while those who work with their heads are considered pure. In this sense the Powrakarmikas are considered impure, making them victims of all forms of oppression.”

Article 15, o f the Constitution of India prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, religion , sex, race and place of birth. But according to the Human Rights Watch, division of labour on the basis of caste system continues to remain a common phenomenon in  India, where lower castes are forced to carry out duties that are deemed too filthy for upper castes.

At present with protests for such groups taking place around the city,  The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike’s Commissioner, Manjunath Prasad, promised to make ammends. He said they would ensure the Powrakarmikas got regular, direct payments and weekly holidays on a rotational basis. He also said that meetings with the Powrakarmikara union would be held  to cater to their demands.

But representatives from the union wonder if such promises will be fulfilled.

powrakarmikas demand
Picture:BBMP Contract Powrakarmikara Union

“We have faced successes through past strikes where the BBMP said they would improvise the situation. But right now they need to abolish this contract system and ensure these women are paid properly,” said a representative from the union.

Geeta Menon also  urged the state government to look beyond caste and identity when it comes to domestic and contract workers. She said “ Caste out such garbage. Today’s demonstration is for the rights of working and toiling women. Protecting their rights and dignity is more important than any caste, law or contract system.”