People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
January 07, 2007
Towards The AIAWU’s Sixth All-India Conference
THE All India Agricultural Workers Union (AIAWU) is holding its sixth all-India conference in Punjab on June 3-5, 2007. The venue will be Nawashahar, close to Bhagat’s Singh’s home village of Khatkar Kalan. According to the general secretary’s report presented at the General Council meeting held at Mumbai on December 2-3, and reports from the Punjab state committee, the reception committee was constituted on April 10, 2006. A bank account has been opened and some Rs 75000 have been collected. It was also decided by the General Council that the delegacy to the conference would be decided on the basis of the 2006-07 membership, which ought to be close to 50,00,000.
GROWTH IN MEMBERSHIP
The discussion in the General Council concluded that reaching this target is possible as the membership in Andhra Pradesh alone rose from 7,88,906 to 11,12,972 from 2004 to 2005, while that in Punjab rose from 69,670 to 91,484, in Karnataka from 29,997 to 49,310, in Maharashtra from 60,580 to 74,430 and in Tripura from 1,76,160 to 1,85,501 in the same period. In the Hindi speaking states too, the membership in Uttar Pradesh rose from 58,000 to 64,370, Haryana from 14,168 to 14,780, Rajasthan from 17,500 to 22,000, and Madhya Pradesh from 2,200 to 2,600, raising hope that the AIAWU membership in these states could increase considerably. Also, there is every hope of increasing the union’s membership in the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Gujarat if a proper approach is adopted. In Bihar too, which noted a sharp fall in the membership from 1,15,360 to 78,310, it was reported that the membership was actually around 90,000 but, because of an incorrect understanding regarding the finalisation of membership, the state committee had failed to integrate it for the year 2005-06.
However, the comrades leading the organisation in these states should take the initiative to go to the masses, integrate them in the day to day activities of our union, concentrate on the issues of employment guarantee, minimum wages, public distribution system (PDS) and the provision of BPL cards, price rise, allocation of house-sites and land, as well as in defence of the lives and livelihood of the scheduled castes and tribes and bring them into its organisational structure. In Punjab the AIAWU has recently succeeded in wresting from the state government concessions in electricity charges and other concessions including pensions.
Forging struggles on these issues should not be difficult for the whole country as the pauperisation of the peasantry is proceeding at a fast pace. No less than 33 lakh peasants have lost their land each year from 1991 to 2001, while the days of work have declined from 123 a year per person in the 1980s to about 70 now, leaving for the agricultural labourers no alternative but to struggle or starve. Indeed, no less than 20,000 have died of starvation in the last eight years while crores of workers have been milling around as migrants looking for work, losing their lives in accidents, from overwork and appalling conditions of labour, doing jobs no one else is prepared to do.
Under these conditions, it is obvious that wherever the union leadership is capable of giving grassroots guidance by getting close to the daily problems of workers and remaining in touch with them at the village level, it has won their confidence and has been leading them in struggles. Hence an increase of membership should be no problem. But it is. Although the AIAWU has led powerful struggles under its banner in Rajasthan, UP and Bihar, these struggles are not getting reflected in its membership. Without doing this, we will fail to achieve our objectives in spite of our best efforts. That is why the call of our Mumbai General Council meeting for a 50 lakh membership by our sixth conference must be taken up by the state committees concerned in all seriousness. They should analyse their weaknesses, adopt steps to correct them and ensure that they meet their quotas for 2006-07, which are not only reasonable but also necessary in the present circumstances.
EMPLOYMENT GUARANTEE ACT
One of the most favourable developments in this period has been the passage of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act on August 25, 2005, with its formal implementation beginning on February 2, 2006. But this did not happen without consistent struggle by our union, other mass organisations and the Left political parties who had made the passage of this bill a plank for their support to the UPA government at the centre. In fact, not only did the Left fight at every step of the process of this bill becoming a law, it also ensured that the first draft that was tabled in parliament on December 21, 2004, was sent to a select committee of the parliament, from where it came back in a much altered form. This we see as the present act.
