BONDED LABOR: ORISSA GOVERNMENT IS OBVIOUSLY ERRONEOUS, SAYS NHRC

Subhas Chandra Pattanayak

The term ‘Bonded Labor’ has been defined under section 2 (g) of the Bonded Labor system Abolition Act (hereinafter called the Act) according to which, a bonded labor is one who, by reason of his/her birth in any particular caste or community renders by him/herself or through any member of his/her family or any person dependent on him/her any labor or service to the creditor or for the benefit of the creditor, for a specified period or for an unspecified period, either without wages or for nominal wages.

Upper caste Hindus in Orissa have been forcing lower caste peoples like the Barbers and Washermen to do menial works sans remunerations they are entitled to for generations.

The barber caste peoples of Puri District under leadership of Human Rights Activists like Baghambar Pattanayak and Swati Sucharita have, under the banner of Orissa Goti Mukti Andolan, been agitating against this brutal exploitation and have been demanding justice under the Act since years.

Orissa government under Navin Patnaik has all along tried to repress the agitation. There are extensive reports in these pages that depict how Baghambar was thrown into the prison by this government without natural justice and trial for months together to suppress the agitation.

The upper caste peoples have harassed the agitating barbers in the District of Puri where Sri Jagannatha Buddha has been forcefully transformed to Sri Krishna Jagannatha by the perpetrators of caste apartheid. Their housed have been burnt down, women have been abused, older ones have been manhandled, properties have been looted and they, as a community, have been subjected to social boycotts as the barbers have refused to wash the feet of the so-called masters and clean their orts.

The practice in vogue in this particular District is that at a time of the year the upper caste families force the barbers to accept only six Gaunis (approximately 15kg) of paddy in advance of service for the year that includes shaving of all major mails and trimming of nails as often as needed. Even the women folks of the barbers are required to trim toe nails of the ladies of the masters’ families as and when so warranted. Over and above this, they are forced to wash the feet of visiting guests of the masters and to clean the orts the masters leave in their plates in festivals, family ceremonies and in funeral or any other social feasts. The meager amount of paddy they are given is known as Vartan and with that Vartan they are bound to render these services even in odd hours with no right to refuse to work and without any more remuneration for these services. The Vartan of the meager 15 kg of paddy that the barbers are given in advance of the services for the year suffices!

Besides being economically exploited, the barbers’ right to lead a dignified life is severely brutalized by this nasty practice.

To achieve their right to live as human beings belonging to a free sovereign democracy, the barbers of Puri District were to raise such a protests that the district administration, notwithstanding a catena of Collectors siding with the upper caste peoples, had to seek clarification from the State Government as to whether or not the barbers in their aforesaid situations could be termed as bonded labors and be entitled to remedies as provided for in the Act. This was unavoidable when the district Bonded Labor Vigilance Committee identified minimum 17 barbers as bonded labors as per definition of the term under the Act as cited supra.

The state government run by Navin Patnaik, in the department of Panchayatiraj, then under BJD’s incumbent Secretary General Damodar Raut, in consultation with law department and in terms of guidelines of Revenue department (both these departments are placed under Ministers belonging to BJP, the party of upper caste hegemony) clarified that the barbers and washermen working in rural areas “cannot be identified as bonded labors”.

Guided by this misguiding trick of the State Government, the Puri Collector after a stage managed open hearing on 7th January 2008 refused to accept the Committee observation for identification of 17 barbers as bonded labors.

The National Human Rights Commission, New Delhi has now nullified the Collecter’s orders in the matter of the 17 barbers who have been subjected to enforced labor without remuneration though out the year.

The system of Vartan envisages giving and taking of advance and thereby creates the relationship of debtor and creditor, the NHRC has ruled. On the premise of this ruling, the NHRC has further pronounced that the person accepting the Vartan is called a sewak and is forced to render the required service as he is such a sewak by reason of his birth in a particular caste or community and he is forced to render service for the whole year in consideration of the advance. This being the factual position, there can be no doubt that the practice of Vartan is a manifestation of the bonded labor system as defined under Section 2 (g) of the Act.

Therefore, the stand taken by the Panchayatiraj Department in its letter No.3364 dated 8 April 2004 is obviously erroneous, the NHRC has declared.

