A multi-crore scam comes to light as garbage mafia is found siphoning off money by way of ‘ghost pourakarmikas’.
“I can see piles of garbage. There are many remedies to solve the problem, but this garbage mafia will not allow it. I must find a way to scuttle them. My head hangs in shame when I see garbage piled up on every street corner.” These were the words of Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy at an interaction with the media at Press Club in Bengaluru on 19 June. Sources close to the Chief Minister told this correspondent that even the CM himself might find it hard to combat this mafia, which comprises politicians, officials and contractors.
One common question that used to be asked a few years ago was whether money could actually be made out of garbage. And, also whether profiteers felt it was too ‘unholy’ an idea. But then, those are just questions. The devil, however, is in the detail. The city’s corporators, officials and politicians are now convinced that there is money in garbage and that it is a ‘workable business’.
A senior Burhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) official, on condition of anonymity, said that the municipal body had recently introduced biometric identification for pourakarmikas (sanitation workers), using which the BBMP could save Rs 200 crore on account of efficient management of manpower. There were supposed to be 20,000 such pourakarmikas, but by the time the biomentric system was in place, the numbers began to indicate as many as 30,000. So, this effectively meant that the mafia had created 10,000 ‘ghost pourakarmikas’ and was siphoning off the money at the rate of Rs 17,000 per pourakarmika per month. The math results in a neat swindle of Rs 170,000,000 per month.
“We too noticed this grave lacuna after an investigation. The contractors were paying not more than Rs 6,000 – Rs 7,000 per pourakarmika against a mandatory Rs 17,000 per month. After the biometrics came into force, the contractors, with the connivance of corporators and officials, forcibly tried to disband the system. We at the Solid Waste Management Round Table (SWMRT) went to court to get a direction to the BBMP to sustain the biometric system,” N S Ramakanth of the SWMRT told Swarajya. “We must thank BBMP commissioner Manjunath Prasad for his support on this issue”, Ramakanth said.
“In another draconian measure, many contractors over across south and north Bengaluru, have impounded the ATM cards issued to the workers by banks, after the direct remittance of salaries came into force. Though the area engineers know about the matter, they are in no way keen on taking action due to political pressure. After the biometric system came in to force, many areas do not have labour contractors, and residual forces of the contractor system still remain in the form of the garbage clearance machinery. The BBMP officials, MLAs and corporators are fully aware about the poaching of ATM cards, but they turn a blind eye to the matter, leading to the suspicion that they are also a part of the scam,” S Balan, a senior advocate who is also in the various working groups on civic awareness programmes, told Swarajya.
All these factors together affect garbage collection and disposal. When technology is given a push, these forces work overtime to ensure garbage is not lifted from homes, and achieve this aim by browbeating pourakarmikas into inaction.
“Perhaps, this is the ‘mafia’ that Kumaraswamy was referring to,” said Shubalatha, a civic activist of Rajajinagar Park ward (near Navrang Theatre).
It is not just the poor pourakarmika that the mafia is trying to manipulate, but the garbage collection machinery as well. Each compactor truck is being paid Rs 1.5 lakh per month and a three-wheeler tipper Rs 62,000 per month. Every month, the nexus benched 100 compactors in a staggering pattern. “Even on this, we had to get a court direction to fit Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags on all compactors, thereby putting an end to this practice. Even the tipper three-wheelers met the same fate at the hands of this mafia, for which we again had to get a direction from the court to fit geo-fencing equipment on all the tippers,” said Ramakanth.
Hilda Daniel of Arakere Layout on Bannerghatta Road says no day passes without seeing mounds of garbage rotting on the roadside on any given day. “I travel to and from Bannerghatta to Whitefield every day, which is the longest route in the city. All the way, I find not less than 10 places where garbage is heaped by the roadside,” she says.
Basappa, a labourer working in Rajarajeshwari Nagar sector, gets only Rs 7,000 per month and every weekly off, he loses Rs 300. “The work is very hard as I have to start at 3 am. My shift goes on till 9 am. I know I must get not less than Rs 12,800 per month, but the contractor gives me only Rs 7,000. When I asked for the remainder, he rebuked me and even assaulted me in front of my wife. But in the last two months after the Narendra Modi government arranged for direct transfer of salaries, I am getting my full salary,” he adds.
Civic activists of the city have pressed the BBMP chiefs, both political and administrative, to form ward committees, but there was stiff political resistance to the idea. “For this also, we had to bring a court order under the 74th amendment, but later we found out that relatives of the corporators, MLAs and officials had been made members so that they could cover their misdeeds. Now, nobody trusts even the ward committees,” Sridhar of Basavanagudi ward says.
The Pourakarmika Welfare Association is a strong umbrella, but the nexus of politicians, officials and contractors has divided them too. The one affiliated with the communist parties are also a fractured bunch. Ramappa, one of the leaders of the association, told Swarajya, “I do not trust politicians. I am not even sure if the present government wants to bring in any reforms in the system, given their track record on corruption.” Does CM Kumaraswamy have the strength to take on the political class of which he himself is a member?”
One of the NGOs working independently on solid waste management regularly courts the wrath of the area corporator who wanted to usurp their role and turn it into a business model for his family. When the pourakarmikas wanted to lodge a complaint with the police, alleging harassment, their complaint was not registered. “There are many such instances where the nexus has stifled the voice of the NGOs and pourakarmika associations,” Ramakanth says.
Political backing and protection has emboldened contractors, who have started taking punitive measures against the residents themselves, circumventing the authority of the BBMP and its commissioner who has magisterial powers, say the NGOs.
Balan is distraught about the entire cartelising of the city’s garbage treatment. “I have no fear when saying that this is a highly cartelised system we have in Bengaluru. Contractors are no less than goons themselves and have an army of workers (not pourakarmikas) under their wings who take control of pourakarmikas of BBMP and treat them like servants. Most of the contractors are from Nellore and Chittoor districts of Andhra Pradesh, and their henchmen are also from those districts. They have no love for Bengaluru, nor are they concerned about the problems of the city. I have received complaints that the contractors use abusive language against the residents and throw the garbage back into their houses. It was great of Kumaraswamy to come out with a bold statement – calling them a garbage mafia, but how he will distinguish himself by taking action against rowdy contractors remains to be seen,” Balan told Swarajya.