23 July 2014

Civic Police Face Harassment, Badu Collective Raided

A series of raids, arrests, dismissals and lathi-charges have greeted the leaders and supporters of the West Bengal Civic Police Association after their successful demonstration on July 10, 2014.

After the large gathering of about 35,000 civic police on July 10, 2014, the State Government, sensing the unrest amongst these young men and women came out with a notification within four days (Government Order No. 1940-PL/PB/3P-31/12 dated 14.7.2014) . The notification sanctioned 120 days of work at Rs.141.82 for the “Civic Police Volunteer Force” during July 2014 to December 2014. This is a victory for the movement initiated by the West Bengal Civic Police Association.

On the other hand, the State Government has also initiated repressive measures against the Association. On July 16, 2014, the President of the Association Sanjay Poria was missing for about six hours. No one knew of his whereabouts and his mobile phone was also unreachable. He was last known to have gone to the Keshpur police station where the Officer in Charge (OC) of the Police Station (PS) had called him. Finally, he was traced to the office of the Superintendent of Police, Paschim Midnapore, where he was interrogated repeatedly till about 12.30 midnight by the S.P. and a number of other senior officers.

On the same day, at Khatra police station in Bankura district, the OC threatened not to hire the leadership of the Association. This led to an altercation with all the young men who were on the rolls there, with the police ultimately resorting to a lathi-charge. Police cases were instituted against two of the leaders who had to take bail the next day.

Similar reports of OCs saying that they had been ordered to not hire the leadership of the Association were received from police stations in Bankura, Paschim Midnapore, Purba Midnapore, Jalpaiguri, Burdwan, Coochbehar, Purulia and other districts.  Verbally the young men were told that they were being punished for organising their fellow workers and for leading the movement and the demonstration on the July 10. They were told that video recordings had been made of their participation in the demonstration on that day and that the police’s Intelligence Branch had collected the names of the leaders. For example , in Sankrail PS of Paschim Midnapore, four youth were asked to not come back to work. In Daspur in the same district on the other hand all the 200 youth protested that they would not work if their leader was not hired, leading to the OC backing down.

The issue was taken to its extreme in Malda district where, on July 19, we heard that the Superintendent of the district was reported to have declared that all 4,800 civic police in the district would be replaced with fresh recruits. This was despite the clear declaration in the Government Order that the old 1,30,000 civic police would be taken for work and no new names would be entertained. This led to massive protests in many police stations. In Harishchandrapur Police Station protesting civic police were lathi-charged and then 12 of them were detained till midnight. They were finally let off without any criminal charges, after intervention by the local Member of Parliament.

In a parallel bizarre developments, on July 17, 2014, the Badu Collective, a commune where 12 families live together, a premises used by many activists for overnight stay and to hold informal meetings, was invaded first by the Intelligence Branch and then by a massive police force . The police force led by the Subdivisional Police Officer came in with teargas shells and prison vans to break up a meeting of the civic police that they had heard was to take place on the premises. The peaceful community, which has children and old people, was taken by surprise as they had no information of such a meeting. The police kept them surrounded the whole day, and in a clearly illegal invasion, trespassed on their land and houses without any rhyme or reason and without any warrants.

Equally bizarre was a newspaper report by a leading Bengali daily that claimed that the Chief Minister had allocated Rs.65 lakhs for an intelligence operation to find out who was “behind” the Civic Police Association. As the West Bengal Civic Police Association and its supporters have all been functioning openly – asking for and receiving police permission to hold a mass meeting, holding press conferences, meeting the Labour Minister, corresponding with the Government, bringing out and circulating widely reports of activities etc., the attempt at mystifying “who is behind this association” can only be ill-intentioned.

It should be noted that freedom of association is a constitutional right of all Indian citizens and the formation of an association, as well as peaceful protest, are well accepted methods for workers to focus public and employer attention on their working conditions. Why then is the Government behaving schizophrenically? It gives permission for the Association to hold a public meeting in Kolkata, its Labour Minister meets their delegation; at the same time, it sacks the leadership of the association and launches an intelligence operation to find out who is “behind” the Association. We would urge the Government to refrain from such undemocratic action and to instead concentrate its scarce resources and energy on improving the working conditions of the civic police who receive a paltry salary of just Rs.141.82 today, without any security or legal safeguards in the risky work they do.  