Among the major changes we proposed was that once this act became operative in a district, it could not be reversed. Secondly, all districts in the country were to be included in the act in a time bound manner after its initial introduction in 200 districts. Thirdly, the rights bestowed under the act were not to be limited to the poor, BPL or any other category of persons. All people who were unemployed for 15 days had a right to be employed and to apply for work. Fourthly, the nuclear family of one or two adults and their children would qualify as the unit for employment purposes and not joint families with one ration card or those living under one roof. Lastly, while the original draft was not prepared to pay even minimum wages, it was the Left pressure that ensured that either Rs 60 or the concerned state’s statutory minimum wage, whichever was more, is paid for a day’s manual labour. It also forced for the exemption of both machines and contractors from such labour projects. Without these provisions the law would have become yet another way to cheat the workers and siphon off the funds provided under the act for other purposes.
It was not surprising then that where our organisation took initiative, not only did the people come to know of its provisions, but our union became the instrument to ensure its implementation as well, gaining the respect of the people who then joined our organisation in large numbers. The general secretary’s report to the council noted the following.
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act’s passage and its implementation have helped our organisation develop its strength in villages and districts as never before. Notable is the mass dissemination of the message of NREGA in the whole state of Andhra Pradesh. A state level seminar was held, followed by 13 district level seminars and 656 mandal level seminars. These were attended by about 2 lakh people. This allowed for the act to be publicised widely, to inform the people and especially the rural landless of the role of the democratic movement in ensuring the passage of the law, increasing the prestige of the union among the people and the local administration, while reaching out to the widest possible sections of agricultural labour and bringing them to our fold. In fact our union alone printed nearly 20 lakh job cards.
The experience of our comrades in Karnataka too is illuminating. Five districts are under the purview of this act: Gulbarga, Bidar, Raichur, Devanagar and Chitradurga. Our union had influence only in Raichur. But in other areas, especially Gulbarga, the union has, with the help of the AIKS, registered 12000 families and aims at organising 500 groups of 50 labourers each for work; 100 such groups are already in existence in Gulbarga and have got work. Our union, whose membership is 1,500 in the district, is making an effort to increase it to 5,000 at one go as a result of this opening provided by the passage of the law.
Maharashtra, which has 12 districts under the law, reports how the union undertook struggles against corruption and delay in providing job cards and work. This resulted in 54 lakh people being registered but only 23,50,000 actually getting job cards and a lesser number getting work. Here too, no implementation was possible without vigilance and struggle.
In UP, 5,000 people from different mass organisations of the districts under the law had to come to Lucknow to demonstrate before the implementation was begun.
In Sirsa, the only district in Haryana under this act, Rs 95 per day is being paid and our agitation had the workload reduced.
In other states too, the programme of implementing the NREGA was a success. The Tamilnadu committee of the AIAWU has given us a systematic report of the mismanagement and bungling that takes place during the implementation of this act where the all-pervasive presence of our union is not there. First, instead of registering all the unemployed, only 9.37 per cent of workers were registered. Often, even registered workers are unaware that they must further apply for getting work after registration. Also, minimum wages are not being paid as stipulated in the act. The way they do this is by getting piecework done at miserable wages under arbitrary “time rates” that are themselves illegal under the Minimum Wages Act (1948). The Tamilnadu unit of the union had to resort to demonstrations to ensure that the act be implemented properly.
ISSUES TO FOCUS UPON
These reports indicate that the struggle to implement this act can become an important basis to organise the most downtrodden sections of the rural masses and integrate them into our organisation. The important issues to focus on are:
Ensuring that all those who are unemployed are registered.
Ensuring that registered persons apply for work.
Workbooks are given to them and payments are made weekly to the nearest post office in their names.
That the amount of work stipulated can be done in seven hours in a day.
That implements are provided by the panchayat.
Facilities like drinking water, a crèche, first aid and shade are available at the Worksite that should not be more than 5 Km from the place of residence.
Transport is provided if the place of work is more than 5 kilometres away.
