Pune waste pickers seek life insurance cover, pending dues

Fight for rights: SWaCH workers in Pune have started a symbolic week-long protest by wearing white bands.  

Around 3,500 workers who are part of SWaCH, a cooperative of self-employed waste collectors in Pune, have launched a symbolic week-long agitation against the Pune Municipal Corporation’s (PMC) delay in providing them with benefits such as life insurance cover and dues for working during the COVID-19-induced lockdown.

The workers, who started wearing white ‘Freedom from Exploitation’ bands from Friday, said they would observe physical distancing and protest peacefully, without hampering waste collection or inconveniencing citizens. They will be staging a ‘thali bajao andolan’ outside the PMC’s main gate on Monday and Tuesday.

Harshad Barde, director, SWaCH, said, “Waste pickers have worked throughout the lockdown at less than half their usual income. They deserve the dignity and protection of fair income. It is high time that they are given life insurance cover, which has been accorded to all frontline workers.”

‘Serving private interests’

Mr. Barde said the PMC was involving private profit-making organisations in waste collection and undermining SWaCH’s transparent and sustainable system. He said SWaCH workers recycle 200 tonnes of waste each day, saving the PMC over ₹100 crore each year.

He said, “The direct user fee system established by SWaCH along with the PMC has benefited the city. It has won laurels and safeguarded the city’s environment. That this system operated uninterrupted through the lockdown is proof of its effectiveness and sustainability.”

Pune city, whose total case tally has surged to over 55,000, with nearly 11,000 active cases, has reported over 1,850 fatalities till date — making it one of the worst-hit cities in the country.

Mr. Barde said at a time when 10%-15% of government staff were being called to work, SWaCH workers were out on the streets at 95% attendance. “These ‘Corona Warriors’ did not need to be told of their responsibilities. At a time when cases have been surging in the city, they have been putting their lives and the well-being of their families at risk to ensure that garbage was collected every day from homes across the city,” he said.

Poornima Chikarmane, co-founder, Kagad Kach Kachra Panchayat (KKKP), said waste pickers living in slums and chawls were badly affected by the lockdown. She said, “Despite being classified as essential workers, waste pickers continue to be deprived of their rightful dues. While they have carried on with an admirable level of efficiency, They have suffered every possible loss, ranging from income deprivation and illness to even death, with at least five waste pickers succumbing to the virus.”

She added, “Those living in rented apartments have lost jobs and many have gone back to their hometowns. Markets, shops, commercial buildings have been closed and the recycling trade has come to a standstill. All these factors have led to a drop in income.”

‘Give monthly subsidy’

The KKKP has demanded the PMC to immediately clear dues of over ₹5 crore and pay a monthly subsidy of ₹30 per household in a slum cluster since start of the lockdown, and ₹10 per non-slum household for the last six months owing to loss of user fees. The KKKP has sought a life insurance cover of ₹2 lakh for all waste pickers and an insurance cover as per government rules to those who have succumbed to the virus.

SWaCH said despite repeated appeals, the PMC’s standing committee has taken no concrete action. Ms. Chikarmane said, “A proposal for supplementing the income of waste pickers during the lockdown was deferred on flimsy grounds in four successive meetings of the standing committee. And yet, the committee found it appropriate to pass the proposals of private agencies that threaten the livelihoods of these waste pickers.”

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 7:46:53 AM |

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