17 July 2014

Civic Police Prepare For Historic Battle

July 10, 2014, saw a historic gathering at Rani Rashmoni Road at Kolkata. Over 35,000-40,000 youth gathered there – all members of a new rural working class, all facing unemployment after the Government had promised jobs, all very angry, but determined to fight for their rights.

These 40,000 youth were all part of a newly formed West Bengal Civic Police Association. In 2013 130,000 men and women between the age of 18 and 28 years were recruited by the West Bengal government as “civic police volunteers”. There were many unwritten promises made to them - they would be given a uniform and a torch and a lathi, their wages would be gradually increased to be at par with other Government employees, they would be made permanent police personnel etc. Some of these young people claim to have paid bribes amounting to Rs. 70-80,000 to local political dadas to get this job.

The job ultimately involved 120 days of work during a period of six months and a daily payment of Rs.141.82 (much below the Government’s lowest rate of minimum wage which is Rs.206). Even this was paid irregularly with delays of two to three months being common. In addition, no appointment letters were given, payments were made on muster rolls, No uniform was given in most districts. Worst of all, the young men and women were given risky duties without any training or any legal security. As one young man told us, he was asked by the Officer in Charge of his police station to go and break down illegal hooch dens. The hooch den owners who know the youth well as they are all from the same villages swore to take revenge when his employment was over. There was no protection available for him.

Six of these young people have died while on duty. For example, Saphikul Sheikh of Behrampur Police Station in Murshidabad died when he was thrown down from a bridge by irate lorry drivers when he was trying to control traffic. There has been no compensation paid to any of these people. In fact, if these young people are injured there is no surety of medical treatment for them.

With the help of the Asanghatit Kshetra Shramik Sangrami Manch (Struggle Platform for Unorganised Sector Workers), the civic police began self organising in November 2013, with meetings and conventions in many police stations and districts. During the Lok Sabha elections, they were on duty. However by June 30 all of them were thrown out of employment. The young men and women therefore decided to organise a large protest meeting in Kolkata.


Despite the heavy rain that day, the gathering of 35-40,000 people showed the spontaneous anger of these youth. A delegation also met the Labour Minister, who immediately passed an order to enrol them under a social security scheme for unorganised sector workers. He also promised to take a month to confer on their other demands (continuation of duty, giving appointment letter, payment of minimum wages, provident fund, gratuity, ESIS coverage, proper training and protection at work) with the Chief Minister. In addition he asked for information of those who had been injured or had died during their duty, so that he could arrange for their compensation and medical treatment. 

After returning to their own areas, the youth have been threatened by their seniors in the police force and by local party leaders. Some of them have been given “official dismissal letters”. Lists are being made of “those who went to the Kolkata gathering”. Newspaper reports quoting senior Government Ministers have also come out, blaming the Association of being backed by the BJP, the CPI(M) and the Naxals.

On the other hand, on July 14, 2014, the CM is said to have said that she was willing to extend the employment of civic police, saying she was not in favour of taking away jobs. However, she put in a rider- the youth must behave themselves and must not be “unruly”.
The civic police plan a convention in Kolkata on July 25, 2014, with representatives from all police stations and districts to focus attention on the repression they are facing and to declare their future programme. This is to be preceded by visits by a team of Association members to areas where reports of repression are coming from. The team will meet Officers in Charge of police stations and District Superintendents of Police in these areas.

10 July 2014

Second Day's Visit To Tea Gardens: Procession Of Death Continues

The procession of death remains unabated in the closed tea gardens. We had reported yesterday of 3 persons we had met in Bandapani Tea Gardens (TG) who were near death. Unfortunately, the first news we have got this morning is of the death of Mukesh Goala, one of these three persons. It has induced in all of us a feeling of great helplessness and anger at the injustice of life in the tea estates, where on the one hand owners make huge profits, paying a measly wage of Rs.95 to workers, abandoning gardens with impunity and on the other hand young men like Mukesh Goala die untimely deaths due to hunger and poverty.

The death remains unregistered in any official record and unmarked, part of many such unknown tragedies that take place here every day.

Our second day was spent in Dheklapara Tea Estate. This estate has been closed since 2006. It has been tied up in litigation with the Tea Board as one of the parties. The Tea Board was asked to take over the garden by the High court under Section 16 E of the Tea Act. The Tea Board has after 4-5 years of legal wrangling said it was unable to find a new buyer or run the garden in any other manner. Right now, a group of garden labour owing allegiance to the Trinamool Congress-run the garden selling leaves to a broker. This is done separately in two parts of the garden with the Nirpania division reporting payment of Rs.45 each day to each plucker and a sharing of the profits, while the main division pays Rs.35 per day. There are reports that the labour have recently asked the BDO for permission to allow them to do plantation of new bushes.

