Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Friday, January 18, 2008

A relentless fighter for workers’ rights

For a 78-year-old, Baba Adhav is fighting fit. The smiling demeanour and the punishing travel schedule this veteran trade union leader of hamals (porters) in Pune follows make it difficult to believe that he has lived with loss of vision in one eye and recurring back pain for years.

Baba, as he is fondly addressed by his followers, was recently named ‘Man of the Year' by The Week magazine for his relentless pursuit of ensuring basic rights for the country's unorganised workers.

In a freewheeling interview with InfoChange , Baba Adhav spoke at length about his latest mission – to get the central government to pass the social security Bill in Parliament, at the earliest.

“We expect the government to be proactive, not merely satisfied with playing an advisory role. We want central schemes and budgetary allocations for food cards and night shelters so no poor person in this country will have to sleep on an empty stomach anymore,” he says.

Baba operates out of a modest office located in the labyrinthine lanes of Pune's Bhavani Peth area and is at present busy with the nitty-gritty of a proposed nation-wide coalition of social organisations to pursue parliamentarians on the Unorganised Sector Workers Social Security Bill, which was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in September 2007.

Campaigning for social security

Baba is working president of the National Campaign Committee on Unorganised Labour.

“The Bill is the result of a long struggle,” he says recalling its culmination in a gathering of some 5,000 workers representing 20-odd unions and organisations outside Parliament on August 13, 2007, to press for introduction of the Bill.

“The workers came from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi,” says Baba who, along with 70 workers, travelled by motorcycle from Pune addressing several meetings en route to the national capital.

In Delhi, he and Elaben Bhat of SEWA, Ahmedabad, led a delegation to Sonia Gandhi, met parliamentarians and got 60 eminent people, including writer Khushwant Singh, Supreme Court lawyer Indira Jaising, human rights activist Swami Agnivesh, economist and former minister Yogendra Alagh, actor and social activist Shabana Azmi and historian Ramachandra Guha to sign a petition in support of the legislation.

For Baba, this legislation could be the logical conclusion of his five-decade-long struggle for the country's most exploited people, whether working in the urban industry and commerce or toiling on rural farms.

What especially angers him is political apathy.

“After generations of service, unorganised (sector) workers have little or no livelihood security. They do not get paid for days they are sick, nor is there any compensation if they break their backs. Still, what should constitute social security legislation baffles many including our parliamentarians. Sometimes I wonder whether our elected representatives are merely ignorant or adopting a deliberate strategy,” he says.

Of the 40 crore workers in India , less than 2.5 crore are protected by some form of labour legislation. They enjoy work security, minimum wages, an eight-hour working day, a weekly off, paid leave, sick leave, annual bonus, provident fund, pension and so on. The remaining 37.5 crore workers have been ignored. These include porters, headloaders, landless labourers, construction workers, domestic workers, brick kiln workers, quarry workers, cycle rickshaw pullers, waste-pickers, hawkers and vendors.

“We Indians do not value manual work. There is a strange prejudice against it in society, especially among the white collared sections. We seem to forget that the domestic workers who serve us, the roadside vendors who provide for our daily needs, the construction workers who build our high-rises, and the waste-pickers who help keep our cities clean are as much a part of modern India as the information technologists and technocrats,” he says.

Initial involvement

Baba's Hamal Panchayat, a trade union movement launched in 1955, has demonstrated that the work conditions of unorganised workers can be improved only through a rights-based struggle for dignity and against exploitation, backed by supportive legislation.

Baba Adhav became involved with the issues of hamals and mathadis (headloaders) in Pune's markets in the early-50s, as a young, practising doctor.

Born and brought up in Pune's old Peth area, Baba grew up watching the daily toil in the timber, grain and metal markets. He was a committed Seva Dal activist, inducted into its shakha (unit) and introduced to socialist ideals as a schoolboy.

Baba's earliest activity was running a news board on street corners where the hamals would gather after a hard day's work. This helped him consolidate the hamals' support and understand their working conditions. At that time there was little or no information about the employment of hamals, though they were as good as permanent employees of their masters.

“The Shops and Establishments Act of 1948 did not require hamals to be on the employment rolls of business establishments. This meant that they were not eligible for various benefits, nor would they have any legal recourse should they be treated unfairly,” recalls Baba.

On November 19, 1956, the Hamal Panchayat in Pune struck work for the first time over the issue of denial of wage hikes by jaggery merchants to hamals. The four-day strike was a success, and the porters realised the power of the trade union.

In 1962, the panchayat sought a law to protect the rights of the unorganised porters. It was a long struggle before the Maharashtra Mathadi, Hamal and other Manual Workers (Regulation of Employment and Welfare) Act was passed in 1969.

Through this landmark legislation, hamals were, for the first time, recognised as workers engaged in regular employment and entitled to all the privileges and benefits of permanent workers.

