People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
August 26, 2007
Taking Up The Poor’s Issues
THE daunting problems facing the poor women at the work sites in Sivagangai district, the plight of the tribal women and men in Watrap taluk of Virudhunagar district and the miserable living and working conditions of workers in the firework companies of Sivakasi were some of the issues that bared themselves during Brinda Karat’s visit to Tamilnadu. Brinda Karat is a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau, a member of Rajya Sabha and national vice president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA).
Immediately after she landed at Madurai airport, she set out straight to Sivagangai district, with U Vasuki, K Balabharathi (MLA), S Gnanam (AIDWA Tamilnadu) and Arjunan (CPI(M) Sivagangai district secretary) accompanying her. A warm reception awaited us in Poovanthi, a border village of the district. A posse of smart red volunteers greeted us and a short public meeting was addressed.
Then we proceeded to Padamathur, Kollangudi, Nariyangudi and Kandramanickam villages where the NREGA work is in progress. At each worksite, we interacted with more than 250 women. Sivagangai being a chronically drought prone district, women were obviously happy to be employed with a steady income under the NREGA, thus keeping away from debt traps. They wanted full 100 days of employment to be provided to each family.
It was found to our dismay that women here were forced to bring drinking water from home because, at the earlier worksites, the water carrier’s remuneration was deducted from their wages, whereas the act stipulates that a separate water carrier has to be employed and minimum wages paid out of NREGA funds. Even though we saw small children, there was no crèche arrangement. Similarly, there was no first aid box in sight. Some complained that when workers met with work related accidents, they were not treated properly and compensation was not paid.
In Nariyangudi, women complained that the tank in which they were working, had got filled with rainwater and the work was stopped. But the panchayat had refused to start another work and the whole lot remained without work for a long time. Brinda explained how it was not correct and promised to take it up with the collector.
Then, when we went through their job cards, we found that they had received the minimum wage of Rs 80 or close to that at their first worksite this year but were paid between Rs 53.50 and 65 at the subsequent worksites. The most important reason was that it was hard or impossible to reach work norms. Many men opted for wood cutting, construction etc. due to the offers of higher wages and it was women all the way in NREGA sites. The soil was hard and in some places the women had to bring water from another place, pour it on the ground to soften it and then break it. It ate away some of their prescribed time and, since this kind of soil requires special implements whose sharpness needed to be maintained throughout, it involved more expenses for women. If work norms are fixed without taking this reality into account, what is the point in blaming women for non-completion and reducing their wages?
It was pathetic to see even older women lifting a head load of about 40 kilo of soil and climbing up and down 5 to 15 feet. They could not even tell us as to how many times they walk up and down in a day. In the scorching heat, despite blisters on their hands, they put in real hard work but were not able to get the minimum wages.
Later in the evening, Brinda Karat along with others met the district collector and explained the demands. He was quick in grasping and responding to the issues, promised to solve some of them within his powers, and take up the rest with the state government. He raised a point about funds. The central government normally releases part amount and the next part is released only after receiving the bill for the spent amount. Since the weekly bill comes to Rs 1.5 crore and there is a time lag of 20 to 25 days between the district releasing the funds to the panchayats and panchayats sending the bills, Rs 4.50 crore are needed as back-up at any given point of time. Brinda Karat promised to take it up with the government appropriately.
Many spoke at the huge public meeting organised by the party later in the evening; they included CPI(M) state secretariat member N Srinivasan. Brinda came down heavily on the failures of the central government, which add to the agony of the poor people. Women from 4 worksites had also come and they raised their hands and showed the blisters to the public when she spoke movingly about the blisters on their hands. Brinda said, “People of Sivagangai have given a gift to the rest of India. The gift wrapper is very attractive but when you look inside, there is nothing. Do you know what the gift is?” The whole crowed screamed back: “Chidambaram.” (He was elected from Sivagangai parliamentary constituency.) She went on to explain how the spectacles he is wearing, as a representative of neo-liberal policies, show only the multinational companies and sensex figures. She said we must force him to wear another pair that may show him the problems of the poor. She recalled the story how Shiva had swallowed poison to retain amrit for the people, and wondered how the leaders of this district swallow amrit and give poison to the people. The people clearly understood the need for pressurising the centre for course correction. She highlighted the achievements of the Left-led governments in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura and the role of the CPI(M) in national politics, bringing the problems of the poor onto the national agenda. She ended her speech with an appeal to the people to rise as one man against imperialism --- like Rani Velu Nachiar of Sivagangai who had fought the British, 150 years before the Rani of Jhansi.