Thus saying, the NHRC has reminded the state Government of its constitutional duty to abolish such customs.

It must ensure that barbers and washermen in the villages receive appropriate remuneration for services rendered by them, by notifying minimum wages for them, the NHRC has directed Orissa government.

Hief minister Navin Patnaik’s only fort is his litany “Law will take its own course”. Now it is to be seen if Navin adopts the course of Law so cleanly and clearly indicated by the NHRC.

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ORISSA GOVERNMENT EXCELS IN UNFAIR LABOR PRACTICES

Subhas Chandra Pattanayak

Orissa Government marked for failure in every aspect of welfare has excelled in unfair labor practices, of which OMFED is the latest instance.

Since two days it has stopped supply of milk to people of the capital city and a vast area comprising Cuttack, Puri and Khurda districts as its plant at Bhubaneswar has failed to operate due to labor strike.

Unfair labor practice by the management is the cause of this strike.

The plant at Bhubaneswar, for operation, is dependant on around 250 workers everyday. But the public sector organization headed by IAS officer Hrushikesh Panda as the Chairman-cum-Managing Director has been compelling all of them to distress sell their labor while refusing to regularize them in employment.

It is shocking that only 40 workers are shown as casual workers, which means they work as and when they are required to work on daily wage basis. Records show that these 40 persons have been working everyday and are required to work every day as regular employees work. Hence they are entitled to regular scale of Pay with D.A. and other perquisites as law enforces in matter of regular employees. But they are deliberately debarred from this by being shown as casual workers.

The manner of exploitation of workers is so ingenuous that in a civil society one is to see it to believe.

Besides the batch of the 40 workers shown as casual as above, there is another batch of 45 workers clubbed as “contract workers” who work daily but are debarred from being recognized as OMFED’s casual workers.

Another group of 150 workers are also engaged daily in OMFED operation. But they are shown as “sub-contract” workers and are bereft of even the casual employer-employee relationship.

The two later nomenclatures are clearly devised to disown any legal responsibility in the cases of these wretchedly poor fellows, who are being compelled to distress sell their labor to the public sector monopoly milk trader run by the government with an IAS officer as its CMD.

The workers affected by unfair labor practices of the CMD are severely disadvantaged as the Secretary of the administrative department to whom they could have appealed to intervene in their victimization by the CMD is no other than the perpetrator of the illegality, Sri Hrushikesh Panda.

By appointing Panda as Secretary of the administrative department Chief Minister Navin Patnaik has preempted every administrative action against any illegal activities going on in OMFED, managed by Panda as its CMD.

Panda has defended his decision to keep these workers unemployed despite their daily employment as casual, contract and sub-contract workers on two grounds.

Firstly, there is lack of fund to regularize them and secondly, these workers are not qualified to work as workers on regular basis.

If the workers are not qualified to work as workers, how have they been working as sub-contract workers?

It is sheer disgusting to hear an IAS officer throwing such a statement in media about the workers on whose work OMFED is running. If these people are not qualified to work as workers why then OMFED has stopped its production on refusal of these workers to work?

The OMFED workers issue is an indicator of how Navin Patnaik government has been shielding misrule and wrecking havoc on the life of the working class. The top executive in this public sector undertaking is the Managing Director. Hrushikesh Panda IAS is the Managing Director. If the MD resorts to mismanagement and victimizes the workers, the intervening authority is the Chairman. Hrushikesh Panda himself is the Chairman. Now Hrushikesh Panda as the Chairman cannot take any action against the illegalities of Hrushikesh Panda as MD. So, whatever wrong steps Hrushikesh Panda takes as the MD becomes the steps taken by the Chairman in his capacity as MD without any remedy available to the affected. The State power to control, oversee and intervene in matters of this public sector undertaking is vested in the Secretary of the administrative department. Under the Rules of Business, the Secretary of a department is the chief executive of that department and hence he is the officer to whom the affected persons are supposed to go against mismanagement and mal labor practice in OMFED. But the Secretary of the administrative department is also the same Hrushikesh Panda.

Unless democracy is bastardized, such a scenario would never have grown.

If you love democracy, and if poor workers in this land have any right to live with dignity, react as you like.