“But due to pressure from the trader lobby, neither the government nor the labour department was keen on it. It was only in 1974 that its implementation began in Pune, Mumbai and Nagpur cities. It was only after Supreme Court orders in 1980 that almost all the zillas started serving notices across the state. Nonetheless, almost 300,000 hamals are protected under this Act and benefit from it in Maharashtra ,” says Baba.

Baba also served as a councillor in the Pune Municipal Corporation for 10 years but quit active politics in 1971. Since then he has played a major role in pursuing the state authorities to enact progressive legislation like the Slum Rehabilitation Act, Dam and Project-Affected Rehabilitation Act, and the Devdasi Rehabilitation Act, besides the Mathadi Act.

“In my younger days I was quite adventurous. That is how I lost one eye,” says Baba with a twinkle in his eye.

In 1963, he along with Datta Deshmukh and Jaisingh Mali, floated the Maharashtra Rajya Dharan ani Prakalpgrasta Shetkari Punarvasan Parishad, an association of displaced farmers and project-affected persons.

Baba was at the forefront of all satyagrahas against irrigation projects in the Krishna river valley and, on one occasion, flung himself in front of the passing car of former Chief Minister Yashwantrao Chavan, injuring himself and damaging one eye permanently.

Baba has served nearly 50 prison terms during the many agitations he has spearheaded over the years. The longest term was a year and-a-half during the Emergency.

Spirit of sharing

Baba's work though has not been limited to agitations and confrontations. He is a firm believer in dialogue, awareness and welfare of the unorganised. The Hamal Panchayat's Kashtachi Bhakar, a community kitchen for the poor and marginalised in Pune, epitomises the spirit of giving, sharing and building that he has nurtured among his followers.

Started as a small kitchen in 1974, the Kashtachi Bhakar aimed to provide basic nutritious food to less privileged sections of society on a no-profit-no-loss principle.

A full meal of vegetables, roti, rice, curry and a dessert costs barely Rs 15 per person, while cheaper options like roti-vegetable or jhunka-bhakar are available for as little as Rs 6-7.

This venture has thrived over the past three decades and today has 13 outlets feeding around 15,000 people every day and employing 50 men and 53 women, all from marginalised sections of society.

“After exerting themselves physically all day, food is what hamals need the most. To reduce the pain of hunger and exertion, many hamals are known to take to tobacco or drinking and, in turn, their families have to also go hungry. So the basic idea is to provide fresh, healthy and affordable food not only to hamals but to all the poor people of the city,” says Baba.

At the central kitchen in Bhavani Peth, women work busily and efficiently, cooking and dispatching food. Mostly from hamal families, the women, who are unionised and receive employment benefits, work to support their children in case their husbands become indisposed or die. They are also part of the managing committee.

Trade union of a different kind

What distinguishes the Hamal Panchayat from other trade unions is its approach to work which is based on a distinct socio-political agenda. The organisation derives its inspiration from the ideologies of Jotiba Phule and Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and believes in self-initiated transformation through collective resources.

There are a number of other welfare projects and development schemes run successfully under the aegis of the Hamal Panchayat – Hamal Nagar, a housing scheme for hamals; Hamal Bhavan, a three-storied community centre which also houses a school and library for 350 children; and a credit facility with nationalised banks through the Hamal Panchayat and Mathadi Board to make loans accessible for hamals.

The Hamal Panchayat is also an active partner of the Mahatma Phule Samta Pratishtan, which serves as an organising centre for workers of Pune's large service industry, including rickshaw and tempo drivers, ragpickers and waste recyclers, handicapped people and farmers. These unions meet frequently, sharing the best strategies for breaking the shackles of exploitation.

“Using different pressure and campaign strategies, the Hamal Panchayat works with government at times and on its own at others, ensuring the transformation of a united workforce that is far more difficult to exploit,” says Baba.

He now wants to extend the success of organising hamals into a democratically functioning workforce and believes that national legislation will go a long way in uniting and empowering unorganised workers across India.

“Even after six decades of independence, unorganised workers continue to be ignored because they are divided on account of caste, class and gender. In the past five decades of public life, I have organised many such labourers. However, what bothers me at this stage is that there have been almost no gains for domestic workers, deserted women, migrant workers, or construction workers,” Baba says.

He adds: “Although the rural balutedar system has more or less collapsed, it is not as if newer emerging systems are equitable. Urbanisation has now reached bizarre proportions, adding to the problem of displaced people. Our large cities lack space to house poor migrant workers. If nobody wants slums, where are they supposed to live?”

It is time India had a law that grants these people rights to an old age pension, healthcare, compensation for death or accidents, maternity benefits, life insurance, and education for children. “This will cumulatively cost the government less than 1% of GDP. Unfortunately, it has taken us more than 60 years to take the first step in the form of this Bill,” Baba Adhav concludes.


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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