11 January 2017

Maternity Entitlements: A Case Of Too Little, Too Late

PIB press release today states that the Government of India intends to initiate universal maternity entitlements as per the National Food Security Act from 1 January 2017. However, the figures don’t add up. India’s birth rate is around 20 per 1,000. The current population is around 130 crore. So the number of births per year must be around 26 million.

Thus, at Rs 6,000 per birth, universal maternity entitlements (assuming, optimistically, that 10% births are already covered under the formal sector) would cost Rs 14,000 crore per year.

However, in the plan presented in the PIB press release, the central government’s contribution for the next three financial years is only Rs 7,348 crore, or Rs 2,449 crore per year. With a 60:40 ratio for centre/state contributions, this means a total of barely Rs 4,000 crore per year.

This is a fraction of what is actually required, even assuming that only the first two births are covered by maternity entitlements.”Women’s organizations and the Right to Food Campaign called upon Prime Minister Modi to make maternity entitlements truly universal instead of the extremely weak announcement of cash benefits for pregnant and breastfeeding women on 31st December 2016. In a country like India where more than 90% of women are outside of organised sector employment, state-provided maternity support becomes a crucial tool for protecting the health of women and their babies.

Kavita Srivastava of People’s Union for Civil Liberties stated, “The Prime Minister on 31 December 2016 has announced a cash entitlement of Rs. 6000 for pregnant women across the country; presenting it as an original idea and also as if it is somehow to mitigate the hardships caused by demonetisation. However this is far from the truth. This entitlement was unanimously passed by the parliament in Septemebr 2013 under the National Food Security Act, but the government had so far not provided the budgetary allocations for the same.”

“Maternity entitlements are women’s rights, and not a reward for good behaviour,” said Jashodhara Dasgupta of SAHAYOG, a women’s organization. With the passing of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in 2013, a universal maternity entitlement of at least Rs. 6000 has been a legal entitlement for all pregnant and lactating women in the country.

Dipa Sinha, of the Right to Food Campaign stated, “The government, in complete violation of the Act, has failed to provide the required budget for its implementation. What is currently on the ground in 53 districts is the 2010 pilot scheme IGMSY (Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana) that provides Rs 6000 provided pregnant women meet certain criteria .

Sudeshna Sengupta of the Alliance for Early Childhood Development mentioned that despite repeated demands by women and civil society organisations  across the country  to provide universal maternity benefits in tune with the NFSA, neither the coverage nor the budget allocated for the scheme has been enhanced, despite the Supreme Court asking for an explanation for the delay in implementation.

Sejal Dand of the Mahila Kisaan Adhikar Manch (MAKAAM) expressed the major concern regarding the inequity in the maternity entitlements available through the MBA (1961) amendments passed by the Rajya Sabha in the december 2016 session of the parliament which guarantees 26 weeks of paid leave to women in the formal sector which is only 5% of women workers in this country.  For the largest number of women workers- namely women farmers and agricultural labour, we will now  have a universal entitlement of a minimal 6000/- rupees.  

Denial of this minimalist entitlement to women who though no choice of theirs bear children under the age of  19 years of age or have multiparous pregnancies will deprive the most at risk women, largely from the   Dalit, tribal and poorest social groups from this essential support. There is an urgent need to ensure that technology is used for ensuring entitlements are made easily and timely available, rather than become one more hurdle to exclude the poorest"

The organizations expressed concern that the government already seeks to restrict coverage by imposing conditionalities on access to this entitlement; similar to the IGMSY. The Prime Minister in his speech mentioned that this is for women who have institutional deliveries and immunise their children. Dr. Vandana Prasad of the Working Group for Children Under 6 pointed out that such conditionalities are likely to further exclude the most marginalised women from much needed financial support, especially given poor availability of good quality maternity services.

The demand for universal unconditional maternity entitlements will be taken by campaigns throughout the year 2017 by the collective that issued this statement, including:Right to Food Campaign, Alliance for Early Childhood Development, National Alliance for Maternal Health and Human rights, Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch, women’s groups, trade unions and a number of other organisations working for the rights of unorganized sector women workers based in small-scale production, construction and brick-kiln workers, domestic workers, agricultural labourers and tribal women collecting forest produce, and so forth.

22 December 2016

Sit-In Against Demonetisation

The Platform Against Neo-Liberalism is organising a sit-in at BBD Bag, Kolkata, on December 23 from 1 p.m to 4 p.m. against the demonetisation policy of the Union Government.

20 September 2016

Women Tea Workers Come Calling

Fifty women from the closed tea gardens of Duncans recently marched into the corridors of powers in Kolkata on a two-day trip to ask for their rights and to highlight the plight of their co-workers, families and gardens.

