30 September 2020

'Raise your Voice' call given by PBKMS - Beginning of a campaign in South 24 Parganas

Kakdwip, Namkhana and Sagar take to social action initiatives to highlight pressing issues endemic to these regions of South 24 Parganas

Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity in association with Shramajivee Mahila Samity has organized a week long campaign in areas under the Kakdwip subdivision of the district of South 24 Parganas. Apart from the general demands on the public distribution system and the public works programme, the campaign will also focus on the rampant sale of illegal liquor and its impact on women and youth, the irregularities in distribution of the aid sanctioned for households affected by the super cyclone 'Amphan' and woes of the working class amidst the pandemic.

Deputations will be submitted to the concerned Block Development Officers as well as to the Officer-in-Charges of the police stations under the Sundarban Police District. The latter offices will be engaged with to highlight the issues faced by our members in negotiating the unregulated sale of alcohol in public spaces. We also plan to meet the Deputy Excise Collector of the Kakdwip range.    

Our members gathering in front of the block office in Namkhana

Women raising slogans before submission of a deputation in Namkhana

Our district leaders leading from the front with raised fists in Namkhana

Members banging on empty plates to highlight the inadequacy of the Public Distribution System in Namkhana

The President of Shramajivee Mahila Samity, Smt Namita Halder addressing the gathering in Namkhana: 

Women gathering before storming the liquor shops in their vicinity

Women in front of a liquor shop after forcing it to close down

25 September 2020

Submission of deputation in South 24 Parganas

PBKMS along with SMS took up various social action initiatives which culminated in submission of a deputation to the Mathurapur-2 BDO, South 24 Parganas

Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity along with members of Shramajivi Mahila Samity submitted a deputation to the BDO (Block Development Officer) with all our demands ranging from the need to provide more scheme based work to women under MGNREGA, 2005 to immediate disbursal of digitized ration cards. Grievances on implementation of government sponsored programmes to the likes of Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana- Gramin, Mission Nirmal Bangla and social assistance schemes. Post submission of the deputation, a discussion was held with the BDO wherein our leadership has been promised all necessary action(s) on our complaints. Officials also discussed the nature of schemes that can be taken up to benefit women workers and the registered self help group(s) under MGNREGA, 2005. The need to plant fruit trees under the programme in creating a source of essential nutrients for women was conveyed along with the need to encourage nurturing of medicinal plants owing to their multiple uses. We plan to meet the Block Medical Officer of Health (BMOH) soon to highlight the concerns of pregnant and nursing mothers, especially in the manner of disbursal of maternity benefits. The office of the District Magistrate will also be engaged with to put forward our demands concerning rights based legislations at the policy level. A few photographs shot by our members on that day have been shared below:     

Women members shouting slogans in front of the block office
A procession before submission of the deputation 

The procession ending outside the block office

Our elder 'Didis' leading the march 

Members outside the BDO's office after submission of the deputation

Members and representatives from 8 Gram Panchayats participated in the proceedings of the day which witnessed a massive gathering after easing of lockdown restrictions in the Diamond Harbour subdivision of the district. Members took to the streets with slogans and revolutionary songs which often acted as a stimulus to break into a dance. 

PBKMS stands in solidarity with our protesting farmers

Source: Mint

 Statement in support of the call for struggle given by farmer’s associations

Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity, an independent union of agricultural workers, sharecroppers, marginal peasants and plantation workers stand in solidarity with the protesting farmers across the nation, on the recent farm bills passed by both the houses of the parliament. We extend full support to the association(s) for the nationwide ‘bandh’ announced to be enforced on 25th September, 2020.

The farm bills have literally been forced through both the houses of the parliament with the ‘Rajya Sabha’ witnessing intense scenes leading to the suspension of 8 opposition MP(s). We believe that the farm bills will decrease state support to our farmers, a majority of whom need price protection to avoid falling into debt traps. Weaning away the farming community from cultivating food crops have led to fall in real incomes due to heavy reliance of cash crops on national as well as international markets. Such a situation has led to increased indebtedness of marginal farmers along with food insecurity owing to the need to buy food grains from the market. Hence, the policies of the central government increase the involvement of market forces in determining the price of agricultural outputs which in turn increases their volatility, thereby exponentially increasing the instability of our farmers.

National policies have done little to increase the state investment in farming infrastructure and to create channels for decreasing the input costs of farming. The steady penetration of corporations and multinationals in every sphere of agriculture have led to substantial decrease in the autonomy of the farming community, with the recent farm bills eroding minimum state support assured to the farmers. Our marginal farmers, sharecroppers and those practicing subsistence farming will be the worst hit.

We condemn the hasty manner of tabling the bills in both houses of the parliament and subsequently forcing them down the throat of the nation without adhering to constitutional protocols. No public consultation was facilitated and the opinion(s) of the opposition parties were not respected. Even the reservations of one of their oldest alliance partners could not persuade the government to refer the bills to the respective parliamentary standing committee(s).

We reiterate our support to the farmer’s associations and extend our complete solidarity to their cause. We support the discussion to go on a nationwide strike on 25th September, 2020 which we believe will enable us to use a democratic means of showing dissent to persuade the government to roll back such short sighted pieces of legislation(s).


Shri Uttam Gayen                   Shri Swapan Ganguly                            Smt Anuradha Talwar

(General Secretary)              (State Committee Member)                     (State Committee Member)

14 September 2020

Glimpses from North Bengal

PBKMS members participating in the 'Action Week' campaign organized by RTFWN

PBKMS members in and around the tea gardens of North Bengal have responded enthusiastically to the call of a state wide campaign, given by the Right to Food and Work Network, West Bengal. Various initiatives have been planned by our district and block units and people took out rallies, demonstrated in public spaces and deliberated upon the need for a coordinated response from the central and state governments in the present circumstances. A few photographs collected our field areas of North Bengal have been shared below:

A community discussion on issues concerning the Public Distribution System in progress

Workers gathering to begin the rally in Madhu Tea Garden, Alipurduar

Workers holding the banner highlighting the campaign in 
Madhu Tea Garden, Alipurduar

Workers with the banner after a street corner meeting in Alipurduar

A march in Hantapara Tea Garden, Alipurduar

Stay with us for more updates from North Bengal...................

