Broken Backs

  • Sofi Ahsan
  • Publish Date: Mar 23 2017 9:49PM
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  • Updated Date: Mar 23 2017 9:49PM
Broken Backs

                                                       File photo / Aman Farooq

Daily wagers have suffered for long. It’s time the government did right by them


After treating themselves to yet another hike last July, the fifth since 2002, J&K’s legislators get a princily salary of Rs 160,000 per month. But right under their noses, in various government departments they are supposed to oversee, casual workers are made to toil for a meagre Rs 150 or Rs 250 a day.

It’s this gross inequality that causual workers saw a tragic metaphor for in the electrocuted body of Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat, 38, hung over an electricity line near Budshah Chowk in the heart of Srinagar city on March 5. 

Nearly 61,000 people work for the J&K government and its agencies as casual labourers or “need-based workers”, a majority of them since 1994. Although every government since, including the incumbent, has talked about regularising their services, it hasn’t translated to anything beyond “promises”.

Mir Sarwar Hussain, 37, is with the tourism department since 2008, empoyed as supervisor to a landscape expert. He took the ill-paying job hoping the state would regularise it sooner rather than later. Nine years on, he is still waiting. “There is always hope that if not today, then maybe tomorrow we will get a job. The higher authorities keep promising that this will happen someday; it›s become a never ending cycle,” Hussain says.

A J&K legislator gets a basic salary of Rs 2,000 per day. A skilled labourer, as per the government determined wages, gets just about 11.25 per cent of that and an unskilled worker gets 7.5 per cent. These wages, in fact, are just 10-15 per cent of even what a retired lawmaker gets as pension. And while a lawmaker holds office for only six years unless reelected, most casual labourers have put in more than 12 years of service. What’s more, they are critical to the smooth functioning of the state machinary. As a senior government official put it, “They are gardeners, watch and ward men, officer hands, helpers, linemen, electricians, computer operators and what not. They are not non-essential.”

While they have toiled hoping to get regular jobs, the age limit for state jobs has passed many by, leaving them staring at an even more uncertain future. “The government has assured the overage workers that the issue would be looked into,” says Hussain, the representative of 232 causual labourers in the tourism department. “They have given their blood to their departments, where will they go now? Some have even died with this hope intheir hearts that someday they would get regular service; many are suffering from serious ailments because of our poor working conditions. But who will help a poor man?”

In 2009, the government constituted a cabinet sub committee to work out a policy onregularising casual and daily wagers. The policy is yet to see the light of day. The only decision pertaining to the issue so far came in 2005 – a ban on new recruitment of casual orseasonal workers in state departments and Public Sector Undertakings.

“Over the years, 61,000 casual/seasonal labourers have been engaged at various levels. As aresult, as of now, the government is confronted with a gigantic problem of regularising more than sixty one thousand workers engaged on casual basis,” Finance Minister Haseeb Drabusaid in his budget speech in the assembly in 2015 while announcing the formation of a high-powered committee comprising ministers and experts to examine the issue.

The “gigantic problem”, according to Drabu, costs the state Rs 1,925 per year, and “the financial implications are beyond the ways, means and position of state government”.

Yet, his PDP-BJP government did little to address it. Little, that is, if forming anothercommittee of bureaucrats and gaving it the same task as the cabinet sub committee of 2009counts.

On January 11 this year, Drabu delivered his third budget speech. “The current government treats this problem as a social issue which needs to be addressed,” the minister told the assembly, and declared that the process of regularisation of casual workers would start in the2017-18 financial year. To enable this, Drabu said, his government won›t pay its permanentemployees the revised wages recommended by the 7th Pay Commission. The affectedemployees largely agreed.

It’s over three months since Drabu’s announcement, and what is the progress? “The government promised to make public a roadmap by 31st March but it is apparent now that it was all drama. We have no hope that the government will keep its promise. Has there been any meeting on formulation of the policy till date?” asks Sajad Ahmad Parrey, chairmain of the J&K Casual and Daily Wagers Forum. “This is simply bonded labour. People have sold their land to sustain their families but they have this hope that some government will resolvethis issue. The projects we work at are worth crores but we don’t even get our wages of few hundred rupees on time.”

The casual workers are not only paid abysmal wages and lack job security, they don’t get such benefits as health or accident insurance that are available to the permanent employees.Other than the Power Development Department, no department even has a compensation policy for workers that get injured at work, or die. “How many get compensation even in the PDD is another question. When a person dies, the SRO case never reaches anywhere. We have to collect money among ourselves to help a fellow labourer who lands in hospital.Such injustice would have no parallel in any other place,” rues Parray.

It’s a dire situation, but there isn’t much the causual workers can do about it. As one PDD daily wager tellingly says, “What can we do? We can’t quit because no other agency willemploy us now that we have crossed the age limit. All this time, hope kept us going while robbing us of opportunities. It is the same again.”