Pandemic, Workers, and Responsibility of Public Academic Institutions

A Hamara Manch response to commonly held misconceptions

September 2021

Context

It has been 17 months since the first of a series of pandemic related lockdowns in the country, and working class livelihoods have yet to recover from its devastating consequences. Hamara Manch has come up with a series of reports on the conditions of campus workers during this period (all the reports, including the ones cited here, are available at: https://nirvaakiitk.wordpress.com/). We have also reported that the conditions of workers have become qualitatively worse after the second wave, especially for those who work in the hostels.

  • In June this year, we brought out a report on the conditions of women mess workers, most of whom are the only earning member in their family and who have been practically without any work for 15 months. As the wages have stopped, so has the ESI support, leading to a severe medical crisis for the workers. As narrated in the report, one woman mess worker in her 20s, who is unlettered with two small children, has a husband whose both kidneys have failed. Without ESI support, she now needs to find Rs. 30,000 every month for just the dialysis.
  • One work that has been going on all along amidst the pandemic is construction. Some of these women mess workers tried to find work on a construction site, and from them, we came to know that all the women construction workers on one site were fired in July 2021. When Hamara Manch went to enquire about it to one of the residential sites of the construction workers, we found that they were living in containers that are generally used for shipping/transportation. Twenty persons were packed in each container in these times of ‘social distancing’! A young woman died on the same day due to a lack of access to any medical facility.
  • In August, over a thousand workers signed a letter addressed to the community seeking support for a dignified existence, mentioning that some of them do not even have the money to get the free government-provided rations milled.

Institutional Response

What has been the institutional response to the loss of livelihoods of thousands of its workers?

  • The administration, while making appropriate noise on social media about how much it is doing for ‘Covid-19 relief’, has by and large kept quiet on the issue of the workers and how they were surviving this prolonged lack of employment.
  • The campus community, too, has not raised its voice about the workers. When opinions are expressed, they usually justify the complete lack of accountability of the Institute towards its workforce. For example:
    • These are not our workers’, meaning they belong to the contractor and hence not the responsibility of the Institute.
    • The workers are presently ‘non-worker non-employees,’ that they are neither working in the Institute nor on its rolls, so they are not the Institute’s responsibility.
    • Where is it written in the contracts that the Institute would be responsible for these workers during the times of pandemic?
    • The most common refrain is that the Institute is short of funds and hence cannot indulge in any charity towards these workers.
    • As a corollary to the above is the offer of personal monetary contributions

Hamara Manch’s Position

We have discussed these responses at Hamara Manch and would like to briefly articulate our position in four points.

1. The Lack of Money Argument

A cursory look at the annual accounts of IITK shows that for the latest financial year ending March 2021, the Institute income was more than Rs. 700 crores. Even 1 percent of this can take care of the minimum needs of the workers during these distressing times. (https://www.iitk.ac.in/new/data/Finance_Officer_Office/Balance-Sheet-account-03-09-21.pdf). Therefore HM is of the view that this complete lack of sensitivity towards the condition of the workers is a reflection of the priorities of our Institute and not a shortage of funds.

2. The no Legal-Liability Argument

 The Government of India has come up with three explicit office memoranda (available at https://doe.gov.in/whats-new) during the pandemic, the latest being in June 2021, repeatedly stating that all government establishments are to consider their entire ‘contractual, casual and outsourced staff’ who have been forced to stay at home as “on duty,” and ensure that they are paid their wages accordingly. IITK has not done so.

In fact, IITK keeps flouting labour laws, and most of us keep quiet about it. This is most evident on the construction sites where legal wages are not paid, and legal safety protocols are not followed. This has real consequences too. There were three deaths at the construction site of the Earth Science building in 2019. HM associates at IIT Bombay report that four workers have died in construction activities in the last one year.

3. The Claim of Striving to Emulate the Best of the West

For everything regarding the Institute – rankings, research, faculty entitlements, we invoke standards of the best in the West, except when it comes to our workers where we choose to justify things by comparing with the worst possible practices like the local labour mandi. During the pandemic, most countries that we look up to have implemented generous furlough policies by paying as much as 80 percent of wages while considering employees’ on leave’: https://www.bigissue.com/news/employment/furlough-in-other-countries-supporting-workers-through-the-covid-crisis/).

4. Hamara Manch’s Position on the Workers of our Institute

We believe that these workers are an indispensable and integral part of the Institute. It is their hard work that makes possible the construction of our buildings and their maintenance, the campus security, our sanitation facilities, the lawn maintenance, nutritious food in messes and canteens, basically everything that ensures the smooth functioning of this Institute.  As such, they are the Institute’s responsibility.

The law of the land mandates that all workers have dignified work conditions and minimum wages with benefits for health and pension. And being the Principal Employer, the Institute is responsible for ensuring this, especially as a public institution built and run on taxpayers’ money. IIT Kanpur claims in its mission statement that it aspires “To pursue excellence in education, research, and innovation by nurturing leadership qualities with a sense of commitment and accountability, and inculcating values and ethics in thought, expression, and deed.

Then why should the workers of this public-funded academic Institute have to repeatedly appeal for support for dignified existence?