13 September 2020

A narrative timeline of apathy and accounts from the field- reports from volunteers

On the challenges confronted by stranded migrant workers- 

PBKMS started receiving distress calls from migrant workers across the states of Northern, Western and Southern India since the early days of the nationwide lockdown. The following experiential account of the stranded migrant workers contains narratives of individuals and families (names changed to protect identity) affected adversely by lockdown and subsequent apathy of the state towards their well being.   

A group of migrant workers stranded in the National Capital Region. Courtesy: Sumita Roy Dutta 

Gyan’s voice was always too low to follow and the person on the other side ended up with aching ears after pressing too hard against the phone, nevertheless, Gyan’s aching voice and situation was deeper. He had travelled from a tea garden in North Bengal all the way to Hyderabad looking for a job to support his family in which only his wife was the present earning member, picking leaves in the already precarious and sick tea industry of Bengal. After taking ill within only a month of work and deciding to leave since he had no social security in this new workplace of a job as a security guard in a private agency, Gyan was going to return home. The day he had arrived at Secunderabad station he learnt the trains had been cancelled. Thinking it was a one-day issue, he checked into one of the numerous small lodges that exist in unbelievable numbers around major railway stations in our country. Gyan ended up spending the next two months of his life in Sagar lodge as the country shifted from one lockdown into another.

Gyan bumped into a group of three men from his state who also chanced to be stranded in the same lodge as him. In the course of the next few weeks they ventured out together in search of food and braved the police’s frequent and careless baton raps too. The company made the ordeal a bit more bearable.

Bengal is the fourth state in terms of highest population migrating out for work. Overall, the Census methodology of enumerating these populations has been flawed and hence does not provide a nuanced picture and is only indicative of the larger attitude of carelessness that the government adopts towards this population. The state of Kerala has been known as one of the largest providers of work for their comparatively high minimum wage rates and demand for labour. West Bengal too has a large number of workers in the state. Mallapurum is one such district in Kerela which houses a large number of workers who engage in various kinds of odd jobs ranging from work at residents’ personal fields and orchards to helping in construction work. Rabin, a young man of 20 was on his second visit to Mallapurum when the panic for Corona began and well before the government announced the lockdown, he and his group of twenty others who were from the same village in Bengal, left their work and decided to travel back since they witnessed a large number of people returning from the middle-east back to Kerela. However, their discretion did not see the light of day as their tickets were booked but the lockdown was announced all of a sudden; and they are still awaiting a refund of their tickets. During the initial days of the lockdown the panchayat where they had worked and were staying, provided them rations in terms of rice and pulses but the quantities were never enough and slowly their savings started getting spent on food expenses. Those who were used to eating one kilogramme of rice almost daily were being expected to survive now on the same quantity for a week. They were meant to return home with the entire season’s savings but when the group finally reached their respective homes on 29th May via a Shramik train, they had exhausted more than their savings.

A Catch 22

The Ministry of Home Affairs had come out with an order that rent should not be charged during the period of lockdown and the group of four were advised to place this Order in front of the lodge owner since the daily combined rent of all four (Gyan and his three new friends) of Rs 750 was impossible for them to pay. The lodge owner though an understanding man, could not agree to this arrangement since he claimed he wanted to shut his lodge but was keeping it open only for these four. In other words, he would prefer them to vacate than stick on with or without payment and since they were going to stay, then obviously he would collect payment. The local police station was thought of being contacted along civil society groups based out of Hyderabad, but on further deliberations it was discovered that if the police was approached to intervene and talk to the lodge owner then the police would rather transport these 4 like thousands of others into one of the government run shelter homes and force the lodge to shut. But when news started coming in of shelter homes becoming the next breeding grounds for the virus, the idea of putting these four through that risky proposition seemed unjust. This is perhaps where one of the major differences between a government and non-government’s approach lies, where numbers overshadow conscience in the former.

In terms of food and lodging facilities, the entire responsibility or rather goodwill depended on the state where the migrant worker was stuck. Their ‘home’ state had no role to play whatsoever and those who were not in the government shelters, were being reached out to by mostly, non-governmental and volunteer organisations. Gyan and his group stood for hours once a day to get a meal at the GHMC canteens but often, the food would finish before they saw the counter. A group in Mumbai was procuring their rations from the local kirana and maintaining a khata for it , as in they were living out off credit and ultimately had to ask for money from their homes, instead of the other way round.

Government Interventions-Unresponsive & Unclear

Sneher Parash (the touch of affection) did not manage to touch many rightful workers. The application was not only questionable in terms of a meagre Rs 1000 that was being offered to each migrant worker, and something not specific to West Bengal, (as other states came out with similar one time financial support), but also due to the application’s design and logic. Firstly, the application had to be downloaded and filled on a smartphone thus assuming that each migrant worker not only had a smartphone but also was tech savvy enough to download and fill quite a long form. The second major issue was that the government application required that the applicant have a bank account linked to their respective phone number that would be used for registration of this process. Many did not possess such an account-phone number linkage.

Yet another fundamental flaw in this scheme was that there was no helpline number for a considerable period of time after the scheme was announced and the application released. By this statement, it means that even if the Department of Disaster Management, that was the nodal agency for this programme, did have an IT Cell, but rather there was no information in the public domain regarding what or where should someone turn when facing difficulty with this application. On receiving various grievances regarding the same and conveying the same to the concerned state authorities, some helpline numbers were released. The deadline for filling in the form was May 3rd which again seemed inappropriate since it was very much in the midst of the lockdown situation and hence should have been extended till the government had made proper arrangement for bringing the migrant workers back. From 27th April onwards a fresh challenge was thrown up by Sneher Parash, the person filling could not venture beyond the very first step as the verification process of the One Time Password being sent to the phone number that was being registered, failed to take place. If anyone got through the helpline number, they were being told that there was a technical problem and should be addressed soon. However, the last date of May 3rd came and went. Apart from the implementation critique, another more fundamental conceptual problem behind the thought of not just Sneher Parash but other state released money transfer support as well( example Bihar) was the assumption that a transfer of a certain amount is enough of a ‘benefit’ but how and where will the ‘beneficiary’ be able to avail this, did not matter. A large number of migrant workers, did not have an ATM card and hence any means to withdraw this token amount while they were stranded away from home and needed any sort of monetary assistance the most desperately. Visiting a bank for withdrawing this was again impossible during the lockdown, also many had their bank accounts in their hometown and not where they were stranded. When urban middle class citizens were finding it difficult to move and withdraw cash, the thousands of migrant workers were expected to do so.

