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This is election time in Assam and political parties are not leaving any stone unturned to get as much vote as possible. If someone is promising to create 2.5 million jobs in next five years, other one is promising to protect civil and human rights of the persecuted minorities. In reality, all these hollow promises will be going to the cold storage of politicians’ conscience without a second thought. However, one such hollow promise and great deal of hypocrisy paining me since 29th of March, 2016. Deputy Chief of Bodoland Territorial Council Khampha Borgayari conducted an election meeting at a newly encroached forest village called Laimuti on 19th of March, 2016. Mr. Borgoyari promised to provide land patta along with other services to the forest dwellers who settled in the forest most recently. But to know more about his hypocrisy and political gimmick, let me take you through the village.
Three of my colleagues along with our local resource person Dan Narzary, we crossed the bamboo bridge over river Chapma a beautiful place around 10 kilometers from Runikhata under Chirang district of BTAD in Assam. River Champa is a narrow but powerful river as its water follows fast and during monsoon it becomes ferocious. A middle age man was hurling his fishing net near the bamboo bridge. The big trees in the upstream of the river made the scenario picturesque.
Soon after crossing the bridge, we found a small hut on the bank of river Champa. I talked to Dhaneswar Basumatary – the owner of the hut. His family members were busy in planting tapioca tree. His son was cutting the tapioca tree into equal pieces to plants. The plant was new to me; our local resource person Dan Narzary who did his masters in Ecology, Environment and Sustainable Development from Tata Institute of Social Sciences introduced the tapioca plant as a “poverty resilient food”. The hut itself was enough to correspond to the level of poverty faced by the family. But the story of tapioca escalated the brutality of poverty and hunger. Dhaneswar Basumatary’s family was forced to move into the forest in 2005 to live such a miserable life when his 8 bighas (over a hector) of agricultural land was eroded by river Champa. Dhaneswar Basumatary is not the only victims of river erosion, many of the forest dwellers of the area were uprooted by river erosion.
It is worthy to give a glimpse of the larger picture of erosion affected people of Assam. Study revealed that in 50 years (1950 to 2000) river Brahmaputra alone had eroded 7 percent of Assam’s total land and tens of thousands people have been displaced. Till 2015 Assam Government didn’t have any rehabilitation programme for the erosion induced IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) of the state. In March last year, Assam Government came up with a scheme called “Chief Minister Special Scheme for the Erosion Affected People”. The scheme talks about providing land as compensation for both homestead and agricultural purpose, if government land is not available cash compensation is to be offered. But the scheme remained defunct for almost a year. No effort was made by the government to disseminate the information regarding the scheme among the displaced people. We tried our best to make the affected people aware about the scheme and encouraged them to apply for compensation. But nothing happened till January 2016 and finally I filed a RTI petition seeking some crucial information like how many applications received and processed etc. Assam State Disaster Management Authority which is the nodal agency for implementation of the scheme; scandalously replied my RTI petition saying that the agency had not received any application! Later on one of my journalist friends investigated the matter and revealed that despite no promotion and advertisement, ASDMA had received a large number of applications and as the agency couldn’t deal with such huge number application. Before replying my RTI government changed the scheme through another circular. The modified scheme is equal to nothing! The government has modified it in such a way that almost no erosion induced IDP can avail any benefit under the scheme. This kind of government indifference and apathy have been pushing the erosion induced IDPs to settle generally in forest areas and to migrate into urban areas for livelihood.
We continued walking through the path recently cleared by chopping down the trees in Laimuti. Though the roots of big trees were burnt down to decompose early but are still visible thorough out the fields. Dan Narzary lamented that, being a professionally trained environmentalist he felt like crying after seeing the destruction of the forest just 10 kms away from his house. He feels that tribal people are losing their belongingness towards forest and overlooking the importance of forest conservation. He pointed out a number of factors which attributed towards this change in attitude. At one hand poor people are being uprooted by river erosion, violent conflict and they are not compensated by the state. On the other hand the government forest department is destroying the forest by partnering with smugglers. How the poor people can think about conservation of forest? Dan questions.