Next day, 1000 odd tribal people greeted Brinda Karat cheerfully in Watrap (Virudhunagar district), at a convention organised by the Kisan Sabha. Suganthi, Poongothai, Jothilakshmi of AIDWA, CPI(M) district secretary Balasubramaniam, district secretariat member Samuel and others joined us. Tamilnadu tribal association secretary P Shanmugam inaugurated the convention. While addressing the convention, Brinda said, “India is turning 60 this year. Freedom is beautiful. We need to be free from hunger, inequality and injustice. But who is eating the fruits of freedom? In the cities, no police and no government touch the land mafia. But the poor, especially the tribal people, are driven away from their homelands in hills and plains. There is a difference between buddhi and buddhu and sometimes a section of the government becomes buddhu, saying that environment will be polluted if tribals are allowed to live in our forests. But the truth is that the districts which contain 65 percent of our national forests are the districts which have the maximum tribal population. Tribals know how to protect the forests and the environment. She went on to add how the traders, contractors and forest officials collude to destroy and steal the forest wealth while the government, instead of acting against this exploitation, chooses to foist false cases upon the tribals. In Orissa alone, 11000 cases are pending against tribals. Brinda also explained the background of the recent forest act and the role of CPI(M) in bringing it about, promising that the red flag will come in their defence if the forest guards prevent the shepherds and cowherds from grazing their cattle into the forests, as the act recognises their right to do so.
In Tamilnadu, the main grievance of the tribals is the inordinate delay in getting the community certificate. This is more so for Kattu Naicker and Malai Kuravar who are already listed as tribals. Brinda asserted that she would take it up with the appropriate authorities.
COLOURFUL CRACKERS, COLOURLESS LIFE
The grand finale was the convention organised by the AIDWA’s Virudhunagar district units “life protection of workers of fireworks companies.” The irony was that next to our wall writings about the protection of workers, BJP’s message of a meeting to protect the Ram Sethu bridge in Rameswaram had been written. Sivakasi people would have clearly understood whose interests lie where. Including 1000 women workers, there was a 4000 strong crowed waiting to greet Brinda. The fireworks business, with an annual turnover of more than Rs 1500 crore, gives direct employment to 2 lakh persons and indirect employment to another 2 lakh. In the last 2 years, there were more than 20 accidents in the companies, resulting in the loss of more than 120 lives. Brinda visited a factory and observed the production process.
Earlier, the women workers shared their grievances with us when we met them in their hutments in the morning. They explained how the safety measures were given a go by. For example, the explosives mixture meant for producing fancy crackers must be used up on the very day of mixing, but the leftover is usually kept till the next day and the workers are asked to use it again. An appropriate time is needed for drying the mixture and workers work in a hurry at the times of high demand during festivals, due to the pressure from the owners and contractors. This leads to accidents. Only 4 persons are supposed to sit in a room of 3 m by 3 m, and that too at the entrance. But when contractors take rooms on lease, they employ more persons and the rooms get crowded. There is no proper and adequate compensation package in place.
Does the labour inspector make any surprise visit? The women promptly replied, “Oh, he comes for 3 days in the month of Aadi (a Tamil month) when demand starts picking up.” Obviously, that is a peculiar type of surprise visit! DA is not paid to the workers and not all of them are covered under the ESI scheme. Since the piece rate system is followed, women are able to earn only Rs 40 to 55 after a day’s hard work, spending only 10 minutes for lunch. Toilet facilities and clean drinking water are a luxury for those working in these companies.
Brinda narrated in detail the plight of these workers and the absence of safety measures, exclaimed how unhappy are the workers who stand behind the colourful magic light and happiness. She said she would take up their grievances with the DMK government in Tamilnadu and also with the chief labour commissioner. She criticised the UPA government for bringing in a diluted version of the bill for unorganised sector, covering about 14 crore non-agricultural workers. She said the Left would never accept it. She also talked about certain decisions and observations of the judiciary, which go against the interests of the working class, for example the observations made by the Supreme Court on the right to strike. She said instead of banning the strikes, it would be more beneficial if the issues which provoke strikes are banned. She congratulated the district CITU for effectively taking up the workers’ issues in Virudhunagar and hoped that the CITU and AIDWA’s joint struggle would go forward, assuring the people that their struggle in the factories and streets of Sivakasi would reverberate in parliament!
On her return to Delhi, Brinda Karat promptly wrote a letter to Shri P Chidambaram, listing out the problems in the NREGA implementation in Sivagangai, his parliamentary constituency, demanding his immediate attention and intervention. At the end of the day, it was made very clear that it is only the CPI(M) and the mass organisations led by it which struggle for the issues of the poor and the marginalised.