However, it cannot be denied that those who did manage to fill up the application, started receiving the amount from May 3rd onwards itself. If the state government does release figures as to how many workers received this one-time financial support, an empirical idea will be gained of how many did not receive and if the gap can be still met. A number of migrant workers from Uttar Dinajpur shared that since they were finding it difficult to access the Seher Parash application for reasons like those discussed above, there were politically active groups back home that had visited their homes and took necessary details from their household members on the pretext of connecting them to the financial benefit through Sneher Parash. The concerned people have not yet received the amount and hence it is being portrayed and spread as a failure of the ruling party in the state, where in reality, it is not even known if their details were eventually submitted at the right place at the right time. Though this time the siphoning off of money perhaps was reduced due to the Direct Bank Transfer modality, there seems to be a larger political game at play.

Filling and Calling and Waiting

The next major phase in the life of this migrant stuck away from home was announced when the government all of a sudden decided it was time to call them back! Thus, began a mad rush for filling forms and registering oneself wherever possible. In the process, there were three major platforms identified where registration was taking place- the local police station where the migrant was stuck and from where they had in most cases not received much cooperation up until now; the home state’s released form/application and a number of false agencies/individuals claiming to assist in this giant exodus too. Inevitably, the third category was the most rampant and phone numbers and false links were galore and it was tough pushing the genuine sources away from the false ones since the government was acting curiously confidential regarding the entire process themselves. Gyan and the group of three were panicking of what was to happen to them. They started vising their local police station twice a day instead of going and looking up queues for food and at last got themselves registered and received a SMS on each of their phone numbers. However, for two weeks there was no news as migrants from other states started to return and the Centre and Bengal started their usual political blame game. News of the same made its way to the migrants from Bengal and apart from anger and disappointment with their state government, their feeling of unwantedness deepened. Many questioned on the phone why was it that their fellow workers from other states were being called home before them?

One of the men from the group of three with Gyan, asked his wife to sell her gold jewellery and send the money to Gyan’s account from where they would withdraw it and hire a car to come back by themselves. They could not wait any longer. The painful money transaction was done but unfortunately the police informed the group that only three people could travel in a car apart from a driver. The group could not understand the logic since all these weeks they had very much been together then why this sudden distancing while only travelling? However, they failed to convince anyone else of this reasoning and Gyan was left back in the lodge as the other three started on their homeward journey with mixed feelings.

The registration process from the side of West Bengal, was as elusive as everything else that was being ‘offered’ to this lot. After almost all other states had started their registration process, West Bengal started theirs as their workers grew more and more panicked. A message was publicised which asked the migrant worker stuck to send a voice message saying “hi” to a certain number and then the entire procedure of filling yet another form would be sent across to the number saying “hi”. At the end of filling this form which was completely in English , the applicant received a very uplifting message that said that the applicant was homeward bound! There was no reference number provided or hint of what would happen next. And that was the end of the ‘hi’.

Tireless phone call campaigns were carried out to MPs and MLAs through the thousands of workers stuck all over the country but the general response they got was no response. The same applied for the nodal officer (a single one) and number given out for registration. It was a single number and a tollfree number which was to be accessed by not only those migrants from West Bengal stuck in different states but also the ones stuck in West Bengal from other states. Though nothing was achieved out of any of these half-hearted and weakly planned systems, however, along with the ‘call your MLA/MP’ campaign did not seem in vain though. The peoples’ representatives did not respond personally, but they could sense the mounting pressure from the numerous phone calls that they received, secondly, the migrant workers themselves began to realise the levels of government apathy towards them.

The trains were going to run but were they going to be on it?

The effort of the entire ordeal of rushing helter-skelter literally and otherwise, in order to register and get back to their own homes, cannot yet be evaluated since the process of drawing lists of passengers and trains still remains a mystery. When finally, albeit almost the last state to do so, a list of special trains was announced, there was again a mixed feeling of hope and new anxiety. As a result of demands from campaigns like RTF and workers themselves, and perhaps some pressure from the other state governments which were getting desperate to rid themselves in some way of their responsibility, the West Bengal government then announced an additional number of 105 trains during the second half of May. A fresh attempt was made to share the new schedule with all the workers stranded in different parts of the country, many of whom had started their own way homeward.

‘Atmanirbhar’ Workers

CSOs and workers themselves organized transport back. When trains were failing to meet the demand and organizations assisting workers could not understand the how the process of putting people on Shramik Specials was working. Workers organized their own vehicles and permits while organizations collected money to arrange for buses.AID India and a network of organizations who were running helplines in Andhra Pradesh, Telengana and Tamil Nadu started renting out buses and sending 30-50 people back at a time.Allauddin from Midnapore was in Surat with 45 others. They organized a bus for which they paid more than 1 lakh, got the necessary permits with our help, and set off. Alauddin was ecstatic and he sent us music videos of them on the bus with a soundtrack of happy Hindi songs about journeys home. The “bus”, though, that they had each paid nearly 5000 rupees for was actually an open truck. They sat in the back of the truck and traveled nearly 2000 km in the blistering summer sun.

