22 February 2015

Travesty Of Tea And Tribals

By Sushovan Dhar

No amount of mockery would have been more pronounced than the holding of the Tea and Tribal Festival at Banarhat, in the Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal, under the “auspices” of the Backward Classes Welfare Department, Government of West Bengal. The programme held between February 15-17, 2015, intends to “provide a platform to display tribal talents” said the official invitation. This charade is emblematic of the larger spoof that continues with around two million tea plantation workers of India.

The venue, Banarhat Tea Garden playground, is located within 15 kilometers of the closed Red Bank, Dharanipur and Surendranagar Tea Estates that have been virtually shut down since the last 12 years. These nondescript locations sometimes hit headlines when starvation and chronic malnutrition take the lives of the closed tea garden workers and their family members. The otherwise picturesque Dooars, at the foothills of the Himalayan West Bengal and Bhutan, has turned into a veritable valley of death with tea garden workers suffering due to low wages, poor quality rations and inadequate medical facilities. It is a shame and matter of utter disgust that the government, instead of bringing the real culprits to book, decides to organise a festival that makes fun of the dead. And not one or ten, but thousands of deaths due to malnutrition, starvation and undernourishment. Matters that could have otherwise been easily prevented.

According to a survey done on body mass index (BMI) by rights activist and doctor Binayak Sen and five other organisations, in the erstwhile closed Raipur tea garden in the same district, “40 per cent of its residents have a BMI lower than 18.5, indicative of being underweight, and 140 people in 539 examined had BMI lower than 14, a sign of malnourishment”. The report points towards the dire living conditions in the closed tea gardens in West Bengal and exposes the sub-human conditions that people are compelled to endure.

Turning a deaf ear to such alarming developments, the Trinamool Government in the state - (in)famous for its ardent mela culture where millions of rupees are disbursed in extravagance –  tries to showcase its “talents” leaving the tribals and the tea-workers in a quandary. Critics say that these melas or fairs are organised to conceal the failures of the government and also dish out money to local beneficiaries and contractors. Besides, these are great public propaganda exercises for a party in a desperate need to repair its tarnished image owing to unfulfilled expectations and widespread corruption though multiple scams, including the Saradha ponzi scheme, has hit the government so hard that its image seems beyond repair. The party can only hope to stay in power with the opposition votes squarely shared between the CPI(M) and the BJP, as testified by the recent assembly and parliamentary by-polls in Krishnagunj and Bongaon respectively.

While workers reel under pathetic wages, currently Rs 90-95/day, the ministers of the government including the one in charge of labour, resort to falsehood about improving the lot of the labourers and the implementation of minimum wages in the sector. This enclave economy has witnessed notorious collusions between the owners and the successive governments reducing the workers to penury, permanently. Even in the face of a strong and unified resistance from workers the government takes the mantle of dragging them into dubious wage deals that would see their hard-won gains further eroded. Any Lady Macbeth to say- “Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”?

In a landmark judgment on Kamani Metals & Alloys Ltd vs Their Workmen, the Supreme Court of India on 24 January 1967 ruled that “a minimum wage which, in any event, must be paid, irrespective of the tent of profits, the financial condition of the establishment or the availability of workmen on lower wages. This minimum wage is independent of the kind of industry and applies to all alike big or small. It sets the lowest limit below which wages cannot be allowed to sink in all humanity.” The government is resolute to connive with the tea-garden owners to violate every word and spirit of this opinion. West Bengal is the only “owner's pride” in the country after the neighbouring Assam government, also notorious for gross violations of workers’ rights, issued necessary notifications towards the implementation of minimum wages, last month. Let us not forget that the health of the tea industry depends a great deal on the health of the workers as this is highly a labour intensive industry.

And the timing could not be better with the industry poised to witness tea prices climbing by 9% to an average of Rupees 200 ($3.2) per kg in 2015 as consumption rises in a recovering economy, according to McLeod Russel India, the world's biggest tea grower. ASSOCHAM, the oldest and a leading apex-body of the trade associations of India, projected the industry to achieve a turnover of Rs. 33,000 crore ($5.4 billion) by this year making plantation owners richer and leaving workers earn the lowest wage of all organized sectors in the country.

Surely, the government has to resort to such travesty to woo the plantation workers and the tribals. And, no wonder there is hardly any turnout of lesser mortals to witness such a farce.

