The contractual functionary

Sewage pipes and drains represent the bleaker side of India’s struggle to modernise its cities. Last month, Kishan Lal, 37, a sanitation worker, died inside an underground drain in the nation’s capital. Called to repair a blocked drain in the Wazirabad area of Delhi, he had no safety kit with him. The details of his death that have appeared in newspapers make for sordid reading: he died of asphyxiation. When he did not come out, the police and fire department were called. They could not find him. It was the National Disaster Response Force that found his body after an eight-hour search. Reports of deaths in similar circumstances appear regularly in the local press in different cities. They attract public attention for a day or two, but fail to sustain it.

Caste and contract work

Reports identified Kishan Lal as a ‘contract worker’. The meaning of this term has grown and the scope of its use has greatly expanded over recent decades. Depending on who your contractor is, you could have a vastly different experience of work under a contract. There was a time when the term was used only in the context of private sector employment because the government alone gave ‘permanent’ appointments. Economic reforms introduced under liberalisation changed that.

From the early 1990s, government jobs could also be given on contract. Among sanitation workers, thousands in each major city are serving on contract. Few statistics exist to guide us in the jungle of norms and procedures governing contractual work. We also don’t know the share of permanent staff in the total sanitation staff in the country. What we do know for certain is the relation between caste and contract work in the sphere of sanitation. Sanitation workers on contract mostly belong to the Scheduled Caste (SC) category. Surveys indicate a small proportion of other castes in permanent sanitation staff. It is also reported that these non-SC permanent functionaries often get proxy workers from SC backgrounds to do the actual work. So, the bond between caste and work continues to be strong decades after B.R. Ambedkar had analysed and highlighted it.

In the case of sanitation, contract work means gross vulnerability and exploitation. The terms of contract are minimalist, and a contractor feels free to enhance his own share of the contract with impunity, by nibbling away the worker’s share. Though the government is supposed to regulate the functioning of this contract, it does not show much active interest in doing so. It has been following the general policy of privatisation as a matter of faith, without putting in the effort it takes to work out the details for different sectors and departments. The realisation that one solution does not solve every problem is absent. Such a realisation is also unpopular, especially among people who present themselves as the gurus of efficiency. A tacit pact guides their relations with the bureaucracy. Hardly any politician in office has the time or the inclination to disturb this pact and force both sides — the efficiency gurus and the civil servants — to take stock of different nooks and crannies of the vast apparatus of the state. Decline in efficiency and quality of different services is quite apparent to the public, but it is flatly denied by political leaders, civil servants and consultants.

Quality takes a hit

They also deny the urgency of reviewing the working of the contractual system in areas directly related to welfare, such as sanitation, health and education. Little attempt has been made to study how contractual work has affected reliability in the postal services, railways and accounts. Even in functions such as data gathering, which are crucial for economic planning and decisions, the contractual workforce has proved detrimental to quality. In a paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly (February 15, 2014), Professor Sheila Bhalla made this point with reference to the use of contractual enumerators in the National Sample Survey Office.

In many spheres, contractual appointments do not involve a private contractor, but that makes little difference to the quality of work done. In education, for instance, many State governments have been hiring teachers on contract. Their service conditions are totally different from those serving as permanent staff, yet they are expected to deliver higher quality in teaching. The mantra upholding this expectation is that contractual teachers will work harder because they are insecure. In State after State, this mantra has not borne fruit, but no one wants to acknowledge that. Nor do governments want to admit that contractual work in professions such as teaching discourages motivation to improve one’s performance. The reason is that contractual functionaries see no definite prospect of a career or future in the same profession. Also, their wage is much too small to sustain the growth of substantial professional commitment.

The case of sanitation workers on contract is worse. They work for small-time contractors who have absolutely no idea of the role of a sanitation worker. The contractor feels free to exploit the worker, conveniently hopping over whatever barriers and checks, including digital devices, that the government attempts to use for providing financial security to the worker. The government — in the case of sanitation, it is often the municipality — shows little sustained interest in imposing stringent norms for provision of equipment, including those for safety, necessary for sewer cleaning. As for training, no one seems to believe that sanitation involves complex work, requiring both knowledge and training. Such a thought is fully precluded by the strong and enduring bond that exists between caste and sanitation. Sanitation campaigns do not articulate an acknowledgement of the relationship between the caste system and cleaning jobs. An ideological barrier prevents such articulation. The media too does not highlight the connection between caste and cleaning. That is why whenever sanitation workers die in underground drains, the news simply passes into unsorted history.

Krishna Kumar is a former director of the NCERT

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Printable version | Nov 21, 2021 10:07:23 PM |

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