A group of two hundred workers who were engaged in construction related work in Himachal Pradesh, were eager to start walking towards Pathankot which was almost a hundred kilometres away from the village they were in, since they received news that a train would leave from there. However, they were explained and tried to reason with that this time it was not like other times. This time the government was actively responsible for their transportation and hence the usual uncertainty in their lives was replaced by a different sort of dependence. There was no official information of a train from Pathankot anyhow. While they were not reluctant to undergo the journey even if the news was false, they were further explained that there was no guarantee that they would be able to board the train. This group after waiting (im)patiently for a train got information that ultimately on 15th May a train from Una was to leave. On 15th halfway to Una which is more than 200 kms from their village, they were informed the train has been cancelled due to Amphan. Those in the group who had some earnings left, hired buses by themselves and paid a minimum of rupees six thousand five hundred each to reach home. They were happy to be back but were not to forget their endurance, which they do possess, but this time was tested to the limit by and for not their ownselves or their loved ones, and hence the anger. Fortunately, or unfortunately for this group, the only single train that was ever planned from Una by their state government, reached almost a week after they had arrived, ferrying those who could not afford to buy their bus tickets. A group of men working in a private company in Mumbai, considered themselves comparatively lucky since their seth arranged for a bus for them for a sum of rupees one lakh thirty thousand. They felt the amount was lesser than what it would have been had they negotiated and hence paid up the sum of 7000 each. However, for a journey of approximately 2000 kms, the average bus fare from private players was not more than thousand rupees, under ordinary circumstances. Most of the groups from Mumbai and Pune, seemed to have been trying to return by themselves.

The levels of desperation were rising but paying fares to hire a vehicle privately was not possible for most. In order to try for an alternative for those whose names had not come up in any list of Sramik train even till end of May, the option was tried to book on ordinary trains which were to begin from 1st June by IRCTC. However, it was soon enough realised that most did not know how to book a ticket online and even if guided, they did not have any mode to pay for the ticket online. As far as the physical purchase of a ticket was concerned, there was no information about which station to go to and when. Many ended up travelling till the station only to be met by shut counters. Hence once again an apparently positive decision taken centrally, seemed to fall short of giving respite to many migrant workers.

The systems for workers to return to Bengal were already completely non-transparent. In the absence of any kind of public information on guidelines and operating procedures, the local police station or local municipality had complete authority. Clearly, corruption and manipulation from people with vested interests was inevitable.

To leave or not to leave

Ashok and a group of 30 others saw everyone leaving around them. Workers from Odisha, Jharkhand were all getting on trains. Some were hiring cars and some were hiring buses while some just decided to walk. They went and bought 30 second hand cycles and decided this was the way to travel 2000 km in the summer heat from Tamil Nadu to Purulia. The Campaign had already been in touch with Nityanand Jayaraman who sitting on the Kolkata-Chennai highway, had sent pictures of hundreds of workers starting to walk andcycle north. He had already reached out to urgently organize transport and if nothing at least food and water along the way. But the worker’s march north to Kolkata was futile; after they crossed into Andhra Pradesh and reached Vijaywada(at nearly half the distance from Chennai to Kolkata), AP police rounded them up and took them back and dumped them on the highway at the Tamil Nadu-Andhra Pradesh border again. Only on hearingthe ordeal that hundreds of workers from Chennai were put through, Ashok’s group agreed to wait for a train or bus.

Those stuck within West Bengal

A large number of workers were similarly stranded in West Bengal and were getting in touch with the state campaign through their respective state’s campaign contacts. One of the largest groups were from Jharkhand and Bihar. Both the respective state governments, seemed forthcoming in announcing assistance and promising relief but we soon learnt their worth. While the Jharkhand government announced a list of nodal officers with phone numbers for each district in West Bengal, on repeated attempts of trying to establish contact with them it was found that they did not have much to say. For instance, while the nodal officer, an IAS officer sitting in Jharkhand, for 24 Paraganas North, did receive calls he could only share that the local police in Bengal will be responsible for sending the migrants back to Jharkhand and the Jharkhand government had nothing to do with it. Baldeo had come to work in Madhyamgram and got stuck prior to the lockdown since he had a medical condition and could not travel back by himself. Baldeo had a metal rod inserted in his leg and since the time to take it had passed by, his leg had gotten infected and the pain unbearable. Though with the intervention of the Campaign he managed visiting the hospital and getting medicines but the doctors told him that they would not be able to operate and he would have to wait to get back to the hospital where he operated the first time. This very same Baldeo ultimately left his one room dwelling the night after Amphan came and flooded it entirely and reached his home, in Deogarh, a distance of almost 300 kms via mostly riding pillion on a cycle. Many others from Jharkhand were forced to pay rupees 1200 for a seat in a private bus which was leaving only from the city of Kolkata and would not even take them home but only to Ranchi.

While during the initial phase of the lockdown, the district wise control rooms were being contacted, for ration support mostly, this comparatively direct route soon changed and the district control rooms stopped taking in requests/information on cases. The directive given was, to call the central number 1070 and register oneself (ie the person/group seeking assistance) after which the concerned person would get a confirmation call back and then the process of assistance would begin. Most of the time, the migrant workers would get tired trying to get through 1070 and at other times waiting for a call back. The control rooms argued that they could only attend to cases which were assigned to them through the municipality which came via the central system. All this happening at the backdrop of pressuring the central government to empty the FCI godowns. Age old structural issues in the Public Distribution System (PDS) such as overflowing stocks of grains, faulty procurement and distribution channels, inadequate nutritional requirements, ration card digitalisation and transferability etc. were given a dressing of sudden emergence and importance.

In terms of different states’ treatment of migrants, not much of a difference could be observed apart from the phase of registration of workers to send them back to their homes; in which West Bengal definitely seemed to shuffle its feet. As West Bengal authorities were contacted for support to the migrants stuck within the state, it was realised what the migrants from West Bengal stuck in other states must be experiencing as they reached out to their respective authorities. It was realised that apart from the complete surrender to providence, local language barriers and hardly any direct communication with government authorities, only added to the uncertainty and vulnerability of the entire situation. In many cases the jurisdiction of the location where the migrant was stuck in the state , provided considerable confusion in the minds of volunteers and government officials. Numerous calls had to be made to police stations and block offices / municipalities to figure where were the migrants stuck in the first place. Either a very poor sense of geography or simply a callousness on the part of the police especially, could be sensed whenever they refused to acknowledge a location as falling under their jurisdiction and hence responsibility for it. It could only be imagined what migrant workers with lesser knowledge of the local administrative boundaries must be going through when having to contact these very same authorities by themselves.