By the time we reached the village market in Laimuti it was late afternoon. The village headman Sukur Basumatary took us to an open school. Few fixed desk benches and a pair of wooden chair-table and a tinned roof hold up by not many concrete pillars were the only infrastructure in the school. However, name of the school Rwdwmkang which means ‘uprising’ in Bodo language actually points towards the aspiration of the villagers. More than 50 students are getting educated without any government support. The villagers collect money and other resources among themselves to pay the monthly salary of Rs. 1000/- to the teacher. Around 8000 people are living in 25 forest villages in Laimuti area without a single government school, no Anganwadi centre, no health facility, no source of drinking water or any other government services. In other words, they are still living right inside the forest, where there is no presence of government.
Three out of the 25 villages faced retaliatory attack from Adivasis on 25th of December, 2014 i.e. two days after the massacre of over 70 innocent Adivasi people by suspected NDFB (S) militant in Sonitpur district of Assam. At least 23 houses in those three villages were burnt down to ashes by the miscreants. The Bodo inhabitants were forced to set up shelter camp in Laimuti market. Hundreds of terrified Bodo men, women and children had continued to live in the camp for over two months without any support from government. Chakra Basumatary one of the victim said “forget about relief, rehabilitation or compensation, no government departments including police department didn’t visited the affected villages”. When one of the civil society organizations took the victims to government office in Kokrajhar, the victims were abused by the officials and their request for compensation was out-rightly rejected.
Mr. Khampha Borgayari who served as Deputy Chief of BTC in the previous term also never did anything to minimize their suffering, even during the toughest time of arson and forced displacement. The villagers at Laimuti said that Mr. Borgayari is now campaigning for his colleague Chandan Brahma and he has promised to provide land pattas along with other services like education, health, water etc.
If this is the fate of displaced Bodos – to protect whose right the territorial privilege was granted, then anyone can easily imagine the condition of displaced non-Bodos living in the model BTC!
Guwahati is one the fastest growing metropolises of the country. This is the capital city of Assam and the gateway to the northeast India. Especially, after the economic liberalisation of 90s, the city witnessed a boom in the housing and construction industry. Cheap and affordable bank loan has created a huge demand for the housing apartments. Emergence of corporate and various private education institutions also have contribution towards the boom of the housing and construction industry. These huge construction works need a large work force of informal workers like mason, carpenter, plumber, unskilled labourers like helpers etc.
This demand is basically fulfilled by the migrated labourers from the rural areas of the state. The socio-economic background of those people is a very poor. The stagnation of agricultural growth is one of the push factors to take up the construction work as profession by the rural people. But in case of Guwahati the main push factor is blood and erosion. Every year thousands of people from the districts of lower Assam are displaced by floods and erosion. During 1951 to 2001, more than 7% of total land of the state has been washed away by the river Brahmaputra. For those people to earn their livelihood, working in construction site seems to be a rewarding one.
But those poll and push factor could not make any positive changes in the life style of those construction workers. Multi-storeyed building erects within a couple of months, but the life of the workers, who construct the building, remains same for ages.
In an interview with me, a young lady, who was married off at the age of 12 years and has given birth of a child at the age of 13 years, She told me that soon after birth of the child her husband abandoned her. The devastating flood and erosion of river Brahmaputra had made the indescribable misery to his maternal family at Dhubri and forced her to be a construction worker in Guwahati. Often, she has to face the dirty look of the male, while standing at the labour bazaar at Hatigaon. This is not an isolated case. Each and every women worker has to gone through this brutal experience. Women construction worker at worksite also has to face the eve teasing from the male workers as well. They are discriminated in case of wage as well. A male worker supposed to get a daily wage of Rs. 350/- while a women worker is getting only Rs. 250/-. The Right to Education Act is a mockery in the construction worksite. Gender discrimination is not the only issue faced by construction workers. But they have to face a series of issues while working as a construction worker. They are the most vulnerable to diseases, accident, economic exploitation, social exclusion etc. Moreover, often some of them are harassed in the name of illegal Bangladeshi immigrant. One of the interviewee alleged that not only the representative of so called nationalist organisation, many times police also harassed them in the name of illegal Bangladeshi.