As one of the world’s leading tea producer and exporter, India’s tea industry employs more than 1.2 million people. Two regions, Assam and Bengal, produce over 70% of India’s tea and are also home to the worst working conditions for the tea plantation workers in the country. In contrast to the images of tranquil, lush green tea gardens presented to the consumers, tea plantation workers are paid poverty wages and endure appalling working conditions. Women, who make up 70% of the workforce, are especially affected.

In this context, a more complex situation has arisen in North Bengal —15 tea estates owned by one of the premier tea companies, Duncans Industries Private Limited, are in a state of limbo. They are neither closed nor open in the usual sense of the terms, with frightening consequences for the workers on the estates. The Central government, with its eye on the Assembly elections, got the Tea Board to take over 7 of these estates — all in the same Assembly constituency — just days before the elections.

They gained from the decision as the constituency has a BJP MLA now. The losers have been the workers in these gardens, with neither Duncans nor the State government nor the Tea Board willing to take responsibility for their conditions. 

The situation has added one more chapter in the shameful history of hunger in the tea industry. Apart from hunger, and being deprived of their livelihood, all of a sudden for no fault of their own, these women are now battling with the lack of basic amenities like water and electricity, lack of any primary health or education facilities. They have been forced into harmful and insecure odd jobs available nearby. Coupled with high rates of migration by the youth and the men of the gardens, the women have been left alone to tackle threats from the local mafia and goons, which is on the rise as these mischievous groups have been encroaching on the tea garden property and resources. 

While many workers have come together to form groups and start plucking by themselves, harassment from all quarters, ranging from middlemen to contractors, is rapidly destroying both the minimum chances of these women to survive and the huge areas of tea bushes, as the lush green tea gardens turn into jungles and women become invisible subjects of injustice.

With neither the government nor the management actively setting out to solve their plight, the women took the resolve of coming all the way from the north of the state to meet and request early effective intervention by the authorities.

08 September 2016

How W.Bengal Subsidises Tea Garden Owners, Deprives Workers

The Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity finds newspaper reports of bonus meetings in the tea sector being deadlocked due to the huge losses of owners absurd, as it does the plan by the State Government to intervene in what has traditionally been a strictly bipartite affair. This is because this year, especially, has been one when the State Government has bent over backwards to give huge concessions to the owners, by using the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and Central Government funds. The mechanism of doing this is given below.

It as an accepted practice, which has been reiterated by repeated tri-partite wage agreements, that tea garden management provides a portion of the wages of all permanent workers in the form of subsidised foodgrain.   These foodgrain are bought by the management from the market and then provided at 0.40 p per kg to all its permanent workers and their dependents.

Before the introduction of NFSA, tea garden owners were buying foodgrain at Rs 21 per kg and providing the same to the workers at 0.40 p per kg, with a subsidy of Rs 20.60 per kg. Generally, a worker with an adult wife and 2 dependent children would receive about 32 kgs of food grains per month, amounting to a subsidy of about Rs 660 per month. 

On October 30, 2016, the State Government amended the Public Distribution Supply Control Order 2013 to allow ration shops in tea gardens to be given to self help groups or the tea garden management. In at least 200 tea gardens, the management has been designated the ration shop owner making it easy for the management to replace their own foodgrain with Government-provided foodgrain after the introduction of NFSA.

The management now purchases foodgrain from the Food Department at Rs 2 per kg and is providing these to its permanent workers at 0.40 p per kg. While each worker is losing Rs 660 per month, taking an average of 1,000 workers per tea estate, each garden owner is adding Rs 6.6 lakhs per month.

This practice started in February 2016, seven months ago. Therefore, so far, each garden has saved an average of Rs4,620 per worker or Rs 46.20 lakhs per garden. This amount covers a substantial amount of the bonus demand of the workers.

The State Government is in full support of these practises. Effectively,the NFSA is now being used to provide a subsidy to the management with no benefits accruing to permanent workers and their dependents.

This action by the State Government has been taken unilaterally in consultation with the associations of employers, the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations and its member associations. Workers or their representative unions did not at any point agree to this arrangement. Yet now, after having taken an action that supported the owners unilaterally at the expense of the workers, the State Government wants to intervene in bonus negotiations . Whether this is to increase its sphere of influence or to benefit the workers is debateable. We hope however, that good sense will prevail and the State Government will intervene on behalf of the workers.

