INDIA «This was the biggest failure of the right wing Modi Government during the pandemic» Interview With Milind Ranade

Street sweepers in Mumbai

Milind Ranade leads one of the largest trade unions of contract sanitation workers in Maharashtra, a state in Western India. Most of the union members are migrants and all of them belong to low caste–Dalits – (called untouchable in old days) community. It was a herculean task of organizing illiterate, hardly literate workers employed by the Municipal Corporations in different parts of the State. The organizing work began in Mumbai. Later in other cities like Thane, New Mumbai and Nashik, Panvel, Badlapur etc. Mumbai Municipal Corporation had engaged a large number of contractors for the jobs of garbage collection, transporting and unloading the garbage vehicles at dumping grounds in far away suburbs. Some workers were in the activity of road cleaning and cleaning drains. During Covid-19 pandemic these workers became frontline warriors in the worst affected parts of Mumbai city.

N. Vasudevan spoke with Milind Ranade.

NV : Comrade Milind, can you tell me in brief about your organization, Maharashtra Municipal Workers Union? 

MR : Immediately after my college education I plunged into political activity with a local party, Lal Nishan Party (Red Flag Party, a Communist Group) which believed in organizing the unorganized workers. In 1996 along with a group of my colleagues Deepak Bhalerao, Shivaji Pawar, Vijay Dalvi we decided to organize sanitation contract workers under the Municipal Corporation of Mumbai. Their cleaning work used to start at 7 in the morning, so we had to reach several spots at 7 am to talk to individual workers and to study about their working conditions and wages. Workers were hesitant even to part with any information. It took several months to build a union of garbage collection workers called Kachara Vahatuk Shramik Sangh (KVSS) (Garbage Transport Workers Union). They were not given any documents to prove that they were contract workers. Union had to launch bitter struggles to establish their rights as contract workers. In the process we had to confront the goons of contractors on the one hand and the ire of Municipal Corporation authorities. There was no attendance record, no record of wages. No social security. Every thing was observed in breach. Workers were paid much less than the statutory minimum wages. There existed an unholy alliance between contractors and concerned Municipal officials. Union exposed this exploitation and insisted for payments through banks. We had a long battle for drinking water facility, use of toilets, canteens, uniform, and safety shoes. This is how Kachara Vahatuk Shramik 

Sangh (KVSS) was established in 1996. But to widen the scope of Kachara Vahatuk Shramik Sangh (KVSS) work in other cities (as the registration of KVSS was restricted to only Mumbai) we established new union called Maharashtra Municipal Kamgar Union in around 2011. We intend to merge Kachara Vahtuk Shramik Sangh (KVSS) with Maharashtra Municipal Kamgar Union (MMKU). We intend to use MMKU as one organization of contract workers of Municipal Corporations and Municipal Councils across the State of Maharashtra. 

NV : You had a protracted legal battle in several Courts for permanency of contract workers? What happened to that? 

MR: Municipal Corporation has in its rolls 28,000 permanent sanitation workers who are paid salaries as per Government norms and as per settlements with the unions of those workers. The permanent workers unions did not raise demands for contract workers nor there was any willingness to enroll contract workers as members of that union. Therefore KVSS was established as separate union. Wage difference between regular and contract workers ranged up to five times. Contract labour was damn cheap. Workers were doing same and similar work. Indian Supreme Court had ruled in some other case that discrimination of this type was illegal. The Municipal Corporation chose to deny the existence of contract workers. To misguide the authorizes the Municipal Corporation of Mumbai on paper projected the workers as Volunteers and contractors as NGO’s (Non Governmental Organizations) and a fixed rate tender system 