Hamara Manch is convinced that the answer to the workers’ appeal is not some piecemeal individual charity but a concerted institutional effort to uphold workers’ rights and dignity. Steinbeck’s powerful lines in The Grapes of Wrath best captures the need for ensuring the dignity of our workers, especially amidst the pandemic:No one complains about the necessity of feeding the horse while he is not working. But we complain about feeding the men and women who work… Is it possible that this state is so stupid, so vicious, and so greedy that it cannot clothe and feed the men and women who help to make it…? Must the hunger become anger and anger fury before anything will be done?

An Appeal by the Workers to the IITK Community

August 2021

Friends,

As you are aware, mess workers have been out of work since May 2020 because of the CORONA pandemic. In September 2020, when students began to come back to the campus, some of us started getting work. Over the last 16 months (from May 2020 to August 2021), mess workers have got on an average 30 to 40 days of work each over these 15 months. We also have received monetary support of Rs 18,400 (Rs 6400 in July, Rs 6000/- in September, and Rs 6000 in December 2020). And for this, we are grateful to the entire community (students, faculty members, alumni) who supported us in these hard times.

When the second wave of the pandemic hit the country in April 2021, the administration sent back all the students, and mess workers were again out of work. But this time, the Institute did not extend any support to mess workers. We are finding it very difficult to arrange food for the family, money for children’s education, house rent, medical bills, etc. Many of us are deep in debt. There is no work to be found anywhere, and we are unable to support our families. Our ESI benefits have also stopped, so our families are unable to get the medical treatment they require for chronic and severe illnesses.

The government has been providing 10 kgs of grains per member per family to every ration-card holding household during the pandemic. But this includes only rice and wheat. One cannot eat merely grain and survive. We need oil, spices, pulses, fuel, salt, vegetables, etc. too. Some of our fellow workers are so badly off that they cannot even afford to mill the wheat provided by ration shops; pulses and vegetables have completely disappeared from our plates.

We workers are in an extremely desperate state. We appeal to the Institute community to stand by us in these difficult times. We have only two demands of the Institute. We request your support in getting the Institute to consider our demands and acceding to them.

1. To provide us work for 26 days a month at minimum wages, including ESI and EPF benefits

2. And in case work cannot be provided to give us an allowance adequate to meet our families’ living expenses.

This we believe is our right; we too are humans, we too need nutritious food, water, and health care. The Institute says that there are no students, hence no work for us, hence no money to us. We would like to ask if there are no students what is the need of constructing so many new buildings during this period? Why is it necessary to pay full salaries to the professors?

Do we workers not deserve to eat proper food or have access to essentials for survival? The Institute did not deem it necessary to find out how our families and we have been surviving these past 16 months. They seem to believe that whenever there is work, we can be summoned, and we would report to duty. How long can this continue?

We hope that the Institute community will understand our situation and support us wholeheartedly.

Thank you,

Workers of IITK

Hindi version of this Appeal can be read over here:
https://drive.google.com/file/d/1t3_HZkT-mlYPabGbO_XC7E8JcbWbSeMA/view?usp=sharing

A Window to the Construction Workers in IITK Amidst the Pandemic

Hamara Manch Report, July 2021

On 14th July 2021, women workers at the Swadeshi Civil Infrastructure Private limited construction site (the one across the airstrip) were told that they were all fired with immediate effect. Around 60-70 women were working at the site at the time and several more were to join in the next few days. Many of them have been working for months and were earlier told that they would continue to do so for at least several weeks more. Most of these women workers are migrant (at least not from the neighbourhood) and have come along with families to work at the construction site. It is imperative for all the adult members of the family to work, for them to be able to sustain the arrangement, as they have no social moorings here. Hence women losing jobs meant even the men would have to discontinue as they would not be able to survive in the meagre wages earned by men alone. When they tried to ask the reason for such abrupt en masse dismissal the women were told that these were orders from above. Most of these women were yet to be paid for the months of June and July, and when they asked to be given their dues they were told that their payments would be made soon but no definite date was given. Without employment these women and their families would be forced to leave and since they may not be able to pursue for their wages they were likely to lose it too. Usually, we at Hamara Manch have no access to construction workers because given the peculiar arrangement of construction work, those workers have no interaction with the regular workforce of the campus. And therefore, Hamara Manch has not reported anything on this construction activity during our pandemic series even though work has been going on full swing. But in this instance, we had a unique window to this site and the workers because three women mess workers had joined there recently.

As we had mentioned in our last report on women mess workers, (https://nirvaakiitk.wordpress.com/2021/06/29/15-months-of-pandemic-and-women-mess-workers-of-iit-kanpur/), situation is extremely desperate for several of them and they have been on the lookout for any kind of paying job. And when they came to know that there were some work for cleaning and clearing debris in newly constructed building by Swadeshi Contractor, several of them went to seek employment and three of them were recruited.

Construction Work in the Institute during Pandemic

The entire Institute has been practically shut down for most of the last 15 months. The hostels have been vacated, all public spaces barricaded, sports and other facilities have been shut down, even academic area has been inaccessible for most of the time. Students and RAs have been sent home, most workers, especially those serving the students and hostels, have not got employment except for a few days. Only so-called essential workers have found regular employment like– security, sanitation, horticulture and maintenance workers. But one activity continued with almost undiminished fervour all through this period except for the few initial months – and that is construction work. All across the campus trees are being cut, open grounds dug up, old structures are getting demolished and new massive buildings are coming up. Most of these activities happen behind large metallic barricade, and only when the built structure start peeping up from these large barricades does one realise that they have come up. Among the gigantic cranes, JCBs and earth movers also work hundreds of workers for whom the entire concern for pandemic seems to have been kept aside. Usually, campus residents do not have any access, let alone interactions with these workers. They are herded into the site on trolleys every morning and then herded back to where they are put up outside the campus when the work is done. The trolley uses the back gate of the campus beyond Hall 11, presumably to avoid even a visual encounter. And the work often goes on well into the night as is evident from the light and sounds from the construction sites as one passes by. But as the buildings tower over the restricting barricades, we can see young men and women without any form of safety gear or equipment hanging from the buildings as they work. This of course portends of a disaster waiting to happen, and we have seen many over the years. Still such primitive practices go on as a norm.