Is there an end to this ‘struggle’?

By the beginning of the month of June the Indian Railways claimed that they had ferried 52 lakhs workers to their respective home states, however, along with that a fresh wave of panic and vulnerability took birth. Cases of Covid positive were reported and still more cases of gross neglect and inefficient handling on the part of the respective states with respect to quarantine facilities for these migrants. Along with heart wrenching photographs of workers making their way home, some on foot, some on cycles, and some on overloaded trucks, some hidden and some exposed to the glaring hot sun; another set of photographs were awaiting for them at home, dirty broken down quarantine centres and local political party and territorial rivalry found fresh turf. Gyan’s group of friends that he made while stuck in Sagar lodge, shared or rather questioned ,after reaching their quarantine centre that there were men kept in the same centre who had returned from different parts of the country, and if they were being allowed to live with them then why were they denied permission to travel with their Gyan bhai in the same car. Many who returned by themselves in hired buses and wanted more to fill the buses in order to reduce their own expenditure, seemed very perplexed with the logic that while travel the bus had to remain empty partially but where was the physical distancing before and after the journey? The arbitrariness of the government’s handling of the entire situation hence added to the confusion in the minds of lakhs about the severity of the virus and its spread.

In terms of responsibility and spreading of the virus, the migrants showed a great deal of restrain. The migrant labourers though waiting for two months and sometimes more to return home, on returning, did not rush to meet their family members though in their hearts they wanted nothing more. Showing restraint, most of the migrants were found to visit their local hospitals and go for quarantine by themselves while those returning via Sramik trains were straight taken to the government quarantine centres.

Baldeo on returning to his home in Deogarh, was surprised that no one checked him on the way and his villagers/neighbours too did not seem to say anything to him. After spending a day at his home, he himself went to the hospital and got sent to a quarantine centre. He still awaits the metal rod being taken out from his leg though since all the hospitals and health centres say they are overburdened with corona cases. The district portal especially set up for tracking corona cases, however, shows the active number of cases in Deogarh as 32 including 10 as recovered (as on 24th June, 2020).

Amphan: a ready diversion/opportunity for the state, an added calamity for the migrants

A group of three were stuck in Kutch, Gujarat since the onset of the lockdown. Post Amphan, one of them named Bablu Maity, who was from the South 24 parganas, the district that received the maximum damage due to the cyclone, was agitated to return home. He feared for his family and home’s condition due to the cyclone but his urgency was a waste when it came to the local police there and even the local representatives back home who were well aware of the devastation the cyclone had caused. Finally, some help from the NGOs in Gujarat ensured their registration along with the announcement of a train to Bengal in two days, but even this was a momentary relief for Bablu who was not given a token pass to avail the train unlike his friends when they were beckoned to the police station. Somehow, next day he was able to board the train after much persuasion and frantic calls from the Campaign’s side to the organisations in Kutch. Bablu’s ordeal did not end there though, little did he know, that all these registrations and delays to ensure time to the governments to prepare proper quarantine centres had made no difference.

In his Block quarantine centre, Bablu was relived to be close to his family but fresh trouble brewed. When few in the quarantine centre raised their voice against the inhuman conditions they were being kept in, a huge fight erupted and few in the village who were politically active, took the lead to further politicise the issue rather than address it. The violence rose to such a state that the entire village gathered to evict this group from the quarantine centre when it was almost midnight. Panic and fear prevailed that entire night for them all.

In 51 blocks of North and South 24 Parganas, a research conducted (by Delta Vulnerability & Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation) showed that 64% migrate for economic reasons including unsustainable agriculture. Hence the return of migrant workers coupled with the lockdown and Amphan only aggravated the economic and agricultural hardships which they had migrated away from.

Amphan & Covid

Debashish and 8 of his friends from Kultali in the Sunderbans worked as construction workers in Malappuram. They did not have a fixed employer or contractor but travelled around Kerala and worked wherever construction workers were needed. When the lockdown started, they were stranded in a small village in a worker’s lodge. The Campaign regularly intervened on their behalf with the village administration to ensure they received adequate food. When Shramik Specials started, they registered to go back and were waiting for the train when Amphan struck. Debashish’s house was destroyed in the storm. Fields in their village were flooded with salt water. A couple of days after the storm, he called us and said that he no longer knew what to do. While they were making to with about a fourth of the work they normally found in Kerala, they were now sure that there would be no agricultural work for him back home. The dilemma was between helping their families recover from the after-effects of the storm and the need for wages and work. About 2 weeks after the cyclone, eventually, they boarded the Shramik Special back home. These men had all left their wives with young children and old parents behind in their villages. Rebuilding houses and coping with broken embankments and flooded lands meant young men needed to come back home but this time they did not bring with them any financial support.

From embarrassing clashes between state-Centre regarding the spread and management of the Corona virus, focus shifted to demanding grand figures for cyclone aid. With the state elections due next year (2021), it only became too obvious what the state’s priorities are, and the migrant workers disappeared as dramatically and ephemerally as they had appeared. But yes, disappeared perhaps from mainstream news media and public political speeches, but their existence is and has always been fundamental to the very rubric of society that denies them dignity of life and decency of wages, leave alone scope for justice in time of crisis.

Experiences of the State Campaign

The entire experience of working with and for groups of people whom had not been seen or met ever, and co-ordinating while maintaining physical distancing, was an entire new learning in the campaign’s life. Since meetings could not be held in the conventional sort of way, new methods of communication and working were developed. Regular conference calls, special whatsapp groups, numerous excel sheets and continuous phone calls, was the only way ahead. Various volunteers were invited virtually to help in the process as distress calls and unresponsive government helplines were on the rise. New relationships were built and existing ones revived, as inter-state coordination was imperative at every stage of work. Numbers were shared and languages learned to impart basic information to the lakhs stranded and scattered. Though the National Campaign for Right to Food and Work was the initial springboard, however, many other activists, organisations and concerned individuals, were connected with. Apart from coordination activities for information dissemination for logistic support , fundraising was crucial since the gaps in the government provided services were ample. Fortunately, a number of sources came up, which were looking for donating to channels apart from the enormous but ambiguous PM CARES and CM CARES funds. These kind-hearted sources seemed to care more about where and how the funds were going to be utilised apart from tax exemptions; it was reassuring that the campaign came across these conscientious individuals who also understood the immediacy of the situation at hand.