21 February 2015

Tea Workers Cheated Again

The Progressive Plantation Workers Union (PPWU) expresses its utter disgust at the tripartite agreement on wages in the tea industry signed on February 20. After over one year of struggle and eight tripartite sittings, it was an anti-climax to find most unions, employers and the State Government once again signing an agreement to provide starvation wages to tea plantation workers.

The agreement yesterday has provided a raise of Rs.37.50 over three years to tea plantation workers in Terai and Doars and Rs.42.50 to workers in Darjeeling. Workers will therefore be paid a miserly amount of Rs. 112 .50 in the first year, Rs.122.50 in the second year and finally Rs. 132.50 in the third year.

By no logic can such an increase be justified. Firstly it comes nowhere near the repeatedly articulated demand by the workers for minimum wages. It is nowhere near their demand for a wage of Rs.322 per day calculated on the basis of well-accepted minimum wage norms and Supreme Court orders. Nor does it even make tea plantation workers at par with wages in other sectors. The State Government declared minimum wage for the poorest sector, the agricultural sector, is Rs.206 at present and likely to increase further in the next three years with revisions twice a year to compensate for inflation. The gap between tea industry wages and wages in other sectors is therefore likely to widen further, leading to high absenteeism in the industry.

Wages as low as this are also likely to worsen conditions of poverty and malnutrition amongst tea plantation workers. We are thus likely to continue to get shameful reports of starvation deaths in an industry that is a huge export earner and has a flourishing and ever expanding domestic market.

The meagre wage increase is especially disappointing because there was a much trumpeted effort by all unions to present a united front in the last 6-9 months by the formation of the Joint Forum and by many united actions. This had enthused workers and they had also presented a united front to all employers in all gardens. In an industry that was fragmented by multiple unions, this was a move that was unprecedented and it led to hopes of a decent raise in wages. Here also, the unions have failed their rank and file and have signed an agreement that brings peanuts after all the struggle and efforts to highlight the demand for minimum wages that preceded this agreement. This leads one to wonder whether the major unions and players in this exercise were serious in their efforts at a movement or were just playing a game.

As a face saver, the agreement has also put down in writing that the agreement will remain in force till a State Government formed committee formed on February 17 puts forward its proposal on minimum wages under the Minimum Wages Act 1948. However, no deadline has been given for this committee and it has been asked to submit its report “as early as possible”. The committee of 24 persons has eight Government representatives, eight employer representatives, and three members from ruling party-controlled unions. From past experience in the tea sector, we could well say that that the report may not at all be submitted till 2017, if ever.

The imposition of the agreement reveals that the government's initiatives towards implementing minimum wages in the industry are nothing more than mere tokenism. Instead of forcing this agreement on the workers, they could have stipulated the committee a deadline to submit its recommendations soon. A decent arrearage could have been worked out for the period till the workers receive minimum wages.

PPWU reiterates its rejection of the agreement. Our representatives have not signed the same and we affirm that we will continue our struggle for a just and fair wage in the tea sector. We appeal workers to reject this black agreement and join us in the struggle for a minimum wage in this sector. We also demand that the committee set by the government submit its recommendations within three months!
Bajinath Naik, General Secretary
Kiran Kalindi, President

19 February 2015

Shameless On A Day Of Shame

On February 2, Lajja Diwas, a day of shame, a shameless NREGS Commissioner, Dibyendu Sarkar, was forced to meet about 30 members of the Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity, who barged into his office. When hearing complaints about late payment, Mr Sarkar claimed triumphantly that he had almost cleared wages for 2013 -14. When asked whether he would also pay the workers compensation for late payment of wages, he claimed it was not his responsibility because the Centre was causing the delay. He also claimed that Central guidelines absolved him from such responsibility even if the guidelines were against the law.

When the activists told him about unpaid wages, he again complained about the lack of central funds. He said that though the National Employment Guarantee Act gives a guarantee of 100 days of work, the Central government had wanted to give only 54% of the labour budget demanded by states. He shamelessly admitted that the Central Government's action was against the law.

In further mockery of NREGA workers, he took no responsibility for the fact that his officials at the block and Panchayat level were refusing to receive applications for further work. He also gave a long explanation about bank accounts, FPOs etc. and blamed banks for delays in transfers to accounts of beneficiaries. Those in the protest found it difficult to understand why bank and Government coordination had still not become possible after 10 years of NREGA.