The Work

The three mess workers who found employment at the Swadeshi site were offered wages at Rs 333/- per day; they were told they would get Rs 10,000/- for 30 days of work. The work was quite strenuous – they were supposed to report by 8.45, start work by 9am and go on till 5.30 pm. Besides these three mess workers there were at least 60-70 other women workers who, as we mentioned earlier, were not local. Some of them were from Bihar, some from MP, several from Lakhimpur Kheri, Hamirpur, etc. Also, none of them were paid the same wages – those from Bihar were paid Rs 230/- and three meals of rice and sabzi, usually potato; others were paid Rs 300/- per day with no extra. Most of them have come with their families – which means that they had some male members. Several of them have been working for months on the site and have done every kind of manual work there. Our mess workers noted that these non-local women were made to work even harder and longer – ploughing, shovelling, carrying heavy loads, everything. Though there were a few elderly women, most of these women were very young from teenagers to in their twenties and several of them had very young children, infants and toddlers. All these children also spent the entire day at the worksite among the elements. Apparently, these women take turns in minding the babies one at a time, while the rest work. Most of these workers have been brought by some petty contractor and the payments were made through them. In fact there were several layers of petty and sub contractors between the main ‘company’ and the actual workers.

And then on the 14th July all of them were told that there was no work for them from that day. There was no prior notice given, and all their requests, to be allowed to continue and the effect such abrupt dismissal would have on their families, were ignored. They were not even given a valid reason for such a drastic step.

Still the workers went back on the 15th asking to be allowed to continue work or being paid their entire wages so that they could leave. But the contractor’s men refused to let them work and told them falsely that their wages were already paid to their petty contractor. That evening they asked Hamara Manch to come over to their living quarters to narrate their predicament. This is quite telling that even though thousands of workers work in the Institute there is no place/space for them to assemble, talk, rest, or discuss. In fact they are barred from all public spaces.

The Accommodation of these Workers

The company claims it provides accommodation for its workers either within the site or in a labour camp. In this case this constitutes of an empty plot of land with some metal sheet cover and several containers (the same that are used to ship and transport goods across the globe) lined up. Each container houses 20 people and though we did not get a chance to see them from inside we were told that they have berths akin to a train compartment, thus people are stacked up one above the other. Due to this arrangement the small plot of land is able to accommodate 200 people including women, toddlers, infants and men. Needless to say they are packed as sardines. There are a few toilets outside the plot. Each container has a small opening in lieu of a door, and some holes cut out as windows. There is a water tank in the middle of the plot which is filled by ground water pumped up by a motor. This water is used for everything – drinking, ablution, and cooking. Everyone is expected to bathe in the open. Food is cooked in the same premises. There is electric connection and it is provided free by the contractor. As we entered, we found men women and children lying around on the unpaved floor after having finished work for the day. There was no fan anywhere in sight nor any other cooling device. This is where these people come back to after having put in backbreaking labour in the heat for up to 9-10 long hours. All the workers seemed very young, in their twenties and thirties, there were some who seem to be in their teens even, both girls and boys. Of the people we met only one woman worker seemed to be much older, in her sixties but she too has been putting the full day of work.

Further Details about Work and Firing

What we could gather from talking with the workers was this that this particular building’s construction got over in February 2021, and the cleaning and clearing work (which needs to be done before the finishing work) started around mid-February. Initially there were only two women along with their families who were doing this work. But as the second lockdown got enforced many of the workers left for their native places. And this is the time when the work was at its peak and any interruption would have further delayed the subsequent work. Therefore, the contractor requested the petty contractors to get workers from anywhere possible and he would pay up to as much as Rs 400/450 daily wages if required. That is the reason so many women workers were employed in this work. Some of the workers had never done construction work before– a whole group of people (including the old woman mentioned earlier) are from the snake charmer tribe and this was their first job of this kind. In fact, they are nomadic and usually move from place to place. But given the grim employment situation all over, they too have not been able to make their living through their traditional occupation.

Both men and women were promised Rs 400 per day as wages. But the main contractor gave the petty contractor only Rs 350/- per person. Further the petty contractors’ dues were never cleared on time. Apparently, the petty contractor kept paying at the rate of Rs 400 for a few days because he had promised to do so, shelling out the balance from his pocket. But when the workers learnt of his predicament, they agreed to accept Rs 300/-.

As the lockdown eased the supply of labour also increased, including those who were ready to work for even lower wages. As we mentioned earlier, workers from Bihar were working at Rs 230/- per day plus food. And it was generally believed that this was the main reason for them being thrown out of their employment. They think that the company would now hire their entire labour requirement at this lower rate. At the moment the women workers from Bihar too have been asked to leave in keeping with the company’s professed stance that women workers will not be allowed on their site. But these workers think that Bihari workers would be called back when they left. And should the women leave, the men would not be able to continue hence they too would be forced to leave.

