An IIT-Bombay Gardener’s Suicide Reveals The Spread Of Labour Practices Designed To Deny Indian Workers Their Rights

21 May 2024 11 min read  Share

Retired by IIT-Bombay in 2019, Raman Garase ended his life on 2 May, drawing attention to a landmark legal struggle by contract workers at the premier institute to get gratuity payments. His death is a reflection of a growing informalisation of labour across India, including in the public sector—where informal labour has risen 23 percentage points over a decade to 2023—keeps contract labourers on the margins of employment, making them serve for years at low wages, curtailing their legally mandated employment and post-retirement benefits.

Raman Garase’s son Sunil holds up a photograph of his father on his phone. Garase took his life on 2 May 2024. In the background of the photo is the window from which Garase hanged himself/ AAREFA JOHARI

Mumbai: In the early hours of 2 May 2024, while his family slept, 65-year-old Raman Garase tied a rope around his neck and hung himself from the grill outside his window. 

His suicide, right after international labour day, put the spotlight on the sprawling campus of the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B), just a few hundred metres from Garase’s home in Powai, in suburban Mumbai.

Garase had spent 39 years as a gardener on that campus, tending to its trees, hedges and lawns, only to be turned away by the institute when he asked for his gratuity payment upon retiring in December 2019. IIT-B said Garase was not eligible for payment of gratuity as he was not an employee—he had a contractual agreement with a labour contractor. 

Garase spent the next four years fighting a legal battle against IIT-B, demanding a gratuity of Rs 428,000 that he said he should have received within a month of retiring.

Two other retired labourers, Dadarao Ingale and Tanaji Lad, were party to the case. 

The three men were the first contract workers to initiate a legal battle to demand their right to gratuity from any of the IITs across India. They won twice at the labour court—first when their three individual pleas were accepted in January 2022 and again in April 2024 when the court ruled in their favour while hearing IIT-B’s appeal against the original order. 

Allowing Garase’s application for payment of gratuity, the court directed IIT-B to pay him Rs 428,805, either directly or through a contractor. 

When the appellate authority confirmed the order, IIT-B appealed in the Bombay High Court.

Garase’s legal battle with IIT-B is emblematic of a wider problem impacting tens of thousands while employers, including in the formal sector, pare down the legally mandated rights of workers by using strategies that skirt these regulations.

Private and public sector employers, including IIT-B, now often keep long-serving workers on short-term contracts, sometimes cyclically replacing labour contractors, to deny employment benefits or post-retirement benefits.  

Data compiled by the union finance ministry's department of public enterprises shows that informalisation of labour in previously formal jobs in the Indian public sector has grown since the 1990s. In 2012-13, contract-based workers formed 16.5% of the total workforce in Indian public sector undertakings (PSUs). That number rose to 35% in 2020-21 and 39.4% in 2022-23.

For workers, this means companies outsource a variety of services such as housekeeping and maintenance to external agencies or contractors who supply and pay labourers. 

Garase died without ever seeing the money he fought for. His death drew attention to a case that will impact not just 1,800 contract-based workers in IIT-B, but also thousands of others across the 23 branches of India’s premier technology institute. 

In the weeks after IIT-B’s appeal in the HC, a distraught Garase had often lamented to Ingale, “Will I get this money only after I am dead?” It was a sign that neither Ingale nor Garase’s family recognised.

IIT-B’s director Shireesh Kedare was not available on the phone and did not respond to questions that Article 14 sent by email. Public relations officer Falguni Banerjee Naha acknowledged that questions were received, but could not confirm if the institute would respond.   

Rs 733 As Daily Wages After 39 Years 

By definition, gratuity is a sum paid to an employee at the end of their service, as a free welfare measure designed to offer financial security. As per the Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972, employees are eligible for gratuity after completing five years of service in an organisation, and the amount paid is calculated as 15 days’ wages for every year that the employee has worked.

For Garase, who earned a meagre daily wage of Rs 733 after 39 years of service, a modest gratuity of Rs 4.28 lakh would have been a substantial security for his life after retirement. All through his work life, he had been available for IIT-B whenever they needed him. 