Besides plucking, the adults and children from the garden also work in collecting stone and sand from the river, stone breaking, work in a brick field, and at an Army construction site nearby. Earnings range from Rs.100 to Rs.140 per day.

Dheklapara has been the focus of the present Government’s relief efforts. Since December 2012, when it became the focus of attention due to many deaths, as well as threats of suicide by surviving workers, two successful community kitchens catering to about 150 destitute people are being run. Electricity has been given to all people. Water supply has improved. Antodaya rations are given regularly. The FAWLOI and old age pensions are being given with some delays. NREGS works are there though with delays in payment.

Despite the above, we got reports of at least 7 deaths from the three lines to which we had access. (In one line we were stopped from collecting information by rowdies who informed us that they were from the Trinamool Congress)

We also found three persons who were on the verge of death due to hunger. Budu Oraon, (62) has been suffering from low pressure .He fell down about a month ago. The family has kept him in one room. As he is unable to move and is bedridden, he soils himself. Medical aid is needed on an urgent basis in order to save his life.

Rabi Tanti from Beech line died 2 months ago after his FAWLOI (Family Allowance for Workers in Locked Out Industry) was stopped as he had crossed the age of 58. His wife Champa Tanti (59) is now in dire straits. With FAWLOI stopped and a 19 years old son who has no source of income, the family is hungry and Champa is likely to die. Mohan Khariya (57) s/o late Habil wife Surajmani (50). Both he and his wife get food from the community kitchen run under the Sahay scheme.

The above shows the limitation of Government relief efforts even when they are comparatively well run. Dheklapara and other closed gardens need re-opening more than anything. The workers of tea gardens need fair wages- not the paltry Rs.95 that they get presently.

The workers in Dheklapara should be helped to form a cooperative and to run their garden themselves, as many workers want this. Attempts to find an owner have failed and the seeds of self-running are already there- they need to be nurtured with good Government help and proper accountability systems. The tendency of rowdies with political patronage to control people managed processes must be controlled.
Related Read ('The Hindu'): Three Bandapani tea garden wokers bed-ridden: NGOs, trade unions

Food Campaign Team Finds Shocking Conditions At Tea Garden

A 12-member team from the Right to Food and Work Campaign, West Bengal on the first day of their survey of closed tea gardens visited Bandapani, the situation there is grim, to say the least. Twenty-nine deaths have taken place after closure since 13th July 2013. Three other persons are on death row. They are:

Amrit Jhora, aged 23, suffering from malnutrition and barely able to walk. The family has shown him to the National Rural Health Mission clinic being run by an NGO, MANT, for the last one year, but it has not helped. He has to be carried to the NGO’s camp, but this is not always possible. Surprisingly the NGO has not referred him to any other place.  Nanki Soren (aged 60 years) no family, husband has already died. No ration card or any other benefits. Abha Soren a neighbour feeds her occasionally- one meal a day. Mukesh Goala (23 years) suffering from diabetes according to his widowed mother. No earning member in the family.

The garden is not re-opening because it is mired in illegalities. Despite that, the Government has not taken corrective action. The lease given by the State Government has lapsed since 2006, and the ownership of the TG is now in dispute. The present “owner”, M/s Sarada Pleasure and Adventure Ltd, has been operating in the name of the past owner, M/s Alipurduar Enterprises Ltd, who in turn is not legally in possession of the tea garden land. The lapsed lease seems to be in the name of a third party. The disputed ownership is now acting as a problem to get a new owner. The management has also not deposited Provident Fund dues of about Rs.3.1 crores since 2002; electricity bills amounting to Rs.10-14 lakhs are lying unpaid; wages and salaries amounting to Rs.1 crore, gratuity of Rs.1 crore and bonus of Rs. 56 lakhs have not been paid.

The Labour Department and the district magistrate have called several meetings for re-opening, but the owner has not responded. In February 2014, the DM wrote to the Land Reforms and Land Revenue Department asking for lease cancellation. No progress is reported after that.

