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.

'W.Bengal Needs To Move From Adhocism To Food Security Act'


Political analysts have almost unanimously said that freebies were a major factor for the Trinamool Congress’s huge win in the 2016 Assembly elections in West Bengal. Cheap rice for almost everyone, cycles and shoes for school-going children, money for crop damage – all of these added to their votes.

Clearly enthused by this, the state’s Food and Civil Supplies Minister, Jyotipriya Mullick, has announced that a Ramzan package of chick peas, flour and sugar will be available at a subsidised rate through the public distribution system till June 24. Just in case he was accused of minority appeasement, Mullick followed it up with one more announcement: that there would be a similar package for Durga Puja later this year.

The Ramzan and Durga Puja packages are not the first of their kind. Special food packages have been announced time and again – for festivals or after disasters. The problem with these packages is that they are for short periods of time. Before ration card holders become aware of them, the schemes end. As a result, very few ration card holders actually pick up these special rations. Instead, the rations find their way into the black market with ration shop dealers acting in collusion with some Food Department officials.

Before the National Food Security Act was implemented, rice and wheat rations for Above Poverty Line families were provided in an equally ad hoc and irregular manner, and most of these food grains used to find their way to the black market as the consumer had no idea about the quantity or when rations would be given.

When ration dealers benefit

The ration dealer always reaps extra profits when quantities are broken up into many different categories and prices are not in round numbers. When this happens, consumers get confused and are easily cheated.

While the system has been simplified considerably after the implementation of the National Food Security Act, West Bengal still has five categories of ration cards and ration packages are priced oddly. For instance, in Jangal Mahal, wheat flour packets weighing 750 gm are priced at Rs 2.62 in ration shops. At a time, when it is difficult to find 50 paise or even Re 1 coins, how will customers or ration shop dealers return 38 paise as change?

What succeeds best is a rationing system with just one or two categories of cards and easily remembered and rounded-off prices and quantities.

In his Ramzan package statement, Mullick also said that “the government would continue with Rs 2 per kg rice for all during this period [emphasis added].”

Is this his way of saying that the Rs 2 rice scheme can be withdrawn later?

Under the National Food Security Act, the Centre gives the state government rice at Rs 3 per kg for 6.01 crore people. The state provides a further subsidy of Re 1 per kg and sells the rice for Rs 2 per kg. In addition to this, the state government has two cheap rice schemes under the Rajya Khadya Suraksha Yojana – RKSY 1 and RKSY 2 – which cover an additional 1.7 crore people.
While the entitlements of beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act are legally guaranteed, the extra Re 1 subsidy and the state’s RKSY schemes are part of Bengal’s pre-election largesse. There is no legal assurance to back these up. In fact, there are already reports of pre-election related rations being discontinued (for instance in Ward No 21 of Barasat city in North 24 Parganas.)

After the Trinamool Congress first seized power in the state in 2011, the Food and Supplies Department website of the West Bengal government for many days carried the slogan: Food For All. This was their principal promise to the people.

Streamline rations

If this is indeed what the Mamata Banerjee government wants, it should move away from the adhocism of Ramzan and Durga Puja packages and Rajya Khadya Suraksha Yojanas. The government should instead pass a State Food Security Act that guarantees rice at Rs 2 per kg for all citizens.

Also, if the government is seriously concerned about malnutrition and its impact on people’s health, it should provide subsidised cooking oil and pulses in addition to cheap food grains to improve diets with proteins and fats. This has already been ordered by the Supreme Court for drought-hit areas in the Swaraj Abhiyan case.

The state government should also start taking measures to help farmers produce food. It should ensure that distress sale amongst farmers stops by arranging for doorstep procurement of food grains, pulses and oil seeds at remunerative prices. Without such measures, food production is becoming a loss-making enterprise. Distress migration from our villages to other states and frustration amongst unemployed are becoming major problems.
The chief minister and her food and civil supplies minister should remember that the elections are over as is the time for short-term, populist, vote-catching packages. Instead, the government should back up its cheap rice schemes with a Food Security Act, which will ensure food grains, pulses and cooking oil at subsidised prices for all. It should also invest in agriculture and give legal procurement at remunerative prices to farmers to ensure food production.

This article was originally printed at Scroll.in