A rather new and enriching experience for us at this juncture which we hope to build on in times to come, is our inherent but latent quality to reassure and counsel. For a change, it was not just about identifying issues and delivering services and information; sometimes Gyan only had to be told to hold on patiently. Baldeo and his wife too, who called repeatedly from their home in Deogarh for her husband’s safe return, had to be reassured that the government is going to do something for him soon. In many cases our ‘job’ was to only wait with them while they waited. In the end how things end up do not matter as much as the journey itself; and this is an important lesson we as activists, campaigners , students and volunteers , learnt from this entire episode. Post-Amphan when many of us were without our phone and internet connections, we panicked about how, those whom we had been in touch with, would panic when they could not through our numbers. Though we had never met them, a connection with many had been made for life.

The Right to Food and Work Campaign in West Bengal, got in touch with other organisations as well to collate and share lists of almost ten thousand migrant workers, both with the West Bengal government and the respective state government where they were stuck. Individual letters were hence drafted to the concerned Chief Secretaries with the list of workers along with their phone numbers and places where they were stranded at present. Another short campaign was run where groups of migrants stuck were asked to share on social media platform, videos of their plight and present demands from the state government. Specifically, as early as May 4th, the Campaign shot off a letter to the Chief Secretary of West Bengal, Shri Rajiv Sinha, with copies to other concerned authorities like Principal Secretary of Department of Disaster Management and Civil Defence, asking for the appropriate and rightful processes during return of the migrants to the state of West Bengal. On 30th April another letter had already been shared with similar demands, with an endorsement of almost 30 other organisations/campaigns in the state. The issues raised varied from practical logistical issues about food and lodging arrangements to those of respect and autonomy in case of workers being allowed to decide for themselves if they wanted to return or not.

The overall impact of these remain a mystery since the concerned government agencies never take a moment to either acknowledge or identify these non-governmental efforts which go not only the last mile but many miles in all crisis situations, and the Covid lockdown was no exception. The calls we received from our migrant workers when they returned home, was enough of an acknowledgement, as we both heaved sighs of relief, for the time being at least.

                                                -Written by Ms. Mrinalini Paul , a social worker and Right to Food activist, she is currently pursuing a Mphil-Phd from TISS, Mumbai

Stranded and Forgotten- A group of migrant workers from West Bengal

A platform bereft of travellers in Secunderabad Railway Station. Courtesy: Risabh Mathur

Manik Ghosh, Gobindo Ghosh and Mithoon Ghosh, migrant workers who are neighbours within a village at Ranaghat, Habibpur in West Bengal, were stranded in Secunderabad Railway station, when their trains abruptly got cancelled on Mar 24, at the onset of the lockdown. Unable to find any night refuges from the local government, they took shelter on the streets, only to be driven away by the police, for they were not even allowed a corner there. They were beaten for two days, while harbouring from one lane to another. Finally, along with another worker, Ganesh Chhetri, they settled in a single room charged at Rs 600 per night in a lodge in Secunderabad. 

Manik has left his wife and two daughters back in his village in West Bengal. He works as a saree peddler, working in one place at a stretch of 2-3 months and coming home to spend a week to 10 days with his family, before moving on to yet another town or city for work. He, along with Gobindo and Mithoon, arrived at Kothagudem in Telangana in February, 2020 to sell sarees as a peddler. They had just managed to earn about Rs 10,000 each, after 40 days of work, when the first day of lockdown was announced on Mar 23. Alarmed at the possibility of getting stranded in this unknown place, they managed to book seats on a train to West Bengal on Mar 24.

Gobindo, also hailing from the same village, has a tumour in one of his legs. Unable to bear the expense of a lakh to operate the tumour, he has been living with it for the past twenty years. Using the medical reports of that tumour, he was able to book for the three of them, an ambulance for Rs 8500 to reach the Secunderabad station, about 350kms from Kothagudem, to board the train, only to discover that the trains had been cancelled without any prior notice. This money that could have helped them during these distressing hours now gone without any outcome, they could not go back to Kothagudem as they could not imagine paying another Rs 8500 for the return journey.

Gobindo, having a family of a wife and two daughters, used to pull rickshaws back in his village. With no parents, he has been surviving on his own since he was adolescent. The sudden prolonged lockdown has exhausted monetary resources in all their families back in the village. Their boss in Kothagudem has not been able to guarantee any work for them post lockdown. The thought itself scares them as they think about their source of work, their future survival. They have no land back in the city.

The four of them have exhausted all their money while having to pay Rs 600 per night for the room in Secunderabad. They are getting food from the local police station which is a fifteen minutes’ walk away, where about 500 people gather to seek half a packet khichdi twice a day, not enough to subdue the hunger of people who have not had food for more than 24 hours. Manik expresses, “We have been living with extreme difficulties. The khichdi that we get do not suffice, so I drink water to feel full for some time at least.”

Every day, only half the people in the queue gets food, while the other half returns, only to repeat the wait again in the next turn in hope of some food. Gobindo mostly gets food in the daytime, but the evenings are very uncertain. Many a nights, he has returned without food. He even tries to sympathise with the police at times while speaking to us over phone, saying, “Probably the people standing in the queue eat more, as they have been only eating once a day for weeks together. This is probably why the food finishes.” They go out to other places to look for food on days when they do not get the khichdi. However, the police physically assault them from time to time, when they go out of their shelters, even when in search of food.