February 2 is NREGA Diwas, the day in 2006, when after 18 years of struggle all over the country by rural workers unions and other people’s organisations, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was passed. NREGA Diwas is used by the State and Central Government to flout their acheivements. Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity, on the other hand, uses the anniversary and the month of February to highlight the problems being faced by rural workers in this programme.

PBKMS, as part of its programme also met the officials and district magistrates of Purulia, Bankura, South and North 24 Parganas and Nadia district with black badges. Black badges were also given to officials in blocks and Anchals of Paschim Midnapore, Purulia, Bankura, South and North 24 Parganas and Nadia district. There was a special march to Nabbana, the seat of the West Bengal Government, on the February 11.

Day Of Shame, Rural Employment Scheme Under Attack

February 2 is NREGA Diwas- the day in 2006, when after 18 years of struggle all over the country by rural workers unions and other people’s organisations, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was passed, guaranteeing 100 days of work to all rural workers.

NREGA Diwas is used by the State and Central Government to flout their acheivements. Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity, on the other hand, uses the anniversary and the month of February to highlight the problems being faced by rural workers in this programme.

According to PBKMS General Secretary, Uttam Gayen “a good programme would have helped us to stay in the villages and to stop distress migration to Kerala, Andaman islands and Kashmir for work. But, since 2006 we have seen only crocodile tears for NREGA workers and little genuine effort.”

Some of the problems that workers are facing are as follows:
·         Despite a decade of this Act, workers’ rights such as timely payment, work on demand, compensation for late payment of wages and unemployment allowance are only on paper.
·         Workers receive only about one third of the 100 days employment. These are the figures for the state of West Bengal.

Year                  Person days per family
2006-07                  14
2007-08                  25
2008-09                  26
2009-10                  45
2010-11                  31
2011-12                  27
2012-13                  35
2013-14                  37
2014-15                  28

·         Funds spent on MGNREGA have been reduced from Rs.40 thousand crores in 2009-10 to Rs.34 thousand crores in 2014-15.
·         To make matters worse, in these six years, prices have risen and wages in MGNREGA have doubled from Rs. 81 per day in 2009 to Rs. 169 today. So, with less money available, the Government creates less than half the number of person days it used to create in 2009.
·         In these six years, our country has become richer, with production (GDP) increasing from 45 lakhs crores to 57 lakhs crores. But MGNREGA money has decreased from 0.9% of the GDP to O.5% of the GDP.
·         Worse still, the new BJP Government has said that more of MGNREGA funds should be spent on material cost (bricks, sand and cement) and less on giving people work. It has changed the material: labour ratio in works from 40:60 to 49:51.

As part of our efforts to draw attention to the problems faced by NREGA workers, we are organising a series of programmes in Anchal offices, block offices and district offices to give black badges to Government officials for the poor performance in NREGA.

Related Reading:  Work generated in MGNREGS declines in West Bengal (The Hindu)

18 February 2015

'The Rulers Have Changed But Not The System'

 “Shashak bodleche, shahsan ek-e acche (the rulers have changed, the system hasn’t)”, said Shri Partha Chatterjee, Deputy Chief Minister of West Bengal, when he received the delegation of the Ashanghit Kshetra Shramik Sangrami Manch (AKSSM) on 11th February 2015, agreeing with their frustration at the insensitivity of the TMC regime, that had ridden to power in a massive mandate and promises of Paribartan  or change.

Members of the AKSSM found themselves confronted by a huge police force of about 700 policemen just when they started their march to Nabanna to meet the Chief Minister on 11th afternoon.  Many of them were reminded eerily of the Singur, Haripur and Nandigram struggles, when similarly large police contingents had been used to subdue protestors by the Left Front regime.

Women police and women members of the AKSSM got into scuffles repeatedly when the procession of about 1500 people who had come from South 24 Parganas, Nadia, Kolkata and North 24 Parganas tried to break through the barricade at a major crossing outside Raja Subodh Mullick Square. The police kept asking for time to contact the Chief Minister and Chief Secretary’s office.

