‘This got women reading and thinking’ – MFC Discussion [4]

The report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India was published in 1974 and many in India consider it a landmark in the women’s rights movement as well as a first comprehensive document on Indian women in all aspects of productive and social life. The sweep as I read the contents is enormous.  A Frontline magazine article discussing Women’s Reservation Bill says,

The Committee on the Status of Women in India (1971-74) undertook the most comprehensive review on women’s status since Independence. It noted the “difficulties being experienced by women in obtaining adequate representation” and the “declining trend in the number of women legislators”, which it apprehended may result in women “losing faith in the political process to change their conditions in life, may opt out of the political system and become either passive partners or rebels” (“Towards Equality”, Report of the CSWI, GOI, page 302).

The committee refrained from suggesting reservation, given both the earlier experience and the basis of feedback from women in political parties. This was the only issue on which a note of dissent was submitted by three members. The committee strongly recommended action to provide women “special opportunities for participation in the representative structures of local government”.

My understanding of women’s movements in India and the heady times in which this report was set was unknown to me until Dr Veena Shatrugna gave a brief history of the report (she was also a part of it) in the MFC meet at Hyderabad. Here is what she had to say –

Towards Equality” published in early 1970s was a historical document which determined women’s thought. This got women reading and thinking. By the 1980s organization of women’s movement was disparate – some worked on health, work, law etc. Area of environment was not an issue at that time. This was all outside the formal system- outside academia (for them it was a waste of time), trade unions etc. All the work appeared fragmented but it fitted in well in the larger pic. 

  • Sewa – was organizing women for their right to do the kind of work they were doing like vegetable vendors, rag pickers etc. With VP Singh govt in power (mid 1980s) Ila Bhat was asked to head a national commission to study the working conditions of women in the non-formal sector. The commission sent out 10 lakh questionnaires to various organizations. They received 1.5 lakh filled questionnaires.
  • It was fascinating to see the list of various occupations that emerged. It was amateurish in a sense as many of those insisted on adding a “worker” to whatever trade they described. It was an indication that women were now “workers”.  It added a kind of richness. “There is so much work, but we do not have work” the report began with. Wages was in question. Women can work in any condition that’s the assumption. What they are asking for is interesting. What we did not notice is that the commission was asking for minimum wages.
  • This was 1990s. Women’s movement loses out after this. Why? There were too many things which were asked for. Recommendations were all over the place. For Instance, the symptoms of disease are also mixed up. Tusser workers’ hazards, cashew workers’ hazards and other occupations are given in detail in the report.The men were not accounted for.
  • Dr. Veena finally adds,
  • This team was in a political sense very innocent. It didn’t have any political backing and it was forgotten after it was released. The whole thing came at a time when the nation was not interested in women. It still makes me happy reading the report.

Now, why doesn’t this make the stuff of lectures in the Indian universities, in development, sociology and similar courses? At lest, some of these wayward activists can beef up their understanding of social and feminist movements in the country reading stuff like this than running around plastering slogans (condescending? no! criticism? yes!)


State-Judiciary pact in the neoliberal times – MFC Discussion [3]

A sharp, clear speaking labour lawyer presents this case of Andhra Pradesh Mining Development Corporation (APMDC) which violated occupational health and safety laws in a quartz mine opened in 1964 in a remote location in Mehboobnagar district.

Case Status: Ongoing, Writ Petition in Andhra Pradesh High Court

Facts:  A quartz mine of APMDC operated from 1964 to 1975. 400 workers  worked in the mines during its period of operation. The location of the mine is remote. In the 1980s almost  all the former workers start dying in three villages of the district. There is a rush to various hospitals in the state by the affected families for treatment. Hospitals diagnose the conditions differently – pharyngitis  tuberculosis etc. Only one, Ramamurthy Hospital diagnosed it as silicosis- an occupational disease. The media gives these deaths extensive coverage. Subsequently AP govt steps in and sends a committee comprising of 5 doctors to the district.

An investigation by Union ministry team finds 136 workers dead and 191 workers critically ill in the year 2000. As on 2013  a writ petition is pending.

The lawyer presenting the case highlights the kind of questions being raised in this case where a compensation is being claimed by the workers’ families and state is being held responsible for the deaths:

  1. The deaths happened in the period 1984-1985. Why has the petition come so late?
  2.  The petition should have been filed under  Workers Compensation Act instead of  clogging the High Court which has a huge backlog of cases.
  3. There s no documentation of this disaster. Therefore, filing charges on APMDC has been difficult.
  4. Workers are being asked – Where is your identity? How do we know you have worked in this mine? PF card, health card… any card? How do we fix the claim on APMDC?

In all these, not a single question was directed at the State. Then there is an enquiry report from a union ministry and yet State doesn’t act or intervene in the situation. Judiciary it is said checks the action of the legislature. In all these years it has not questioned the State! There is not a single question directed against the State where its agency APMDC has shown blatant disregard for workers’ medical care, rehabilitation and  even a basic enquiry.