Almost all the workers have due wages left – some up to 45 days’ worth. As one of them rightly said for the contractor ‘jitni rangadari se hamen ek second me baahar nikaal diya utni rangdari se payment bhi kar dete to hum chale jaate’ (You did not take a second to throw us out, if you had made payments also with the same aplomb we would have left by now). The company has assured them that the payment would be done soon, but as the workers argue, how are they supposed to survive without any money or job in this place? And they know that should they leave, they would not be able to come back and pursue for their dues and would effectively forfeit their wages.

The elderly woman told us that she has been forced to do manual labour because of her young grandchildren. Her daughter-in-law passed away a few years back, her son seems to have a serious leg injury and has been admitted in the hospital for several  months now. She is not sure how she will manage after losing this job.

While we were talking, the contractor’s men kept harassing the workers asking them to keep quiet. One of them started taking a video, he was asked to desist from recording. Then a higher up was called. This person was extremely rude –at first he threatened the workers. Then when we intervened he asked us (HM) ‘what business did we have with the workers’ and further ‘unwanted outsiders were not allowed, and he needs to ensure the security of this camp’. We got a reverse dose of what our workers regularly face from the security of this campus. We tried to reason that this was beyond work hours hence they were within their rights to invite whomever they wished. But he was adamant that this was ‘illegal’.

We left soon after.

An Ordinary Death

The next day morning (16th of July, 2021) we came to know that a young woman worker in the camp HM visited had died in the night. She was from Bihar and one of those who had been working @ Rs 230 plus food.  By the time HM volunteers reached the place there were a whole slew of company/contractor’s men hurrying up the disposal of the body.

No one was ready to talk, the family was also silenced. From what we could gather she had been ill for a few days and the family was requesting for medical attention from the contractor. She had even gone to the site on Sunday  (11th July, 2021) but was turned back. Her family including two brothers, an uncle, aunt and a nephew are all working here. They had been here for a month now. But since the family had taken some loan from the petty contractor back in the village, their first month’s salary was to go towards payment of the loan. They had no money and though this woman could not work, the other members could not even miss work as they would lose wages. Feeling very unwell she limped to a medical shop around 500 metres from their camp site hoping to get some medicine. The shop-owner could see she was very unwell but did not know how to help. She sat outside the shop not having the energy to go back. Only in the evening a jhola chap doctor came and examined her and said she needed to be hospitalised immediately. Some family members also turned up after work but having no money and not knowing anyone from around they called up the contractor yet again for help. One of the contractor’s man turned up and decided that things were not so serious and just putting her on glucose drip would suffice. They came back to the camp late in the night. She passed away at 3 in the morning.

In death she looked serene and seemed barely out of her teens. The family had wrapped her in a blanket and she was shoved into a private ambulance which was apparently supposed to take her back to her native village in Bihar. But this was an ordinary ambulance with no arrangement for transporting dead body over such a long distance in this heat. Her brothers were also bundled in with her.

And soon the ‘normal’ activities of the camp resumed.

In conclusion

We have tried to describe the ‘ordinary’ life and death of the workers who have been constructing all the fancy building in the Institute. The boards hung outside the site tells us that each of them is worth hundreds of crores of rupees. And yet, the young men and women with their children who make these buildings do not even get minimum wages. Most of the construction do not follow even basic safety norms – helmets, footwear, harness, etc. The workers work for longer hours than stipulated under extremely stressful conditions and are fired arbitrarily often losing their due wages. Their living quarters barely protect them from elements, crowded, unsanitary and do not  provide even basic amenities. There is no provision for their health care and we suspect that there would be several cases of  serious illness and death even, which go unreported. Since HM was around we know that the young woman who died so unnecessarily was named Pramila. But most workers live, work and die unacknowledged in this Institute.

We might say it does not concern us.

But It Does.

15 Months of Pandemic and Women Mess Workers of IIT Kanpur

Hamara Manch update: June 2021

It has been 15 months since the Institute and the entire country went into the first lockdown.There have been two waves of the virus and most of us witnessed extreme health contingencies, both personal and among relatives, close friends, and the community. The ferocity of the pandemic has taken a serious toll on all of us, and it would take a long while to get over it. Those of us who have been lucky to survive these catastrophic times know how much we owe it to the various kinds of essential workers who have been providing tireless services at great personal peril in the campus. They include sanitation workers, horticulture workers, shopworkers and the ubiquitous SIS workers. And yet we as a community seem to have fallen short in ensuring that these workers too have access to a dignified existence. Several harsh measures taken during these months including arbitrary and humiliating firing of over 50 SIS guards, some of them the most senior in the service, slashing of wages of several workers, etc. But other than these set of workers there are several other workers who lost their livelihood because the Institute has not been fully functional for these months – they include the mess workers, the canteen workers, the shopkeepers and their employees, mobile vendors, drivers, etc.

Hamara Manch has been trying to bring out short reports on their situation to the community, and we would continue to do so.