In the name of domestic work, many able bodied young women have been taken to cities and other places in Delhi, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim. One woman was sexually assaulted while at work and was forced to come back from Punjab when she was pregnant . She was taken to Delhi and then Punjab by an agent. Four to five agents seem to have free access to the garden, and they are reported to take away half the salary of the women they put in employment. Despite such problems, within this week, about 3-4 women from Chaibasa line say that they will be forced to leave for Bangalore as they have no other way of surviving in the garden.

The team found gross violation of Supreme Court orders on facilities to be given in closed gardens. While AAY rations are available, FAWLOI (family Allowance for Workers in Locked Out Industry) forms are just being distributed. NREGS works are largely unavailable. Drinking water is a severe problem, with insufficient, highly contaminated water often with worms coming from a Bhutan stream. Medical facilities being provided by an NGO under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) do not meet the NRHM norms, with most medicines having to be bought. Ambulance facilities are unavailable as are good referral services.

The team found stunted children and anaemic adults in the garden population. Most depend on stone collection from the river with an income of Rs.50-100 per day for a living. Many families reported eating only once a day. Huge numbers are migrating or getting trafficked.
Before coming to the gardens some members of the team had met the Food Minister, who had informed us of a number of positive measures being taken. The attitude of the Government towards this problem was seen by us as being very encouraging. However, however, our experience tells us that these measures still need more effort to percolate to the affected people.

06 July 2014

'Ensure Universal Food Coverage'

In 2013, the National Food Security Act was passed by the Parliament with the clause that implementation of the Act would be started by 5th July 2014. However, today we find that the Act is still far from being put into operation. On the other hand, food inflation is continuing unabated, causing great problems to the people at large. In addition, in chronic hunger pockets such as the closed tea gardens, we are seeing another spate of deaths. While it may be endlessly debated whether the immediate cause of these deaths is starvation, it is well accepted that these areas, as well as in other areas are suffering from chronic hunger, the suffering of the people is huge and needs urgent attention.      

In this context, a team from the Right to Food and Work Campaign West Bnegal consisting of Anuradha Talwar, Swapan Ganguly, Saradindu Biswas, Debojyoti Chakraborty and Fr. Jothi S.J. met the Minister for Food and Civil Supplies on July 5.

The network raised its demand for universal coverage under the National Food Security Act. The Minister informed us that it has been the stand of their Government that universal coverage should be there. He further informed us that 22 states had made the same demand in the meeting of Food Ministers held in Delhi on 4th July. As the Central Government would have to move an amendment in parliament for deferring the date for implementation of the Act, he said that it was possible that an amendment for universal coverage could also be moved, as 22 States had asked for it.

Considering food is the most basic right of the people, we insist that the State Government declares universal coverage through a State level Act or Scheme. We demand that the State Government put this into practice by at least putting forth a plan for universal coverage over the next 5 years, along with a plan for resource mobilisation.  

We would like to draw attention to the following:

1.      Despite a year having passed since the Act (first in the form of an Ordinance) was promulgated, the State of West Bengal seems to be still unprepared for the implementation of the Act.
a.       The Socio Economic Caste Census on which the choice of beneficiaries depends is still incomplete. The survey lists are available online only in 9 out of 19 districts. Lists are incomplete even where they have been put online. Public display of draft lists has not taken place in most places, nor have hearings for correction been conducted. We asked the Minister to ensure that this task is completed immediately so that the Government can start actual choice of beneficiaries.

b.      For choice of beneficiaries, we urged the use of simple exclusion criteria , excluding those who have Government jobs , permanent well paid jobs, income tax payers, those who own 4 wheeled vehicles, owners of large businesses etc. This would simplify the task of choice of beneficiaries and lead to fewer errors. The Minister was of the view that universal coverage was a better option.    

c.       Rules under the Act are still far from being framed. We insisted that this task also be taken up on a war footing.

2.      Grievance redressal and people’s vigilance are an important part of ensuring that food grains actually reach the beneficiaries. We welcome the Government’s decision to include NGO representatives in Monitoring and Vigilance committees up to the block level. We would however from our past experience of these committees urge the Government to ensure proper training and regular functioning of these committees. The Minister promised to support our efforts in this matter and to be present for the first meeting of NGO representatives.