“Even if they called him in the middle of the night in the rains, to pick up a tree branch that had fallen on the road, he would go,” said Garase’s 42-year-old son Sunil. “He liked working for the campus.”

In the last 20 years, Garase had suffered a foot fracture that left him with a limp, and two strokes that had stiffened his right arm and leg. The second stroke, in 2021, had partially paralysed him. Sunil took care of his medical bills, but Garase was still distressed about his finances.

“My father was always very independent, so when his health deteriorated, he started stressing about how we would manage with just my income,” said Sunil, who works as a marketing professional in a private company and is now the sole breadwinner for his four-member family. 

“He thought if he asked for gratuity, he would not be a burden to me,” said Sunil. He said his father spent three months after his retirement trying to ask IIT to pay it.

“They just told him to go away,” he said.

‘A Devious Way To Suppress Wages’ 

The IIT-B’s denial of gratuity is not an isolated instance of discrimination against contract-based workers. 

The problem, according to legal experts, is that the contractualisation in these cases is merely a ruse to not pay the benefits that are due to permanent employees.

“The contracts are often a sham,” said Sudha Bharadwaj, a veteran lawyer and trade unionist who is on Garase’s legal team for the gratuity case. “All the control stays with the public sector institution, and the contractor is just a mode for making payments.” 

It is the public institution’s management that assigns work and supervises the contract-based workers. The workers often remain in these jobs for years, even as the contractors ostensibly hiring them are replaced every one or two years. 

Yet, on account of being temporary workers on paper, contract workers are paid lower wages than the institution’s permanent employees who do the same work. An experienced contract-based worker often earns minimum wages or less; a permanent employee gets a proper salary as well as a pension, provident fund, bonus and other welfare benefits. “This system of contractualisation is essentially a devious way to suppress wages,” said Bharadwaj.

Garase, for instance, was first hired by IIT-B in 1981 as a casual, daily-wage worker earning barely Rs 700 a month. Over time, IIT-B moved him to the payrolls of labour contractors who would be replaced every few years. 

Yet, Garase never signed an official contract with his new employers, though his monthly pay slips received over the years reflected the names of different contractors for the IIT-B. 

None of these changes in his employment made any difference to his daily work, which continued uninterrupted under IIT-B’s management.

A contract worker in IIT-B’s maintenance department, who did not wish to be named, said the institute prefers not to bring in new workers every time a new labour contractor is taken on board in order to avoid having to train fresh batches of workers every few years . 

“It means they need us, but they don’t want to pay us better,” said the contract worker.

When Garase retired in 2019, his salary was around Rs 19,000 a month, depending on the days he clocked in. 

“There are some permanent workers in the gardening department at IIT-B, and they earn around Rs 40,000 to Rs 45,000 a month,” said a member of one of the labour unions at IIT-B, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. There were more permanent workers 30-40 years ago, he said. “Now, 70% of the labourers on campus are contract workers.”

Unsurprisingly, he added, the majority of these workers are also Dalit.

They Were Eligible For Permanent Employment 

Across public sector undertakings, workers and unions have in recent years successfully fought back against contractualisation, demanded minimum wages, benefits, pay parity with permanent workers and even regularisation of their jobs.

In 2017, for instance, a group of 2,700 contract-based sanitation workers in Mumbai won a landmark case against the city’s municipal corporation, with the Supreme Court ordering the corporation to grant all the workers permanent jobs.

In this case, the court held that the municipal corporation had violated several labour laws. The Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act, 1970, for instance, prohibits the employment of contract-based workers for any work that is “perennial” in nature—work that is required on a regular basis, such as sweeping a city’s streets. 

The Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, meanwhile, states that a contract worker is entitled to permanent employment after 240 days of working in a particular establishment. According to the sanitation workers, Mumbai’s municipal corporation would skirt this clause of the law by changing their contractors every six or seven months.