The present report tries to capture the situation of one of the most vulnerable section of workers of the Institute whose voices are so muffled that they rarely get the attention they deserve – the women workers of Hall messes in IIT Kanpur. There are 74 women mess workers spread across the halls. The primary task of these workers is to sift and clean grains and pulses which are cooked in the Halls. The task is extremely tedious and requires the workers to sit in awkward position for long hours to ensure that no inedible stuff get cooked in the meals. And the significance of this task was evident during the meal preparations of quarantine students when they deployed inadequate number of workers. The workers tried to do the best but there were regular complaints from the students. Other than this they are expected to help out in every activity in the kitchen including rolling out rotis/parathas, cutting vegetables, peeling potatoes and even cleaning vessels.

The following report is based on the notes of sessions where 32 women workers shared their situation with each other and us. We at Hamara Manch knew things were extremely difficult but these sessions made us realise how dire it actually is. Each of their accounts probably deserve a full report but we are attempting to present a summary of their current situation.

Domestic Context of Women Workers

  • As has been mentioned in an earlier report(https://nirvaakiitk.wordpress.com/2020/08/03/workersiitk-amidst-the-covid-lockdown-2/ ), these women workers are the primary earners if not the sole earner of their families. Most of them have got their employment on compassionate grounds and have had to step out of their domestic arena under great duress. They have been managing the expenses of their families with great difficulty even earlier but without this regular income their families have been pushed to the brink of survival.
  • Most of the women workers are in their middle-ages and have extended families to support. Families consist of 5 to 10 members which include married and unmarried sons, daughters in law, daughters, elderly parents and children/grandchildren.
  • Many of these women are widows or who have been rendered single because their spouses have left them. For several others the husbands are unable to earn anything because of long-term illnesses. Significantly several of the husbands used to be manual labourers earlier but the harsh work seems to have rendered permanent damage to their bodies making them unfit for it. And they have not been able to find any other work either.
  • Some of the adult and semi-adult children of the household had been contributing to the family income earlier – mostly as domestic help and manual labourers; but they too have lost their employment during the pandemic.
  • The present crisis has further exacerbated the situation because even families which had gone nuclear (sons/daughters after marriage) have been forced to return to the common household. Several of them reported that their sons had migrated to other cities but have lost their jobs during the pandemic and are now dependent on her.

Regular Expenses of Families of Women Mess Workers
As one of the workers succinctly put it – “pichle saal do ke jagah ek rupye se kaam chalaya par ab to athanni chawanni par aa gaye” Last year we made do by spending one rupee rather than the usual two but this year we have been reduced to 50-25 paise.

Food
These families could never afford proper nutritional meals even in regular times but now they have been reduced to the state of starvation. Most of them have access to government PDS system which allocates 5 kgs of grain per family member – in some places the ration shop shaves off 1 kg of the allocated grain. But some of these families have their ration card in their village and they do not have access to this life-saving sustenance too. This is not even enough to cover all the meals of the day and for everything else they need to shell out money– pulses, oil, vegetables, fruits, milk, fuel. And hence most of these essentials have almost completely disappeared from the meals including for children. As several of them said “we cook once a day and try to fend hunger for all the meals”.

Education

  • For school going children classes are happening online and almost without exception none of the families have been able to pay the fees.
  • Students in class XII, whose exams have been waived recently, have been threatened by the school that if they do not pay up their dues they would not issue them certificate.
  • All tutions have stopped.
  • Children in higher studies have had to discontinue their courses. Several of these women workers have taken hefty loans to pay up their arrear fees and yet the institutions are not allowing their wards to continue because more fees are due. Meanwhile the interests are piling up. One of the worker’s daughter managed to pay her fees for MBA by taking Rs 40,000/- loan. But there has been no classes and she is aware that there are no jobs either.

Rent

  • Many of these workers have their own accommodation but have to pay electricity charges.
  • Several of them said that their houses need urgent repairs, but they have not been able to afford it and it is unlikely they would be able to do so in the near future. Rains have made things worse – several of them said their homes are leaking.
  • Rents range from Rs 1500 to Rs 4000/-. Some of the workers have been forced to leave because they could not sustain these rents.

Health expenses and contingencies

Health contingencies have been the most difficult to handle during these distressed times. But unlike what we had expected it was not due to Corona – none of the families got tested for Covid even if they had all the classic symptoms. We realised that only a health crisis compels the family to seek any medical attention, lesser and what is termed ‘seasonal’ ailment is usually ignored and allowed to pass on its own. Most of these women reported that their entire families were down with flue like symptoms and unlike other years it lasted for much longer and many still had lingering cough and weakness. But almost none of them consulted a doctor, in some cases they visited the neighbouring chemist, and he gave some paracetamol and such like. These women workers also routinely disregard serious underlying conditions like anaemia, blood pressure, blood sugar, urinary tract infection and various kinds of menstrual and gynaecological ailments. Many of them mentioned them in passing and that they have been forced to discontinue their medication for months, because other expenses were more important. Even families with chronic patients – who have suffered stroke, have neurological and mental conditions, patients with heart ailments, and even cancer patients etc. have either stopped those medication or have been taking them erratically.