02 August 2016

Court Acts On Tea Workers' Plight

After a wait of six months, the Kolkata High Court finally decided to take action on a petition filed by Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity on the plight of tea workers. A division bench of the Kolkata High Court headed by the Chief Justice on 29th July 2016 ordered the State Government, the Tea Board and the Central Government to submit action taken reports by August 12, 2016, clearly stating what they had done to relieve the misery of tea workers.

The Chief Justice expressed extreme displeasure on hunger deaths and the continuing distress of tea plantation workers, especially the plight of workers in the Duncans gardens. Incidentally, Duncans Industries Limited, one of the largest and seemingly most prosperous plantation owners in West Bengal, had abandoned 16 gardens in the Doars and Darjeeling areas in early 2015. The Central Government took over 7 of these gardens through a special notification on January 29, 2016. The Tea Board was subsequently to run these gardens, but it has taken practically no steps to re-open the gardens or to relieve the distress of the workers. The Chief Justice questioned the Tea Board, the Duncans management and the State and Central Government about the predicament of the workers, only to be informed that none of these authorities were willing to say that they were responsible for the workers.

PBKMS had filed a writ petition (WP-4225W/2016) in February 2016 before the High Court highlighting the problems of tea garden workers, arising from the present crisis in the industry as well as long term issues. Mr Bikash Bhattacharya, senior advocate, intervened on behalf of PBKMS.

The petition focused on the non-compliance by employers, State and Central Governments of the provisions of the Tea Act, Plantation Labour Act, Employees Provident Fund Act and Minimum Wages Act. It asked the court to ensure that conditions are created to ensure each tea worker gets a food intake of at least 2400 calories per day. It also asked for immediate relief for tea garden population in the form of Antodaya Anna Yojana, MGNREGA work and wages, health facilities, drinking water and electricity. Respondents were State and Central Governments, the Tea Board and employers such as Duncans India Limited.

In her first verbal order on March 12, 2016 , the Chief Justice had asked PBKMS to seek the intervention of the State Legal Services Authority through Lok Adalats to mitigate the problems of tea workers. The Chief Justice had given a time of two weeks for the petitioner to seek and receive help from the Lok Adalat process. If such relief is not received, the case was to be heard once again by the division bench at the end of the month.

PBKMS had immediately tried to get the Lok Adalat process functioning, submitting 53 complaints from over 500 complainants from 7 gardens in April 2016. However, the District Legal Services Authority is still to respond.

PBKMS’s petition is being heard together with another petition filed by the Darjeeling District Legal Aid Forum.

Please also look at the Bangla links below:

29 June 2016

'A Life Without Dignity – The Price Of Your Cup Of Tea'

As one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of tea, India’s tea industry employs more than 1,2 million people. Two regions, Assam and West Bengal, together produce over 70% of India’s tea and are also home to the worst working conditions for tea plantation workers in the country. In sharp contrast to the images of tranquil, lush, green tea gardens, with which consumers are presented, tea plantation workers are paid poverty wages and endure appalling working conditions. Women, who make up 70% of the workforce, are especially affected. This report is the outcome of a fact-finding mission conducted in Assam and West Bengal on behalf of the Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition(GNRTFN). It investigates and analyses allegations of serious abuses of human rights on India’s tea plantations, in particular how poor working conditions undermine the human right to food and nutrition (RTFN) and related rights. 

The full report can be accessed at the Scribid site:

20 June 2016

What To 'Expect' From The New West Bengal Government


A couple of days after the election, I was asked me to write about what I “expect” from this second term TMC government. Expectations can be both positive and negative. So, what should one write? After puzzling over this for a couple of hours, I have decided to write both — about what we hope for and what we dread from past experience. So here it goes ….

This new Government should, first of all, concentrate on creation of honest ways of earning a living. So far, the only notable job created by them in their last term was through the recruitment of 1.3 lakh young men and women as civic police. As the High Court has rightly observed, the entire process of recruitment smacked of adhocism, nepotism and corruption. MLAs and police officials are rumoured to have made packets from bribes paid by these desperate young men and women. The employment they received was ill paid, irregular and risky, and even worse, morally corrupting. These young people were made to do all the dirty work by regular police – bully innocent people into paying a bribe, demand protection money from illicit liquor dens, stand at cross roads with the traffic police to collect a couple of rupees from each lorry etcetera.

The other job available for young people was to enter the “money market” – to glibly convince people with small savings and big greed to double or triple their money in dubious schemes of chit funds. Many of these young people are now being hounded by those who have lost all their money. Some have been forced into hiding, some have committed suicide, others live in dread of the depositors — not a very good way to build the character of our youth, you will agree.

Then, of course, there was the option of joining a syndicate and extorting money from people — tolabazi — by flexing your political muscle. In Birpara, in North Benga,l they even have a special name for this illegal act, making it almost respectable – they call it GT or Goonda Tax!