Despite these laws, IIT-B chose an indirect, contractual system to hire Garase, Dadarao Ingale and Tanaji Lad. The three worked continuously at IIT-B for 39, 25 and 20 years respectively, and their jobs—gardening for Garase, infrastructural maintenance for Ingale and Lad— were perennial in nature. 

Their contractors would change every year, but the men worked well over the 240-day threshold with each new contractor. By law, they would have been eligible for permanent employment.  

The Choice To Fight For Gratuity

During their years of employment at IIT-B, Garase, Ingale and Lad had never demanded permanent employment. 

According to an IIT-B faculty member, their decision to wage a post-retirement legal battle against the institute reflects an ongoing trend in working class movements across India. “Contract-based workers have been organising themselves more and more in recent years, and they are getting more educated about their rights,” said the faculty member, who wished to remain anonymous. He said many workers’ unions had already won legal fights for minimum wages and benefits such as provident fund and bonuses. “Now many of them have taken up the struggle for gratuity.”  

A recent example of such a legal struggle in the public sector is that of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC). 

In August 2023, the Bombay HC ordered ONGC to pay gratuity to 57 retired contract-based workers who had worked for the ‘maharatna’ public sector undertaking for 15 to 25 years. The ‘navratna’ or ‘maharatna’ status is accorded to select central public sector undertakings (PSUs), with maharatna PSUs enjoying greater autonomy in financial and operational decision-making. 

Garase, Ingale and Lad learnt about gratuity through various workers’ unions at IIT. “I have seen permanent workers on the campus get big sums after retirement, so I too wanted to get my hisaab [dues],” said Ingale, who was expecting a gratuity payment of Rs 2.35 lakh.

When the three workers were turned down, they received support from a union called the Asangathit Kantrati Kamgar Sanghatana (unorganised contract workers’ union) and a student group called the Ambedkar-Periyar-Phule Study Circle

Dadarao Ingale is one of three contract workers retired from IIT  who had petitioned the labour court ti grant them retirement benefits. “I have seen permanent workers on the campus get big sums after retirement,” said Ingale/ AAREFA JOHARI 

They petitioned the labour court in central Mumbai in September 2020, and won their case in January 2022. IIT-B then filed an appeal before the labour court’s appellate authority, which ruled in favour of the workers in April 2024.

Both times, IIT-B argued that it was not liable to pay gratuity because it had no employer-employee relationship with the workers. In both orders, the labour court dismissed IIT-B’s arguments. 

The Payment of Gratuity Act defines an “employer” as the one with “ultimate control over the affairs of the establishment”, and an “employee” as “any person”, apart from an apprentice, employed for wages in an establishment.

In this case, the court said, IIT-B did exercise complete control over its contract workers. It chose to retain them even as it kept changing the contractors, and it retired the workers when they reached the age of 60 years, as per the IIT’s own rules, even though the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act has no specified retirement age for workers. 

The contractors, meanwhile, were merely “intermediaries for making the payment of wages”, according to the labour court’s 2022 ruling.

When contacted, the contractor who paid the salaries of Garase, Ingale and Lad echoed the court’s reasoning. “IIT recruits the workers and sends them to us, and IIT is the one that wants to keep the same workers when the contractor changes,” said Latif Sheikh, owner of the contracting agency Moosa Services. Sheikh said he has been requesting IIT-Bombay for three or four years to pay gratuity to this category of workers. 

“... I think it will,” Sheikh said. “There are many companies that do give gratuity to contract workers.” 

For IIT, granting gratuity to Garase, Ingale and Lad could mean opening the doors to a flood of other demands for gratuity from retired workers and future generations of contract workers across IIT campuses in India.

Ingale is aware of this, and is now mentally preparing himself for a long legal battle that he hopes will benefit other contract workers at IIT. He said his son has been warning him not to be anxious about the gratuity, particularly after Garase’s suicide. 

“I am not going to stress about it now,” said Ingale. “But we have to finish what we started.”

(Aarefa Johari is an award-winning independent journalist writing on gender, labour, human rights, culture and more.) 

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