Neither contractors nor machines are used.
No payment is asked for forms and for photographs for the scheme.
Vigilance committees are set up to monitor implementation.
The act must be implemented in new districts as well.
The state committees of the union, especially in states like UP, Bihar, Maharashtra, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, should not be satisfied with the implementation of the act only in districts where they have a presence. Initiative should be taken to introduce the union’s activity related to the implementation of the act and ensuring its benefits to agricultural labourers to all the districts of the state where the act is operative. This will naturally require that the state leadership tour these districts and organise teams to ensure that the provisions of the act are popularised, job cards provided and applications for jobs made. This initiative will help boost the state units in many of the major states to meet their membership quotas and ensure the success of our coming sixth conference.
Then there is the question of the functioning of the public distribution system (PDS). Today, in a large number of states, especially in UP, MP, Rajasthan and Haryana, the system has virtually stopped functioning. Even the meagre quota of grain, when the daily availability of foodgrains has fallen to the level of the famine years of the late 1940s, is not available in ration shops. Sugar supply through the PDS has been discontinued. Kerosene is generally not available, and that too in a period where the market price of the necessities of life has doubled while work available has gone down. In these conditions the average agricultural labourer earning between Rs 25 to 45 a day is incapable of paying even the price demanded by the APL ration shops, leave alone buying food in the market.
There is no other alternative but to demand that all agricultural labourers be given the BPL cards. But the reverse is happening. The government at the centre and in many states is actually reducing the quota of BPL cards when 47 percent of those living below the poverty line do not have them even at present. So the struggle to ensure that all those living below the poverty line can be conducted successfully at the village and block level. This will not only help to increase our membership, but it will also allow us to activate our village level primary units that, as we have been urging conference after conference, should be brought into the day to day activity.
TIME TO MOVE
We must understand that it is the best time for the working people of the country to come forward and voice their demands. The failure of the ruling classes to impose a two-party system on the country that gives people no choice of political alternatives has given us space to implement pro-people policies through a coalition government that has to survive on the Left support to its CMP commitments. This was responsible for the passage of crucial legislation like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Right to Information Act, the Domestic Violence Act and the Tribal Forest Rights Act. All these new laws have strengthened the hand of the people. But the hardest task is to ensure that the beneficiaries of this legislation come forward boldly to demand their implementation. This can only be done if they are organised. This is the crucial task before us.
The crucial point to understand is that not only must we fight consistently against large-scale dispossession of the small land holder, against the shift from food to cash cropping and mechanisation that kills jobs on a mass scale and ensures that workers do not get even minimum wages, but we must also demand that the rights of forest dwellers are recognised under the new law that liberates them partially from the clutches of a rapacious forest department that thinks nothing of evicting lakhs of people and reducing them to rootless migrants with no future before them. In fact, a man no less than the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen has said recently: “If India could implement land reforms, spread education and extend health care to all, it will help positively in reducing distress migration.” We should ensure this is done immediately by launching struggles to give land to the landless rather than gifting vast tracts to corporates and multinationals without any concern for the people, except in the Left ruled states.
We of the AIAWU have been fighting for all these laws over the years. We have deposed before parliamentary committees and given our recommendations for the changes we thought it necessary to make. It is heartening to see that these changes have been effected through the efforts of Left members in parliament. But now, ensuring the propagation and proper implementation of these laws is the task of the mass organisations. But the most important legislation, a comprehensive central legislation for agricultural labour, is still to be passed. All our efforts should be concentrated on this. And in the process our organisation has to (and can) increase its membership. This is no easy struggle to fight in a grossly unequal society. This can only be done if the poorest and most exploited people in our villages are united and organised. This is the crucial task before us, especially in conditions where dalits and tribal people are daily facing growing attacks on their lives and livelihood. And the sixth all-India conference of the AIAWU will address itself to that task more firmly than ever before. Without this, the concept of an agrarian transformation without reducing the rural masses to wandering beggars and petty criminals is unthinkable. It is our duty to prevent such an eventuality.