The slogan shouting and singing crowd was joined after an hour by another 500 people who marched from Howrah station and then blocked Lenin Sarani, one of the most important roads in Kolkata. The procession from Howrah with people from Paschim Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia had with them a group of dancers and drummers from Bankura. The IPS officer, Shri Devender, leading the police contingent began using his public address system to threaten them with arrest and lathi charge, but found himself flummoxed when they began dancing on the road. After some negotiation he allowed them to join the other part of the procession.

An hour of sloganshouting, dancing and singing followed, with the procession declaring its intention of staying there overnight. A play was also performed by some members from South 24 Parganas and Bankura.The police found themselves in an awkward situation, as the protestors began to make arrangements to cook their dinner and to stay on the road. With rush hour approaching it became imperative for them to clear the road. After an intervention with AKSSM members directly calling the administration, the Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister agreed to meet a delegation of 5 people.

The problems the delegation put forward before Partha Chatterjee were on the non-implementation of the Minimum Wages Act, especially for biri workers and hosiery workers. Special concern was expressed at the hand in glove relation of Government with the tea industry owners, leading to the Labour Department’s reluctance to declare a minimum wage. Partha Babu took a note of areas where AKSSM reported delayed payment of NREGS wages. In addition, we objected to the trivialisation of the problems of unorganised sector workers by organising “melas” for them, without any serious implementation of social security measures. We also objected to social security cards being issued to non-workers. The issue of sexual harassment at the work place of women workers and the absence of complaints committees was also brought to his attention. No selection of beneficiaries for the National Food Security Act has taken place despite two years of the Act being passed, we complained.  And, in the end we complained of police high handedness, which is when he remarked “Shashak bodleche, shahsan ek-e acche (the rulers have changed, the system hasn’t)”.

Partha babu forwarded the memorandum to the Chief Minister immediately and promised to organise a meeting with the concerned Ministers after 16thFebruary. We came away after informing him that we looked forward to his keeping his promise and to returning to the city with a longer and more defiant protest in three months if our demands were not met.

Somnath Ghosh, Swapan Ganguly, Convenors     

Hindutva Goons Attack Maharashtra Trade Union Leader

 Joint Statement by AICCTU, IFTU, NTUI and the TUCI:

We condemn the dastardly attack on Comrade Govind Pansare and his wife in Kolhapur yesterday (February 16). Com. Pansare, a veteran CPI leader and also a long time leader of the AITUC in Kolhapur and in Maharashtra, was always known for his progressive and outspoken scientific views. His book on Shivaji is one of the best-known short expositions of the Maratha King from an objective and scientific historic viewpoint as opposed to the jingoistic communal colour given by the Hindutva brigade. He has worked tirelessly for the trade unions in the Western and Southern part of the state of Maharashtra both as a responsible office bearer of various unions and as a respectred senior advocate in the Labour and Industrial Courts.

Of late, though 78 years of age, he continues to be active in politics. He was at the forefront of the struggle against toll tax in Kolhapur since the past six months. About 15 days ago he gave a talk at the Shivaji University in which he exposed the real thinking of Nathuram Godse and showed how there was nothing to glorify there. This was not liked by a section of the audience. About a week ago he gave a talk about the 26/11 incident in Mumbai where he made certain remarks about the ATS chief Hemant Karkare which were also not liked by a section of the audience. That signifies Com. Govind Pansare. He was never one to shy away from courting controversy if the truth demanded it.

Yesterday, as he and his wife got home from their morning walk, while some celebrated with crackers over a world cup match, the shooters used that sound as a cover to shoot them. This is in continuation of a spate of incidents against minorities and social activists in Modi's reign. It is clear that the worms are crawling out of the woodwork to bask in the sun of Hindutva which invigorates neo-liberal policies everywhere.

Com. Govind Pansare is in hospital in Kolhapur having been shot in the neck and chest while he wife suffered a head injury. Our wishes go out to both his wife and him and his family and friends at this critical time. There has already been a spate of demonstrations all over the country to condemn this shooting of Com. Pansare. We call upon all democratic and progressive forces to come out in force to condemn this shooting. The shooters must be apprehended and brought to book. The Modi Government's and Fadnavis Government's apathy and, at least implicit, collusion in such incidents has to end. We call upon the working class to take a lead in organising all the democraticc and progressive forces against such fascist trends prevalent in India today.

Bring the shooters of the Pansare's to book immediately!
Down with Hindutva Fascism!
Long Live Working Class Unity!