Smart watches track Indian sanitation workers

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Smart watches track Indian sanitation workers

Asma Hafiz writes about the surveillance forced on often lower caste sanitation workers in many Indian cities.


A sanitation worker with a smart watch used to track them. The Municipal Corporation in Chandigarh pays 22,044 USD per month to rent the watches. ASMA HAFIZ

On a cold November morning, in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, a group of sanitation workers sit close together near a fire to keep warm. Every sanitation worker has a GPS enabled smartwatch on their wrists.

More workers are arriving to start their work for the day. Paramjit is a 46-year-old sanitation worker from Chandigarh. She only wants us to use her first name. She takes her watch out of her pocket and she is worried as she tells her supervisor that it stopped working yesterday evening. If the watch doesn’t work, they will mark her absent. That means they won’t pay her for the day. The other workers are worried, too. They say that this project is affecting their mental health.

Paramjit is one of the thousands of sanitation workers in several cities of India – including Indore, Panchkula, Nagpur, and Navi Mumbai. The watches track them while they do their different jobs including sweeping streets, cleaning toilets, and looking after septic tanks.

The smartwatches they wear during work hours have a sim card, a GPS tracker, a camera for sending pictures to show they are working, and a microphone. In the cities, the workers appear as green dots on a screen at the municipal corporation’s HQ.

The workers, especially women, have complained about privacy. They say the monitoring makes their lives miserable. They don’t go to washrooms during work hours because they are worried supervisors will watch them through the camera.

‘We do not know who is watching us. We have to take the watches home, too. How do we know if they are watching us at home?’ says Paramjit. ‘There is no human dignity for us.’ The municipal corporation in Chandigarh, a city in northern India, pays $265,000 a year to rent the smartwatches from IMTAC India Pvt Ltd, an IT company. The workers ask if the corporation can spend so much money on surveillance, why didn’t they give them basic safety equipment during the coronavirus pandemic?


A sanitation worker shows her smart watch in Chandigarh. Women sometimes don’t go to washrooms because they are worried supervisors are watching them. ASMA HAFIZ

The tracking is part of two popular campaigns started with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. One is the Clean India Mission campaign, started in 2014. Many cities hold a yearly cleanliness survey. The ‘cleanest’ city receives an award. Local authorities can earn extra points by using technology like GPS trackers to monitor workers.

In 2015, Prime Minister Modi’s government also started the Digital India campaign for a more digitally powerful society. This is how they introduced the tracking.

In 2017, the Supreme Court of India recognized privacy as a fundamental right. Mehmood Pracha is an advocate. He says that giving tracking devices to sanitation workers is a serious violation of this right. ‘It is everybody’s right to live without surveillance including by the government,’ he told New Internationalist. He also said that for the Dalit community, often involved in sanitation work, the situation ‘is going from bad to worse’.

It is everybody’s right to live without surveillance

‘Digital India is a way of watching workers and limiting their liberties and not a way of improving government,’ Pracha says. Sanitation workers say they lose pay if they go away from a geo-fenced area or if the smartwatches run out of battery. Mostly the lower-caste Dalit communities are also worried about how this data is stored or used. India’s negative caste system limits the job prospects of Dalit people. They are associated with jobs like cleaning and the so-called upper castes do not respect them.

There are technical problems, too. In Chandigarh, Gurpreet Singh is a sanitary inspector. His job is to mark the attendance of the sanitation workers every morning.

He takes out his phone to access the IMTAC app. The app shows how many workers are online, offline, and late for work. It has a database of every worker in that area. But Singh says that they find a lot of problems with the watches. Sometimes when the workers report for work, the app shows them out of area or offline. Then the workers are marked absent and lose a day’s pay. Many workers protested that the smartwatches do not track overtime and they lose the pay. ‘The duty hours are from 7 in the morning till 5 in the evening with a two-hour break’ Singh says. ‘If a worker does overtime outside their usual work hours, the smart watches do not track it and they will lose their pay for that.’


A sanitation worker in Chandigarh. Most workers come from the lower-caste Dalit communities and worry about the data and how secure it is. ASMA HAFIZ

Krishan Kumar Chadha was the president of the Chandigarh Sanitation Workers’ Union. He organized many protests against the Municipal Corporation for the wearing of GPS watches.

‘Can these watches clean the city for you? It is the workers that clean all day,’ he says. ‘These workers already come from a disadvantaged background and the introduction of surveillance makes their lives worse.’

The municipality says supervisors also have to wear the watches and that the workers are complaining less. Anindita Mishra is Chandigarh’s municipal commissioner. She says, ‘We are not really tracking personal documents or anything like that. We only track the location and the hours.’

Workers say they have to look after the watches and must pay for repairs or loss. Mishra says this is not true.

Now we are back around the fire with the sanitation workers in Chandigarh. Paramjit’s watch does not turn on, and her supervisor tells her to hand it in for repair. She is worried she will lose pay until she gets her watch back. She shows me her wrist, and the marks from the watch on it. ‘These marks show the unjust treatment of sanitation workers,’ she says. ‘The system has no respect for our rights.’


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)