It is interesting how the situation is being framed.The line of critique to me appears incomplete and rather hasty –

There is some kind of a pact between the judiciary and the State. The pact is “I will not ask you and you will not question”.  This is the backbone of our liberalization.  Actually… we have no labour laws. The state has completely abdicated itself. It is this kind of silence we see in our judiciary!

State of OHS in India – MFC Discussion [2]

MFC Annual Meet, 2013, Hyderabad

MFC Annual Meet, 2013, Hyderabad

The meeting at MFC has been quite rewarding for my research interest in Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) in India. The conversations at the meeting yielded a laundry list of issues that affect a functioning and effective OHS system in the country. It starts with an instance of an industrial chemical polyacrylate which is categorized as a mild to moderate toxin. 5 workers reports an NGO from Vadodara, Gujarat, have died in the state due to polyacrylate exposure. Other instance cited was of nasal septum perforation from chromium exposure in Vadodara.

The range of issues in OHS are:

  • Data on deaths, injuries, disability and ODs.
  • Workplace environment monitoring, its data (dose- effect replationship)
  • Laws and their enforcement, use of legal provisions
  • Right to refuse – workers have a right to refuse work if they think that conditions are not safe. It doesn’t apply that way in India
  • Investigations and their reports
  • Information on hazards- to the workers
  • Information on OHS situation to the society
  • Unionization and TU situation – politics and priorities
  • Priorities for workers and other stake holders
  • Medical education, diagnosis, treatment. OHS education in other faculties – law, engineering, social work, sociology, medicine. For instance- doctors know so little about OHS. In case of IITs – how many of them include OHS in their curriculum?
  • Disability assessment and rights of disabled. Workers disabled because of OH are not included by disability law. Case- a disable person was assessed by ESI medical panel. Disability assessed as 20%. Within 2 months the person dies. When an RTI was raised by an NGO to know what standard was applied to assess the disability. The medical team replied that there was no standard.
  • Research on different aspects of OHS= medical, social, legal.
  • Use of PPE, availability, quality standardization and other issues.
  • Technology – age old techniques like dye manufacturing being done in open pans
  • Vulnerability of specific social groups like dalits, migrant workers etc.
  • Lack of BOHS (basic OHS) and lack of social security to majority – ESI & ESIC. Many places not covered by ESI and employers do not want ESI
  • Universalisation of BOHS/Integration of OHS with general health services
  • Role of central and state govts, national and international agencies, NGOs, TUs.
  • Campaigns, movements, networking
  • OHS literature
  • Myths and misconceptions
  • Relief and rehabilitation
  • Return to work – ‘light duty’
  • New technology and materials (no information on status of these in India)
  •  Occupational cancers, NIHL, Pneumoconiosis

On data – central government has no control over the state governments. And this affects data availability.

Work environment monitoring – vague and poorly implemented. Law does not mandate industrial hygienist. South Africa had a mandated a ‘dust monitor’ 100yrs back.

Madhya Pradesh – deaths due to silicosis among migrant workers were always reported as due to TB by the doctors. TB vs Silicosis sort of a movement began. 2005-06 424 persons were affected due to silicosis. In 2011, 1701 persons affected with silicosis in 3 districts in MP. This was a small study. A petition has been filed to knw the status of silicosis. NHRC has released a report on silicosis. MP govt has constituted a silicosis board to address the issue and also track migrant workers.
Rajasthan – mining is a huge revenue source to the state. Labourers are generally employed through agents. The mines are let out on lease to the owners. Now to the labourers Rajasthan govt is paying out of its own pocket. The govt is not able to make the mining lobby to address the situation. Workers do not know who they are working for. It is also difficult to determine who owns the mine. 21 victims have been compensated with Rs 3 lakhs. Now the state govt is concerned that it is spending its relief fund money.
Comment – appeal to look at the causes below the symptoms. Large scale denial of disease is for a reason. So understand the political economy of OH. There is a paradigm shift in the entire world of work in the last 2-3 decades. Whenever capital engages in surplus extraction there are two barriers- it has to give job secturty. Second, wages to labour. Regan and Thatcher bring in neoliberal capitalism and a paradigm shift in surplus extaction. Mid 1990s production is reorganized. It orients towards maximization. In that situation employer-employee relationship is fragmented so that it is no more required to take care of the worker. Labour extraction becomes absolute.

Construction, Mining and Factories sector have a schedule of diseases. A person/doctor who comes across a patient suffering from any of the listed diseases can report to the Factories Inspector. (Ref: Book “They go to die” on mining in South Africa).

Comment – Medical profession is getting away too easily. It can’t diagnose silicosis. “we can’t wait for a well wisher funded by Bill Gates to do find a diagnosis. May be he can help if he finds a vaccine for it.”