The free ration and money as promised by the state also have not been given to them. Manik has been to the police station four or five times to enquire, but each time, he has been verbally and occasionally physically assaulted for asking his deserved right to free ration and Rs 500 as compensation. A ration shop had opened nearby to distribute the free ration but only to 100 out of the 600 people gathered there. They promised to deliver the rest shortly, never to open again till date. All the migrants stuck in the nearby area, along with this group of four, had once gathered together to request the police to hear them out. But before any conversation could begin, they were thrashed.

The mention of their room rent in the lodge tenses them each time. The money earned from the work has exhausted in paying the rent. A more 12 days rent is now due, as of 30th April. The local government have not provided any shelter to accommodate thousands of such migrants stuck in the area. They do not feel supported each time when they call the helpline numbers provided from the Telangana government. Manik feels as a burden and disrespected whenever he calls the helpline numbers for assistance in search of shelter homes. Each time they are given hope of people coming to take them to such shelters but nobody has turned up till date. The lodge owner has also threatened them to pay up or all their possessions, including phones, will be seized. 

They are now hopeful after hearing the news of the special trains running to take the migrants back home. They have submitted all the documents to the West Bengal Government coordinators and have registered their names with the Telangana police station. Every day they call the helpline numbers multiple times, in hope of some transport that takes them back to their homes to be with their families. However even with this hope, lies fear and severe anxiety, as they are uncertain about paying their remaining room rent to the lodge before leaving, worried if any such transportation will be available to them at all. 

                                           - Written by Ms. Debosmita Ghosh, a vernacular architect and researcher, she is currently working on housing rights of tribal communities 

Lockdown woes- A Case Study of a family amidst the nationwide lockdown

The struggles of Mr. Krishna Das, as told to the Right to Food and Work Coordinator, North Bengal-

Born at Lalmati Tun Bagan, near Kamakhya, Assam, Mr. Krishna Das was a wholesale grocery shop worker for almost 12 years of his life, since the age of 10 when he moved to Chalsa in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal. Thereafter, he worked in various shops in Alipurduar and eventually, became a hawker in Siligiri, surviving with just Rs. 200-300 per day. This income being insufficient to support a family, Krishna moved to Jaipur, Rajasthan post-marriage in 2014 with dreams of a better life. He started working at a construction site and his wife and 10-yr old step-daughter sold vegetables.

In hopes of better earning and living opportunities in Tamil Nadu, Krishna with his family reached Chennai Central Railway Station the same year, where they roamed around for two days until a “thekedar” (contractor) named Mukesh Kumar promised them work in Erode in return of free food and a pay of Rs 6000 per head per month, i.e., a total of Rs 18000 per month for Krishna, Manju Bibi and their daughter. Hopeful at this prospect, Mr. Krishna and his family reached Erode, where they worked without any payment in an egg farm for three months. Eventually they were sent to a water plant in an unknown place. Each time their enquiry about the place or their wages were met by threats from Kumar, who thereafter sent them to a brick kiln with promises of more money and food. Krishna’s family was left with no other choice but to follow Kumar, where they remained unpaid for another three months’ work.

When his wife became pregnant, Krishna was desperately seeking money to take her to the doctor as she was in pain, only to receive death threats from Kumar each time. Krishna and his family spent their days in intense fear. Kumar’s wife, Anita, unsuccessfully attempted to extort money from Manju Bibi by threatening to hurt her womb, in lieu of the food she was feeding them, which was supposed to be free according to Kumar’s promise. As per Krishna’s statement, Anita, unable to tolerate seeing them resting on days of no work, even made them clean the toilet of her child. One evening, under the influence of alcohol, Kumar along with another person physically assaulted Krishna and threatened to sell Krishna’s daughter to a dance bar in Bihar.

After managing to convince Kumar to allow them to visit the hospital, Krishna and Manju Bibi were able to escape from his bondage. Kumar and his wife, however, had kept his three children (Ms. Selvi Solina, Mr. Kuttash and Ms. Pooja) with  them. Realizing the need for police intervention to rescue their children, Krishna and his wife went back to work at one of the factories in erode where they had worked before, as arranged by Mr. Thapa, from Assam. They returned to Jaipur with the money earned from the week-long work at the factory and Krishna resumed work under Milan builder, where he was working in the past. He, then, narrated his entire experience of Erode and lodged a complaint to the police in Jaipur, who intervened and rescued his children from Kumar and his wife. They also learned that, while in bondage, Kumar and his wife repeatedly tortured their children by burning them with cigarette and hot metal.

Upon learning the compensation offered by the State government as relief for bondage, Krishna and his family moved back to Baneswar in Coochbehar, West Bengal to his mother-in-law’s house and started working in an agricultural field for a few days. They opened their respective bank accounts under the Jan Dhan Yojana in Central Bank of India. It was during this time, that Krishna was given financial assistance by Anuradha Talwar, when he was referred to Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity. The organisation tried to get him his benefits as a released bonded labour even though they do not work directly in Coochbehar. So far he has received a total of Rs 60,000 as State Government relief for himself, his wife and elder daughter, all whom were bonded. However, monetary arguments with his father-in-law forced Krishna and his family to move to Bongaigaon, Assam, where he worked in a shop and Manju Bibi swept the coaches of Kanchan Kanya Express. A teary eyed Krishna recalls that they were blessed with a boy, Bikram, while in Assam, who unfortunately succumbed to pneumonia when he was just 1 month 25 days old.

When the tension regarding the implementation of NRC was deepening in Assam, Krishna and his family, one again, returned to West Bengal at Ward no. 35, Siliguri in February. Ever since, Krishna has been working as a rickshaw puller and Manju along with Kuttash as train compartment sweepers to earn their living, until the onset of the imposed lockdown to counter the spread of Covid-19.