Some really stark cases are listed below:

  1. This woman mess worker who must be in her 20s has been reduced to be the only caretaker of her husband, also a mess worker in his early thirties. A couple of years back both his kidneys failed due to gross medical negligence and he has been on dialysis since then. The extended family tried to support the expensive treatment for some months but had to sell off their land and other property for the same. Since the man could not put in much hard work his co-workers got together and convinced the contractor to give employment to his wife who was in the native village. The woman had to shift to Kanpur with two small kids – a toddler and an infant, do duty and also continue the man’s treatment. She is unlettered and has never been outside her village earlier. The dialysis which needs to be done bi-weekly costs Rs 7000/- per week or Rs 30,000 per month, but because of access to ESI the cost used to be covered till March 2020. But since the lockdown her/and her husband’s ESI has been discontinued and hence she has had to pay for the treatment. She somehow managed to carry on till April but all her savings and that of her extended family has been wiped off. The recent lockdown has forced her to let go of the rented accommodation and move back to her village. It is unlikely that she has been able to continue with the dialysis of her husband.
  2. Another worker reported that they incurred a debt of Rs 5 lacs for treatment of the elder brother of the husband. Unfortunately, he did not survive and the family has been forced to pay back the interest of the debt to the local moneylender at 5% per month (Rs 25,000 per month). They have sold off their house to pay the interest while the principal remains. They have not been able to treat their child and the other child’s school is threatening to hold the result if the fees is not paid.
  3. A woman worker with two daughters and one son and husband reported that they have been barely managing earlier with her wages and a small amount her elder daughter got in a private job. Her husband is mentally unstable and has been an addict for several years. Her younger daughter had developed a serious lung infection which took several months to diagnose and a lot of money was spent. She now needs continuous treatment worth Rs 1000 per month (till a few months back it was Rs 3000). Meanwhile her elder daughter also became very unwell and after making rounds of several doctors she has been diagnosed with a liver abscess and infection which is not subsiding despite medication. She can neither afford the doctor’s fees (which used to be earlier Rs 500 but now with video consultation has been raised to Rs 700) nor the medication.
  4. A single mother of two who lost her husband 12 years back and has also been abandoned by her in-laws shared that she is a serious heart patient and has had more than one silent ‘heart attacks’. And yet she has been forced to work as a manual labourer in a construction site during the lockdown. She has not been taking regular medication and keeps passing out suddenly. Her teenage daughter too gets fainting spells – mostly out of anxiety.
  5. A middle aged worker reported that she herself had a paralytic attack in her left leg in December last year. Her treatment has left the family in a serious debt, and she is not sure how they would repay it.
  6. A young worker reported that her son came down with jaundice when he was a toddler and has been sickly since. He seems to contract hepatitis very often and needs almost continuous medical attention. She herself has a severe pain in her leg and needs to take painkillers every day. Her husband has left her, and she is dependent on her parents for survival – they themselves are badly off and she feels guilty to be an extra burden. She has been postponing going to an orthopaedic for herself – but is not sure how long she would be able to bear the constant pain.
  7. Another worker reported that her son had severe pneumonia in his childhood and since then has been having frequent fainting spells making him completely homebound. He needs regular medication. Further he was advised a three-month course of medicine which could have alleviated his condition but the family had to discontinue it mid-way because of lack of resources.

So how have they been Managing?

To put it in a line – they are not being able to manage.

  • The Institute has given them some support – Rs 18400 in three installments over 15 months. That is equivalent to a month and a half of their regular wages.
  • Most of them have got a few days of work when the messes reopened partially from November/December 2020 to April 2021. The number of duties range from 15 days to 60 days though most of them have got at most 30 to 35 days. Shockingly some of these wages have still not been paid to them in Hall 9 and Hall 10.
  • Most of them have exhausted all their savings including that in the EPF account.
  • Some have had to sell off their houses or share of land to tide over contingencies.
  • Unlike some of the male workers, who have found employment as manual labour in constructions sites, factories, metro construction, etc. there is no alternate employment available to these women workers even to partially cover their expenses.
  • To make matters worse the number of dependents on the meagre income of these workers have increased in this period.
  • Some driven by extreme desperation have taken up jobs at ridiculously low wages. We came to know of a single mother who has been working in a nursery (plant) where she puts in 9 hours of hard work per day, including shovelling, digging, watering, etc. She earns Rs 100 a day.
  • Other than that, they have been surviving on the largesse of relatives who themselves have been hard-pressed in these months.
  • Several women shared that men of their families have taken to drinking heavily during these months leading to serious and frequent ugliness.
  • Some of them have taken loans at massive interest rates – 5% to 10% per month.
  • Given the uncertainty of their being able to repay, even moneylenders now refuse to lend them money.

To conclude

These sessions with the women workers were some of the most distressing sessions we have had in Hamara Manch for a long time. Most of these women were extremely reluctant to talk about their personal lives and often refused to share details. And yet even the bare details made us realise the extent of their despair. As we mentioned earlier, each of these women deserve a detailed report on how much indignity and grief they have had to face to survive these months. It has been very difficult for the male workers too, but the travails of the women workers singlehandedly fending for their families is qualitatively worse. One of the workers shared their predicament in these words:

We are extremely ashamed to talk about our misfortune and usually would never
share it with anyone. We know people laugh at us or pity us. Life has been difficult for
us even earlier, but we had thought that our jobs in the mess in the Institute would
enable us to live dignifiedly and take care of our dependents and families. But these
15 months have forced us to let go our last shred of self-respect. We have nothing left
to lose. And we are not sure we can carry on any longer
.

The workers were keen to know if the Institute was likely to reopen soon – as they said, they do not want handouts they want to work and earn their livelihood.


