Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Tea Workers: Don’t stop rations without rationalizing labour laws

The Union Government of India has decided to stop supply of subsidised foodgrains for tea garden workers through FCI. This is a very unfortunate development. It may cause mass starvation deaths of tea workers in Assam. Particularly in those tea estates which are closed now.

The labour rules and practice of tea gardens are governed by laws codified in the Plantation Labour Act, 1951. The Act provides for part payment of wages in kind in the forms of rations, housing, health care etc. and part in cash. The payment in cash falls far below the minimum wages determined under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948 for unskilled labour and the facilities meant to be provided in lieu of payment are not provided in reality as was found by several civil society fact-findings as well as government appointed inquiry committees.

The Act perpetuates anachronistic feudal labour practice by allowing archaic mode of payment in kind. In fact, the tea workers are working under a practice of modern day slavery. They are also living in a condition of enforced famine.

The labourers have been living for hundreds of years-- generation after generation-- in their respective tea gardens. They do not hold any title of ownership over the land. They are only entitled to stay there as long as they work in the garden. They can be forcibly evicted from their huts and made homeless if they opt for any other work. Thus they are forced to work at wages which their owner pleases to pay them and which is far below the state minimum wages in all cases. In some tea gardens in Assam they are paid about Rs. 75/- 78/- or 85/
- per day. When labourers demand hike of wages or payment of arrears the the gardens are illegally closed down and payments are stopped. This drives the labourers and their children, who are suffering from inter-generationl malnutrition, to literal starvation death. This is happening in Assam and West Bengal. Most of the labour unions are affiliated to political parties. Their priority is protect the interests of the political parties, not those of workers. The workers are living, nay dying, in a condition of artificial famine and working in a condition of slavery.

The working conditions of tea labourers in Assam is slavery-like for two reasons. 1. They are paid less than the statutory minimum wages. 2. They practically cant exercise the option to leave the work and look for alternative because such move will render them homeless.

It is barely possible to maintain physical existence of a family of 4/5 persons on the irregular payment of the pittance in the name of wages. They get some help from ICDS, MGNREGA and PDS rations. If MGNREGA is reduced and ration is stopped there is nothing to stop mass starvation deaths, I am afraid.

In a span of a few months in 2012/13 we documented as many as 32 hunger deaths in a single tea estate in South Assam. The estate was closed. After our intervention it was opened. A compensation to the tune of Rs 1700000/- was provided to the next of kins of some of the deceased workers. Some other ameliorative actions were also taken. It was a temporary relief in practical sense. Technically the government closed the chapter.
During documentation we came to know that due to the closure of the work provisions of government subsidised rations were also stopped. The foodgrains were provided to the owner of the tea gardens under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 and who in turn distributed it to the workers who were the intended beneficiaries.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) heard and disposed of our complaint about these hunger deaths in its camp sitting in Guwahati last year. In the second day of the camp, the commission had a sitting with the local human rights defenders where I raised the issue and among other things I specifically stressed that the ration should be directly given to the labourers through their panchayats and not through the owners. The commission apparently was convinced and directed the officials present (a deputy home secretary and others) orally to consider my proposal. Though the state government kept giving us assurances but no change in the practice was made.

And now the Modi government decided to stop altogether the supply of rations to the labourers.

In this situations it is necessary that until and unless the labourers are paid statutory minimum wages under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948 and they are provided with foods under the Food Security Act, 2013, the government should not stop the supply of rations that have been being provided to them under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955.

For this, the central government needs to amend the Plantations Labour Act, 1951 that governs working conditions of tea labourers. The required amendment must be done as soon as possible.

Stopping rations without rationalising plantation labour laws would result in mass starvation deaths of tea workers.

To know more about hunger deaths of tea workers of Assam please visit: https://bhrpc.wordpress.com/bhrpc.wordpress.com/2012/03/17/reports-on-starvation-deaths-in-assam/

Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Muslims and ISIS

Those who think themselves Muslims but do not endorse the brutality of ISIS should not condemn the acts of barbarity by the latter as only apologies for being Muslims. It should not be an apology. Also, the verbal condemnation is not enough. Such Muslims owe it to the world and to their claim that Islam has nothing to do with such madness of violence and brutality that they should make their version of Islam triumphant over that of ISIS and capable of stopping this madness. It is primarily the responsibility of such Muslims because those madmen in the group come from Muslim societies and are using Islam and plight of Muslim societies to justify their madness.

The sense of this responsibility should not come from any sense of collective guilt or as a collective punishment. This responsibility comes from you being true to your claims about your faith and ideology and the claimed commitment of your faith promote well being of humankind and prevent harms to them (al-amr bil-ma'roof wan-nahyu a'n-al munkar) and also because the harm is coming from your house.

Some may ask why single out ISIS only when killings and atrocities are being committed by many others far more in numbers. They may cite killings of civilians by USA and NATO drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other West Asian countries, Israeli killings in Gaza, executions in Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, atrocities of China in Tibet and Xinjiang etc. This argument does not hold ground because two wrongs do not make a right. Atrocities any where in the world are unacceptable and condemnable. All should work to prevent them. Every killing is brutal and tragic, whether it is crude beheading or surgical droning. But killing of people like British aid worker Alan Henning is more tragic. He was there trying to save people. Killing of children in their sleeps are also more tragic. Those who claim to be Muslim and also claim that their Islam does not allow such killings should work more to stop this barbarism being committed in their name.