has been followed for getting NGO’s and volunteers. The tender duration is purposely kept as low as 92 days or 7 months. But we succeeded in getting order from Court that even if contractors are changed the same set of workers should continue to work under next contractor. Wages were called Honorarium. With great difficulty we could establish these were « workers » and they in reality did the work of Municipal Corporation. In India litigation is a time consuming process. We won lower court battles. At lower court it took 7 years, 2 years in Bombay High Court and 1 year in the Supreme Court at Delhi. It took 10 years for us to get final result in our favour from the Apex Court. Supreme Court held in our favour that 2700 workers must be made permanent by the Municipal Corporation. The saga of our struggle did not end there. Difference in spelling of workers’ names or some other silly reasons were used as excuses to deny permanency. In India, depending upon the region from where workers come their pronunciation differs and therefore those speak a different language record the name with spelling as they heard thus names are written in different ways, for example Dilip can be written as Dileep. On this ground only 300 workers out of 2700 were confirmed in service. We struggled for 2 years and could add another 1100. Thus so far all 1400 workers got permanency with effect from 2006. Still we are fighting for the remaining 1100 workers. 

NV : Can you tell me how many workers are permanent in your Municipal sector and how many are contract workers. 

MR: In Mumbai there are 28000 permanent workers and 6500 contract workers. So far we have succeeded twice. The first batch of 1240 workers who were working from 1990 onwards were made permanent by Tripartite agreement after long struggle including a legal battle in 2003. The next batch of 2700 workers who began working in 2004 succeeded in getting permanency on 7th April 2017 by the Supreme Court Order. 1400 out of 2700 are absorbed as permanent workers with effect from 2006. Remaining 1100 will also be made permanent in the next few months. 

NV : Mumbai is one of the worst affected spots in the present Covid-19 pandemic in India. Are union members in any way involved in sanitation work of the virus affected people? 

MR: Of course, our members who are still working as contract workers are asked to do work in the worst affected areas. Since they are not permanent workers under the Municipal Corporation of Mumbai, workers were not issued Personal Protection Equipment. When we persisted in our demand for PPE, workers were issued one set of such equipment and corporation asked workers to take the PPE kit home and wash it and wear it next day. We objected to this as the medical protocol announced by the government was against such practice. We succeeded in getting proper PPE allotment subsequently. 

NV : Do you have any reports from workers about getting infection ? 

MR : More than 65 workers of our union contracted Corona virus. Treatment became another problem. Seven of our members lost lives from May to July. Our members have worked in worst conditions without protective gears for years and perhaps due to this they have developed strong immune systems. Therefore, the number of infected and death is low in spite of continuous working during lockdown. 

NV : What is the situation about compensation to families of the workers who lost lives on account of Corona? 

MR : This is now another area of dispute. Our union has demanded that families of deceased workers should be given Rs.5 million Rupees (75,000 US $) as compensation, as declared by the Prime Minister Mr. Modi but in reality all such claims of compensation are not approved for some technical reasons. 

NV: In India there was a country wide lockdown from March 24 to May. Then it was further extended. Even now lockdown is not completely lifted. What is the general situation in India in respect of workers under lockdown? 

MR: The story will be a long one. Since the lockdown was announced without any prior preparation daily earning workers and people lost their livelihood from March 25. Millions have lost jobs. This includes workers who came to Mumbai from interior parts of the State and from other 

states. Since the Government did not provide any transport for workers desiring to go back to their villages they had to walk hundreds and thousands of kilometers to reach their original homes. Due to suddenly announced lockdown, workers lost job and could not sustain in Cities where living is very costly. Not only the absence of food and shelter in the city and fear of Corona but their eagerness to be with their loved ones in the villages forced them to walk. This was the biggest failure of the right wing Modi Government during the pandemic and it showed how callous the Government was towards toiling masses. 

NV : How will you evaluate the labour situation during and after Covid19 ? 

MR : The federal government at Delhi has removed some of the prolabour provision in the existing labour legislation and new conditions in favour of the employers have been introduced under the cover of Covid19 as workers are not permitted to come out and protest on the streets. These will have profound effect on workers and their organisations. Trade unions have expressed their opposition. We will have to launch agitation to retain past gains and advance our struggle for justice. All the anti labour changes made in labour laws are officially done for « Ease of doing business » but in fact and in reality the changes are done for « Ease of exploitation » 