We did not have answers to their questions. But as fellow community members of this Institute it made us wonder whether the hopeless situation of these dignified women were a matter of their shame or for the rest of us?

Arbitrary Firing of 35 SIS Guards from IIT Kanpur : A report

On 8th April, 2021, twenty eight guards with the SIS services were dismissed from IIT Kanpur. Earlier on 31st March, 2021, seven gunmen were also removed from services without any notice. They were merely told that their services ‘were no longer required’. Barring one of them all these guards have been working for IIT for over a decade and some of them have been with the Institute for almost two decades. Apparently, the only fault of these guards was that
they were over 45 years of age and the new contract signed by IIT with their contractor demanded that only guards below this could be deployed. Though this is also not strictly true, as at least four of these 28 guards are below 45 years and there are at least 20 more guards who are above 45 years of age and are still working in IIT Kanpur.

The Manner of Dismissal
• On 5th April, 2021 all SIS guards above the age of 45 years were vaccinated in the HC, they were given priority as they are front line workers.
• On 7th April, 2021 when the SIS guards assembled at their control room to start the 8 pm shift (from 8.00 pm to 12.00 midnight), ten of them were told that they were to report to their Branch Office in the city the next day for further instructions. These guards tried to ask the reason, but their superiors refused to answer and ordered them to
proceed to their duty stations. After they finished their duty at 12 midnight and reached their barracks, they came to know that 28 of them have been asked to report to the branch office the next day.
• When they assembled at the branch office at 10 am on 8th of April they were asked to appear in front of an official one at a time. The guards tried to tell the official to come and address them collectively, but he refused to do so. Each of them was then called in individually and told that they would not be able to work in IIT anymore because of the age clause in the contract. Further they were also advised to go home peacefully and not share this development with anyone or approach anyone for redressal if they wish to be considered for employment through SIS in future at any location. When some of them tried to reason with the official that loss of employment at this point would plunge them and their families into deep crisis and that they should be allowed to continue service, they were told to ‘give opportunity to other people since you have enjoyed the service for such a long time’.
• One of the guards who is short of forty years old, asked the reason for his removal. The official seemed unsure about the reason and asked him to wait while he checked on his case. The guard waited from 10 am to 11.30 am till all the rest had already left and then he went up again to inquire. The official dismissed him by saying ‘pata nahi kyon tum
list me ho, par kuch to gadbad kiya hoga aur ab list ban gayi hai to tumhe nikalna hi hoga’
(not sure what is the reason but you must have done some mistake to be on the list, and now that the list has been issued you will have to leave). The guard insists that he has been doing his duty efficiently and has even been lauded for his services in the
drive by IIT of distributing food and provisions in the neighbourhood during the lockdown.
• Almost all the 28 guards are from outside Kanpur district. Most of them stayed in the barracks inside the Institute and some of them who stayed with their families, rented accommodation in the neighbourhood. They were ordered to vacate the Institute premises immediately.

Persona Non Grata
• As soon as these guards returned to the campus, they realised they had become persona non grata for the Institute. Their details had been communicated to all the guards of the Institute and their movements were monitored and restricted. Several guards were deployed to ensure that these 28 leave the premises immediately.
• A supervisor who was dismissed had been staying in a quarter next to the new shopping complex for over 15 years. He requested a day to arrange for packing and removal of his belongings but was refused. Three guards were deployed to ensure that he vacated by the afternoon.
• In fact, all of them were made to leave by the afternoon with all their belongings. Those who could find some transport left for their home districts, but several had no place to go. Apparently five of them (from Bihar) were left sitting on the GT road with all their belongings, as there was no train for their destination. The guard at the metro
site allowed them to spend the night in his quarters.
• And since then, none of them have been allowed free entry inside the campus. All of them have their bank accounts, post office accounts inside the campus, some have their ration shops inside the campus too. But each time they need to enter the campus the guard at the respective gate has to check with the control room whether they can be
allowed. They cannot enter through any gate – they have to come through the main gate or a new gate which has come up in the back end of the campus. And sometimes they have been refused entry too in spite of a request. This probably has been the most hurtful to all of them. As one of them said ‘hum izzatdar log hain, solah solah saalon se
IIT ki seva ki hai, kabhi kuch galti nahi ki aur ab hamare saath aisa vyavhaar kar rahe hain ki maano hum chor uchakka criminal hon? Kya yeh theek hai?’
(We are honourable people, we have served IIT for 16 long years, have never done anything wrong, then why are we being treated as if we are petty thieves or criminals? Is that fair?)

Effect on Families
• As most of these guards have families dependent on this job, loss of employment so abruptly would have devastating effect on the families including school and college going children and other dependent family members.
• Many of these guards have their families with them in Kanpur and their children have been attending school and colleges in the city. Most of them would have to discontinue because they would not be able to continue to stay in Kanpur without employment.
• One of the guards who spoke to us has a child in an SIS aided boarding school in Dehradun, the loss of employment would mean that the child would not be able to continue his studies there.
• Some of the guards have been dealing with medical contingencies which were covered to an extent by the ESI facility. In fact one of the dismissed guards lost his 8 year old son last July to blood cancer. He has two older children who are studying in the city. The family is still trying to cope with the loss, both personal and financial, when they
have been now slapped with loss of employment. We are sure there would be other similar cases, but we have not been able to collect comprehensive information on this count.
• Given the general economic situation and their age and specific experience, they are unlikely to find employment soon, and most likely not with similar pay.

