Open letter: Privacy, dignity and autonomy of Safai Karamcharis

Rights groups and activists while expressing their concerns over human rights violations to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, alleged that they have come across multiple news reports related to Safai Karamcharis across the country being made to wear tracking devices in order to enable their surveillance by the authorities In the past two years.

After receiving signs from 18 organisations and 187 individuals, Internet Freedom Foundation, a Delhi based rights group has sent the open letter to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis.

Read the full text of letter here:

The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) is a non-profit organisation that advocates for the rights of internet users in India. The All India Lawyers Association for Justice (AILAJ) is a national organisation of legal practitioners who have come together to uphold the core values of the Constitution.

Recently, we have come across multiple reports from RanchiChandigarhNagpur, and Ghaziabad on Safai Karamcharis being forced to wear Global Positioning System (GPS) enabled tracking devices by authorities to surveil them during their work hours. We are extremely concerned about the effect these actions will have on the privacy, dignity, & autonomy of the Safai Karamcharis.

Ostensibly, the use of GPS enabled tracking devices is to record attendance of the Safai Karamcharis, monitor their work performance, and to safeguard against any falsification of attendance. However, the tracking devices would essentially enable the constant and dehumanising surveillance of Safai Karamcharis by the authorities. The surveillance also proliferates existing casteist discrimination faced by the Safai Karamcharis, who predominantly belong to Dalit and Adivasi communities as well as other oppressed sections of the society. The Safai Karamcharis have compared the usage of these tracking devices and the constant monitoring it entails to the “ancient practice of upper castes exerting control over lower caste workers”. 

The Safai Karamcharis in Chandigarh have also protested against the imposition and have expressed their concerns over the resultant physical and mental issues that will ensue as a result of wearing these devices. The Safai Karamcharis have stated that the devices, which track movements, record conversations, and film them, are being used to fine them for taking breaks and push them to work more hours. Further, women workers were worried about being surveilled by male supervisors and “(s)ome women workers have stopped going to the bathroom during work shifts as they fear the camera on their trackers might be used to record them in the toilet”.

In the landmark decision of the Supreme Court, which held privacy to be a fundamental right, J. Chandrachud stated that, “(p)rivacy, in its simplest sense, allows each human being to be left alone in a core which is inviolable”. Constant surveillance through these tracking devices violates this fundamental right to privacy. While privacy is not an absolute right, any state intrusion into privacy has to satisfy the thresholds of legality, necessity, and proportionality, laid down by the Supreme Court in the Right to Privacy decision. 

However, the use of tracking devices on Safai Karamcharis fails to satisfy these thresholds as firstly, there is no anchoring legislation or legal framework. Here, we would like to emphasise that constant surveillance of Safai Karmacharis cannot be justified simply by bringing an anchoring legislation as such surveillance is incongruent with their fundamental rights as we have showcased above. Secondly, there is no clear understanding of the necessity of this action as different deployments have indicated different objectives, however the constant monitoring of employees can never be a justified state aim as it would lead to the mass surveillance of a wide category of citizens. 

Lastly, the resultant surveillance is completely disproportionate, in terms of the harm it would cause, to any state aim that would give purpose to such surveillance, thereby failing the proportionality threshold. We would also like to reiterate that the working conditions of Safai Karamcharis continue to be dismal and inhuman. There is also the question of their job, wage and social security which has not been addressed adequately. Workers continue to suffer under the contract system. Instead of addressing these basic issues, new forms of surveillance are introduced leading to further oppressive working conditions.  

As a result of these concerns, we urge you to take the following necessary steps:

  1. Register a complaint on the basis of this representation, seek for reports from concerned authorities, investigate into this specific grievance raised by the undersigned and pass necessary instructions to concerned authorities to immediately stop the practice of tracking and surveillance of Safai Karamcharis.
  2. Study, evaluate and make a detailed report to the Union/ State Governments on the physical/mental trauma, harassment and other difficulties faced by the Safai Karamcharis on account of the imposition of tracking and surveillance and recommend that the Safai Karamcharis be adequately compensated. 

We also urge that this Hon’ble Commission immediately issue necessary communications to the Union/State governments and the Local Bodies, directing them to acknowledge that Safai Karamchairs are predominantly from the historically and socially oppressed sections, mostly Dalit and women, and hence special care has to be taken  to protect their dignity.