If you were too decent or frightened to do all this, there was the last option of working as a migrant worker in Kerala or Tamil Nadu, leaving home and hearth, and using one’s energies to develop another part of our country instead of one’s own neighbourhood.

The TMC, in its last term, excelled in providing doles to people. The closer the election came, the larger became these freebies. The workers of Jessop have been protesting for 5-6 years, wanting re-opening of their factory and steps to stop Ruia, the owner, from stripping their factory. Just a couple of days before the Model Code of Conduct came into force, the State Government declared that it would give Rs 10,000 per month to every worker. No mention has been made of the future of the factory or of protecting its property from stealing and stripping by the owner. Bigger sops — such as shoes and cycles for all school going children (never mind if some of them already had shoes or cycles!) — were also given. Compensation for crop loss due to rain and Cyclone Aila (which took place in 2010) was also distributed just before the elections. The State Government began providing rice and wheat at Rs 2 a kg under the National Food Security Act in February 2016. The implementation of an Act that was passed in 2013 was delayed till just before the election for no compelling reason.

That this strategy was a vote getter is clear from the election results. However, let us now see the new Government spend some money on schemes which are long term and which can have a telling impact on people’s lives and development.

What we need most of all is decent employment. We do not need the Tatas and their like to invest in large-scale industry, with a repeat of Singur, with coercive displacement and minimum job creation. We need investment in agriculture-based industry, in small and medium-scale industry, in tea, in jute, in engineering, where smaller investments create more jobs and where the produce of our own state is well utilised.

We invest lakhs of our tax money in educating young people in Government schools and universities. And then we leave them to a callous job market, with frustration as their future. On the other hand, we need paramedics, vets, paralegal workers, teachers, agricultural expertise etcetera for village people. When 100 days of work has been guaranteed for those willing to do manual labour, let the State Government now guarantee work such as teaching, medical work, veterinary work, agriculture etcetera at minimum wages for our young, educated youth. Let them provide much needed services in rural areas. Why should policing, cheating and extortion be the only means for these bright young people to earn a living?

Another thing that the TMC has excelled in is in turning democracy on its head. The Panchayat Act has provisions for a Gram Sansad meeting with all voters at the booth level that legally gives them the powers twice a year to plan for their village’s development and to check on the Panchayat’s accounts. During the Left Front’s rule, many of these meetings became a farce with false signatures and adjourned meetings. During the TMC’s regime, they have not only remained a farce, they have become a rarity. This upside-down democracy has been accompanied by violence and the use of false cases to intimidate any opposition — a potent mix that was invented by the Left Front and has been perfected by the TMC.

The TMC should atone for its past sins by passing amendments to the Panchayat Act, making these Gram Sansad meetings mandatory monthly affairs without which funds for development will not be passed onto the elected Panchayat. It should also amend the law to make the right to recall a reality — let the voters have the right to call back their representative if he or she does not function properly. Let the voters be true participants in the development of their villages, instead of just pawns whose votes are manipulated once in five years through freebies and fear.

Last but not least, there remain half-finished works from the previous term — a committee for minimum wages for tea workers was formed in 2015. It still has to declare the legal, minimum wage for tea workers. Domestic workers are now a part of the employment for which the State Government must declare a legal minimum wage, but no such wage has been declared. The National Food Security Act (NFSA) remains half done – people in Purulia and temporary or bigha workers living in tea gardens have still not got ration cards. The management of tea gardens is quietly passing off Government-given rations under the NFSA as rations given by the management, and is reducing the “food grains component” of the meagre wages they pay to workers.

Theft of wages under NREGA is reaching gigantic proportions — job card holders are told by the powers–that-be (the political goons in their village) that Rs 5,000 has been deposited in their bank account, without their doing any work at all. The job card holder is asked to withdraw the total amount, keep Rs 500 for himself and give the rest to his political God. The job card holder is happy, as are the political touts in his village. The height of decentralisation of corruption, don’t you think? It is the new Government’s job to stop such corruption.

So, what we want the Government to do has been listed above. But what do we actually expect? Unless some miracle happens, we expect a continuation of extortion by ruling party members at the grass roots, with the ‘let’s get rich quick’ being the main mantra. We expect a continuation of rule through a mix of doles, violence, false cases and fear. We expect apathy and fear amongst common people, with their role in society and politics being limited to voting once in five years and keeping their mouths shut.

Though I am not a great believer in prayer, perhaps we should all pray for a miracle of good governance in the second term of this Government. Only a miracle can change things.

A Bengali version of the article was published at Ei Samay.