Dismissal or Transfer?
As we shared the news of dismissal with the campus community, we were told that the guards were not dismissed but merely transferred to other locations of SIS apparently in keeping with the provisions of IITK contract. All the 35 guards were contacted (28 of them who have been removed on 8th April and 7 gunmen who have been on the 31st of March) and this is the information we have got:
• Only six of them have been placed in other locations by SIS till 11th April 2021. All the rest have either gone back to their native places in different districts of UP and Bihar or are staying in their rented houses in Kanpur for the time being.
• Three guards were asked to report at their Patna office for some alternate employment, but when they reached the office, they were told there were no vacancies.
• Of the six guards who have accepted the alternate employment – 3 have been placed with the Metro, Kanpur two at Abha Nursing home, Kanpur, and one at Eldeco, Kanpur. A comparison of the wages offered for these ‘transfers’ is illustrative of the nature of purported ‘transfers’:
o In IIT Kanpur all the guards were put in the highly skilled category and received Rs 21,660/- for an eight-hour shift. And should they be required to do overtime, say 12-hour shift for all the days of the month, then their pay would be approx. Rs 35,000/-.
o In Abha Nursing Home it is Rs 14,000/- for a 12-hour shift.
o In Metro, Kanpur it is Rs 14,000/- for a 12 hour shift.
o In Eldeco, Kanpur it is Rs 7200/- to 8200/- for a 12-hour shift.
• Another offer made to the supervisor was in Dadanagar Industrial area where a few small units pool together to keep a contingent of security guards and a supervisor. He was offered Rs 10,500/- for a 12-hour shift and the contract was for 3 months, renewable if required. The supervisor refused to join. He is 51 years old and has been with the SIS since 1995 and has worked at the Red Fort, Qutub Minar, Delhi before joining the Institute in 2003. He said that he had immense pride to be working for this eminent institute but this disgraceful removal from services has left him broken (toot gaya hoon). He broke down in tears and said ‘main aur is company me kaam nahi karoonga, labour majoori kar ke bchchon ka pet paal loonga.’ (I will not work for this company anymore, I will work as a labour somewhere to feed my children instead).
• We tried to check several times the veracity of the transfer claims – which really upset the guards present. As one of them pointed out that “transfer in the same company should mean same pay and work condition wherever one is posted, can working for 1/5th the wages be really called transfer’’?
• And further, most of them were not even offered even these ridiculous options of alternate employment.

Why were these Guards Removed?
There is no clear-cut answer to this question. We could figure out a few possibilities:
• The official line has been that they have not been removed but transferred – but as we have tried to show it is not true.
• The guards have been told that they have been removed because of the age clause – though none of them have seen the contract hence this could not be verified. Further several of the guards above 45 are still working and at least four guards removed are less than 45 years of age. Also, apparently the guards who are still working in the Institute have been told that they need not worry about being removed as they have already removed the ones who needed to be,and there would be no further retrenchment.
• In fact, there is a buzz that new guards would be inducted in their place. Apparently, this has become the trend – removing experienced guards by new recruits; as you may recall 22 guards were removed from IIT in August/September last year in the midst of the nationwide lockdown: https://nirvaakiitk.wordpress.com/2020/09/01/arbitrary-firings-in-the-time-of-covid-the-case-of-sis-guards/. There is some indication that money is extorted from the new recruits. Our experience with other contract jobs at Hamara Manch indicate that the primary reason for replacing old workers with new has little to do with the formal requirement of the job.

Conclusion
The country is going through an unprecedented crisis and almost every aspect of our normal lives has been fundamentally disrupted. The reason why the members of the campus community have been able to sustain a fairly comfortable life over these months has been largely due to the contingent workforce serving the campus – the sanitation workers, the mess workers (as the messes started to function), the IWD workers, the horticulture workers and
above all the SIS guards. There are around 250-275 SIS guards in the campus, and they have been called for and deployed to a wide range of tasks – including handling wild animals, dogs, distributing food and rations, enforcing COVID protocols for more than a year now, besides their normal duties of providing security to the campus. And they have done an exemplary job of it for all these months – a fact that has been acknowledged by the Institute when they were awarded Rs 2000/- cash money for the same. All the guards dismissed have been awarded this amount as a token for their services. And after putting in all these years of service they feel a legitimate pride and a sense of belonging towards the Institute and its community. As several of them said that they recognised not only most of the faculty members, their families, members in their outhouses but also their vehicles. The large student community also have
been covered by these guards – their needs and requirements. They also acknowledge that the wages and work conditions in IIT Kanpur are way better than all other similar job options outside including in other public institutions. And they had assumed that this situation is because of mutual understanding and respect between them and the community which they have served for all these years.
These guards have tried to contact the relevant authorities of the Institute and the SIS office to seek reason for their arbitrary and unfair removal over phone, as they are not allowed inside the campus, but have received no answer yet. The SIS claims that these guards have been removed because of IIT’s new contract required them to do so, while the Institute claims it is the internal matter of SIS.


And thus, these guards have turned to HM to communicate their question to the community:


Why have they been removed from their jobs in such an undignified manner after
serving the campus community for decades?


But the question we all need to really ponder about is whether we can feel confident of securing the campus and our young community, if this is how we treat those who are instrumental in providing us security and countless other services round the clock?

Hamara Manch, April 12, 2021