The lockdown has had severe repercussions on the lives of Krishna and his family, with even the last hope of any income coming to a halt now. Within a week’s time, the last bit of ration, money and gas was exhausted. Ms. Anuradha Talwar along with the coordinator of RTFW North Bengal unit has been assisting him and his family. Their continued efforts resulted in sponsoring of  20kg rice, 2 kg potato, 1ltr soya oil, 500ml mustard oil, 2 kg pulses, 1 pkt of salt, some spices and Rs 200 for gas to Krishna by Human Life Development & Research Centre (HLDRC) on 31st March, 2020.
On 8th April, Krishna suffered the demise of his 18 days old daughter due to severe diarrhea, after being denied treatment at the Railway Hospital, who cited that the hospital was only meant for railway personals and their families. They even took the baby to the North Bengal Medical College but unfortunately she passed away on the way to the hospital.

Mr Krishna Das and his family in their rented accommodation at Siliguri, West Bengal

Mr. Krishna and his wife with intense grief expressed that they couldn’t feed their daughter properly to save her life, due to lack of money. The RTFW coordinator has assisted them with a sum of Rs. 500 on 10th April to refill the gas and perform the last rites of the child. On 12th April, 2020, continued efforts of the RTFW coordinator ensured a relief package of 3 kg rice, 250 grams of pulses, 500 grams of potato and a little amount of edible oil to Mrs. Manju Bibi for the entire lockdown period.

The inhuman torture experienced by Mr. Krishna and his family, especially with the demise of two children, have left them completely shattered with no ray of hope ahead. They (Krishna, Manju Bibi and daughter Selvi Solina) have given statements in Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan, which have been published in the Print Media. Even after three years of continued efforts by Krishna and Ms. Anuradha Talwar, the Central Government relief package of Rs 5 lakhs for bonded labour is still pending with just periodic and repeated exchange of paperwork between the State and the Centre.

Krishna and his family are repeatedly distressed with the delay of compensation amount as this is their last chance at looking towards a better time in their lives, buy milk to feed their 4 year old daughter, acquire a gas connection, have a home and educate his daughters so that they can have a better future, which Krishna and his wife never had a chance at.

                                                                          -Written by Ms. Debosmita Ghosh, a vernacular architect and researcher, she is currently working on housing rights of tribal communities and Mr. Pawan Baxla, social worker and Right to Food activist as well as North Bengal coordinator, he has stood beside the family ever since they reached Siliguri

12 September 2020

Victory for the NREGA workers in Purulia

Members of PBKMS finally receive work in Jitujuri panchayat of Manbazar-1 block in Purulia district

Workers at the NREGA work site in Jitujuri Panchayat, Purulia 

Our union members have a long struggle could finally secure their right to work under the MGNREGA, 2005. The PBKMS members and residents of the concerned panchayat had applied for work on 22/08/2020. They received only six days of employment from the panchayat and they were prevented from even working on those days by strongmen bearing allegiance to the local leadership of a political party. Our members were told that they could only work under the programme only after receiving their due permission. Aggrieved NREGA workers then complained to the concerned Block Development Officer on 24/08/2020 and also to the District Nodal Officer on 02/09/2020.
Finally, they were informed by the administration to resume work and police protection has also been assured in case they face any harassment at the work site.       

The incident has been put on on twitter by the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, a national platform working with workers of NREGA:

Local and state dailies have also covered the incident and a news paper clipping in the regional language has been provided as a reference:
The Purulia-Bankura page of 'Anandabazar Patrika' covering the development

The workers are extremely relieved to have been able to resume work and their victory has instilled a sense of hope in the neighbouring villages on the ability of people to triumph over systemic forces, working against the interests of the marginalized population.

09 September 2020

PBKMS participating in the 'Action Week'

District Units begin social action campaigns from 8th September, 2020  

Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS) has responded to the call of Right to Food and Work Network, West Bengal and is participating enthusiastically in highlighting the lax implementation of the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013. The action week beginning from 8th September, 2020 will witness the participation of civil society organizations, people's associations and grassroots movements across the state of West Bengal. We all will raise the demand for the implementation of the NFSA, 2013 in its true spirit. The elected government cannot avoid its constitutional obligation to the people of the nation and have to stand by them in these trying times. Vulnerable communities reeling under the impact of a shrinking economy compounded by the unplanned nationwide lock down amidst a global pandemic are seeking answers.   
The field areas of PBKMS across West Bengal has seen massive mobilization by the local leadership in the first phase of the action week. Handbills are being widely distributed and meetings in NREGA job sites are also being organized. The local leadership and the state committee members are organizing district level meetings to sustain the week long campaign in the field areas. Walls in the villages will be utilized for communicating the systemic denial of entitlements and the demands of the organization. Banners will also be put up in selected locations. Some of the initiatives of our union members have been shared below:

Women blocking the main road in Hasnabad block, North 24 Parganas and protesting with our trade union's flag

An interactive session on working class movement in progress in Namkhana, South 24 Parganas

Engaging with NREGA workers at a work site in Dantan-1 block, West Midnapore 

Preparatory session on the action week programme with women community leaders in Kulpi, South 24 Parganas

Distribution of handbills and engaging with community members in Dantan-1 block, West Midnapore

Handbill distribution in a community centre in Minakha block, North 24 Parganas

Women displaying their demands in a community centre in  Joynagar- 2 block, South 24 Parganas

Women assembling with posters and raising their demands in the 'Amphan' affected block of Kultuli, South 24 Parganas

A street corner meeting held in Datan 1 block, West Midnapore

Women members of Mathurapur -2 block, South 24 Parganas protesting with banners and pamphlets 

A video clip of a 'Thali Bajao' campaign organized by the union leaders of Kultuli block, South 24 Parganas:

Wall writing in Kultuli, South 24 Parganas conveying the demand to disburse maternity benefit entitlements immediately

Graffiti in the district of West Midnapore listing out our demands to secure food and work for the people under existing pieces of legislation

Outreach programme in Kultuli, South 24 Parganas

A street corner meeting in South 24 Parganas

One of our union members painting a wall with demands in Kultuli, South 24 Parganas

Union members with posters against the backdrop of a wall bearing testimony to the 'Action Week' campaign

Wall paintings bearing our demands in Rajendrapur Gram Panchayat, North 24 Parganas

Our field areas in North Bengal have also began their community led programmes and we will be sharing the media files from the scenic but oppressive tea gardens of Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri districts.