India being a welfare state, it can’t afford to be a silent spectator on the issues of construction workers. Article 43 of Indian Constitution talks about providing living wage to all workers, pleaded for good working conditions to ensure a decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure. Article 47 directs the state to raise the level of nutrition and improving public health. Not only that, article 42 also aims to securing just and humane condition of work and maternity leave. But still all of the above are distant dream for the most marginalized and downtrodden construction workers. A construction worker said they go to work as early as 4 am and someday returns at 10pm. There is no provision of maternity and paid leave for any construction workers in Guwahati.
At the same time India also a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 and International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights of 1966. The article 22 of Universal Declaration on Human Rights says that everyone as a member of society has the right to social security and is entitled to realization through national effort. Being the signatory of the above covenant it is binding on the government to uphold the tenets of those covenants. And thus, providing social security is an essential duty of the government.
This is also not true that the government has done nothing social security of the marginalised people of the country. In fact our government has some of the robust missions and programmes to enable the individuals to attain a reasonable standard of life and protect them from the unforeseen contingencies. Besides the universal programmes like education, public health, drinking water, sanitation public distribution system etc, government is also working on the huge projects like Integrated Child Development Programme, Mid Day Meal etc for providing social and economic security. Present government’s flagship programmes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, National Rural Livelihood Mission etc are also working for the upliftment of the downtrodden section of the society. Programmes like National Pension Scheme (System), Rastriya Swasthya Bima Yojna etc are also been undertaken to mitigate the socio-economic disparity in the society. But the question arises, after having such robust schemes, why thousand of construction workers are still struggling for a decent human life with basic amenities? Whereas a decent life is their human right and entitlement granted by the constitution of these country! After all where the problem lies?
The construction workers are uprooted and mostly unstable, they roam from one place to another place. They keep moving from one construction site to another site. The development programmes we have enlisted above are hardly been able to reach this most vulnerable group of peoples. Keeping in mind the socio-economic conditions of this section of the people in 1996 government of India introduced an Act called “Building and Other Construction workers (Regulation of Employment and Condition of Services Act) 1996”, along this Act the government also brought another Act called ‘Building and Other Construction workers’ Welfare Cess Act, 1996’. The later was brought to collect cess from the builders for the welfare of the construction workers. The Act came up with some important provisions like paid weekly holiday, safety and health measures at the workplace, provision of drinking water and latrine and urinal at the workplace. The Act also directed the state governments to establish state boards to carry on the provisions of the Act.
But the Assam Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board was formed in 2007 only. Our state government took more than a decade to form the board itself. It took another one year to get operationalised. The board enlisted many ambitious schemes for the construction workers. Like, providing the benefit of Rastriya Sasthya Bima Yojna, providing compensation for accidental death (Rs. 50000) and natural death and injuries (Rs. 15000), providing scholarship for the children of the construction workers, giving credit to the construction workers to purchase equipments for their works, assisting financially the unmarried women workers etc were the major benefits enlisted by the board. But some the schemes are so ridiculous that this won’t make any different to the construction workers. The board talks about the pension for the construction worker, but the amount allotted is only Rs. 150/- per month. Now government is planning to introduce another pension scheme called Swabalamban Pension Scheme, where the beneficiary is supposed to get Rs. 1000 per month after the age of 60 years.
The board is designated to perform three major activities i.e. i) Register the construction workers with the board, so that they can get the benefit of the social security schemes under the Act of 1996. Presently the state has around 40 lakhs construction workers. But till 2012 they have been able to register around 10 thousand workers only. ii) The second duty of the board is to collect the cess amount from the builders. The board is successfully collecting the cess amount from the builders. Till 2011 they have collected more than 100 crore and the board had taken target to collect 500 crore by the 2015. iii) The third and most important duty of the board is to facilitate the construction worker in case of any emergency or when he or she needs as defined in the Act of 1996. But the irony is that as per the available data, till 2013 only 24 construction workers have been benefited by the schemes so far! While interviewing the construction workers, I pointed to the big hording at the labour market of Hatigaon and asked them whether anyone of them are aware about the benefits given by the board or has anybody approached them to register themselves. Surprisingly, they nodded their head with a big ‘no”.
For how many years we will allow system to run on a turtle motion or is this merely because of the fact that, maximum construction workers are from minority Muslim community? Otherwise how the state welfare boards of state like Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu can work far better than Assam. Kerala’s enrolment is nearly 99% and in case of Assam the figure it is nominal!