3.       The deaths in tea gardens have left us very perturbed as they are part of a trend that started in 2003. The Government, both the past one and the present one seem unable to deal with the problem.  We welcome the setting up of a permanent committee of three ministers to oversee the steps being taken in the gardens We would urge the Government to ensure that the following:
a.       Supreme Court orders ensuring AAY rations, NREGA work, FAWLOI, medical facilities, drinking water, ICDS and MDMS coverage are enforced

b.      Regular monitoring through a district level cell of these schemes takes place

c.       Just as AAY rations are being continued in all closed and formerly closed gardens, FAWLOI should also not be discontinued in gardens which are going through cycles of closure and opening.

d.      Under NREGA, workers suffer immensely because of delayed payments. Payment of part of the wages at least should be made on a daily basis.

e.       The Government should take proactive steps to ensure that employers do not abandon gardens so easily. Such steps would include punishment of rogue employers who abandon the gardens, recovery of workers’ dues such as gratuity, provident fund  etc., cancellation of lease to find new employers etc.

f.       As the underlying problem is the abysmally low level of wages in tea gardens, we urge the Government to take a pro-active role in the on-going industry level negotiations to ensure a living wage for the workers. We also urge you to declare a minimum wage for tea workers under the Minimum Wages Act.

The Minister informed us of a permanent inspection system for 23 closed gardens. 

The Network is also sending a fact finding team to 6 closed gardens from 7th to 13th July 2014.The report will especially examine the steps the Government has taken and the results will be shared with the Government. It also plans to set up a permanent monitoring system.

03 July 2014

We Condemn That A Member Of Parliament Can Call For Rape

The explosive statement by the Member of Parliament Tapas Pal has spread not just within West Bnegal but has crossed state, national and international borders. The ruling party uses state power in conjunction with muscle power to suppress dissenting voices. This has become the latest political culture in our state. Value based politics and courtesy in politics are rarities. 

During the last regime also, it was common to murder political opponents, blind them, cut their hands etc. Added to this in Nandigram and Singur was sexual harassment and rape of the women of the opposite political groups to suppress dissent. However, even in the worst times, nobody had the courage to openly support such activities or to proudly encourage their supporters to take up such activities. Nobody had stooped to such lowly actions.

Today, we find through media reports that Tapas Pal has gone down to such levels. He declared a Fatwa amidst an audience of blind party supporters who clapped with great enthusiasm - if any person from the opposition dared to touch anyone in his party, he would respond with a revolver, plus he would send his men to rape the women from such families. Only a set of completely blind and dehumanised supporters could support such a statement with enthusiastic clapping.

As soon as this statement became public, the “generals” of the TMC have immediately swung into action.The Member of Parliament has been given a 48 hours show cause. The party has said it does not support the Member of Parliament’s statement etc. However, it was an MLA of the same party who said proudly that he had crushed three people to death under his feet. Another leader directed his supporters to attack the police with bombs and to burn the houses of their opponents. Another bright star has not limited his actions to mere rioting – he beat up the teachers in a college and forced them to apologise to him. Was any punishment meted out by the party to any one of these people? Not at all. Instead they have become the twice blessed favourites of the party Supremo.

This message has spread all over the party network. So, Tapas babu went one step further. Not just murder, he advocated rape like the most barbarian of conquerors, with the intention probably of being deluged with the affection of the Supremo. In West Bengal politics, there is a planned effort to spread political and sexist violence, inhuman and uncivilised behaviour. There is an attempt to arouse the violent and vengeful side of human nature amongst the common ordinary people to consolidate the ruling party’s base everywhere. This is basically an endeavour to hold on to political power by any means.

We strongly oppose such immorality, sexism and violence in politics. We feel that any person who makes statements which incite hatred and violence has no right to be a Member of the Indian Parliament. A political party which claims to not support or promote such political culture should immediately expel anti-social elements like Tapas Pal from their party. Otherwise one will be forced to conclude that public statements by party spokesmen are mere eyewash, while the real objective is to encourage the growth of such misdeeds.

As democratic organisations and citizens, in the interest of value based and humane politics and civilised behaviour, we demand:
1.       Immediate Resignation of Tapas Pal from the Parliament.
2.       Suo Moto Proceedings to be initiated by the Speaker of the Lok Sabha to declare Tapas Pal unworthy of being a Member of Parliament.
3.       Immediate criminal proceedings to be initiated by the State Government against Tapas Pal
4.       The State Government must take responsibility to safeguard all constitutional democratic rights of all citizens
5.       The State Government must guarantee the right of women to move and work freely without the constant fear of being sexually assaulted.

Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity, Shramajivi Samanvay Committee, Shramajivi Mahila  Samity, Paschim Banga Swarojgari O Raduni Union, Hosiery Workers Unity Center