Indian authorities force sanitation workers to wear tracking devices

Masho Lomashvili


Often lauded as technology-forward and as an early adopter, the Indian government is using increasingly stringent and invasive monitoring and surveillance technology on some of its lowest-paid workers.

Municipal authorities across the country are requiring sanitation workers, “Safai Karamcharis,” to wear GPS-enabled tracking devices during their work hours. The watch is also equipped with a camera that takes live snapshots, and a microphone that can listen in on conversations. 

If a worker leaves a geo-fenced area or takes a break, they potentially face salary cuts and even dismissal. The workers are also responsible for maintaining the device; if it breaks down, the cost of a new device can be deducted from their pay.

So, how do authorities justify this level of surveillance? 

They claim that close monitoring will increase efficiency and attendance rates at work. Back in November, authorities in Chandigarh, the Le Corbusier-designed joint capital of the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana, sent legal notices to 82 safai karamcharis for being absent from their scheduled shift. Last month, the New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, an advocacy organization, sent an open letter to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis decrying the “constant and dehumanizing surveillance of Safai Karamcharis” and quoted the workers comparing the monitoring to the “ancient practice of upper castes exerting control over lower caste workers.”

Sanitation workers, the letter goes on to say, have expressed their concerns “over the resultant physical and mental issues that will ensue as a result of wearing these devices.” The project was introduced back in 2020. Since then, workers have organized multiple strikes and protests, all without any success. The program has only grown. The Internet Freedom Foundation cited “multiple” reports of such surveillance tactics from the cities of Ranchi, Nagpur, and Ghaziabad, in the states of Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh in the east, west and north of India respectively.

Safai karamcharis have low salaries and are often left without any protective gear. They see improved working conditions as the way to improve productivity, but municipalities appear to believe that the budget is better spent on micro-surveillance devices.

I spoke to Anushka Jain from the Internet Freedom Foundation to understand how this constant monitoring affects the morale and working lives of safai karamcharis.

She told me that because of the microphone in the device, workers are scared to talk freely with their colleagues, and “women even feel that they cannot go to the bathroom since they are afraid that the male supervisors may surveil them in the restrooms.”

Jain also explained that the Safai Karamcharis, predominantly belong to Dalit and Adivasi communities as well as other oppressed sections of the society. She notes that this type of surveillance is a result of both caste and class issues. “Historically, these groups have been under the control of  so-called upper castes and classes in India. That’s why they don’t feel that it’s problematic to dehumanize them.”


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