Flood

Assam Flood: Who Cares?

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An apprehension is mounting among the people of north-eastern region that the mainstream media is ignoring the flight of its people and has been working like a PR agency of the government to justify the imposition of AFSPA. Recently, it has been observed that the media was flooded with chest-thumping news and views on cross border operation on NE militants in Myanmar. All of sudden one IPS officer is being marketed as ‘face that militants fear’ even with factual errors. However, at the same time a huge portion of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh was witnessing devastating flood. No media was running ‘hastag’ race for the flood victims of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

As per the official release of Assam State Disaster Management Authority dated 13th June 2015, more than six hundred villages were submersed and over three lakh people affected in the recent flood. Though officially not reported, at least three persons have died so far in this devastating flood. This is harvesting season in Assam and the flood has destroyed a huge area of ready to harvest corps, the official figure is 11041.53 hectors.

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I was getting disturbing updates from my home district Barpeta since 11th of June, 2015. Subsequently, I communicated with the district administration and got a quit relaxing response “we are monitoring the development and ready to act if any necessity arises” The concerned Circle Officer categorically informed me that the flood situation is still manageable and no need of taking rescue and relief operations. However, I was still getting SOS calls from my native district and finally decided to visit the area next day morning to have stock of the situation. While travelling from Guwahati to Barpeta, as I entered Nalbari district, I could easily see the devastation in the nearby agri-fields. The farmers has abandoned ready to harvest rice cultivation due to flood water. They have occupied half of the road for drying up the partially damaged harvested crops.

Situation in Barpeta district is more depressing; officially it is worst affected district in recent flood. Innas Ali, a marginal farmer who cultivated high yielding rice on his one hector agri-land and invested nearly sixty thousand rupees has been able to harvest only half of his total cultivation. Ali says that one fourth of the harvested crops have been damaged as it germinated due to heavy rain. Since last two/three decades, the peasants have started cultivating high yielding variety of rice replacing traditional one. They have been irrigating their paddy fields by diesel run power-pump machine incurring higher cost comparing to government provided irrigation facility. In lower Assam, irrigation facility is mostly managed by the farmers, which forces them to incur more costs and forces them to knock the door of money lenders for credit to meet the costs. A study conducted by Gorky Chakravarty of Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata revealed that nearly 67% of his respondents in Mandia, Chenga and Ruposhi block of Barpeta district are indebted and only 2.43% of them got credit from organized financial institutions. A huge chunk of people who get their credit from moneylenders often agree to repay crops instead of money. His study says that those ill-fated people are forced to pay an annual rate of interest ranging from 72% to 360%. In such a situation, any one can imagine how this flood is going to affect the lives of people like Innas Ali.

Bringing the left over rice on raft

A group of young people helped me to reach riverine areas like Islampur, Rasulpur, Kadong Char, Kaimari Char under Baghbar Revenue Circle in Barpeta district. When, we crossed one stream of river Beki and entered to Islampur char (River Island) under Baghbar Revenue Circle – the scenario is heart-wrenching. It was no less than a river, it seems small huts are floating in the water, some people are crossing high current river Beki on their raft to fetch drinking water. Human being, frogs, earth-worm all are coexisting. Some of them have left their houses and took shelter in other’s place, but most of them are hazardously experiencing the flood along with their domesticated animals.

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                                                              Human Life, frogs, earthworm and other insects coexisting 

There is no presence of government machinery in all the places we visited. There is no arrangement of basic humanitarian assistance like food, drinking water, medicine etc. Even, the administration has not been in those places for any kind of assessment. It was appalling to observe that the affected people also don’t feel that government will support them in any way or other. Seeing the helplessness of the flood victims and the indifferent attitude of state machinery, as a civil society group we decided to support the victims within limited our capacity. We have started distributing general relief materials since 14th of June, 2015 and continued to update the concerned Circle Officer over telephone and keep on sending photographs to his mobile phone though WhatsApp.

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On 17th of June, he informed me that as per the information he got from his official sources there is no need of providing any relief or rehabilitation grant in those chars! So, was my observation was wrong? The photographs with GPS location were fake? The heart touching narratives of the victims about their damaged crops and belonging were false and plotted stories to drain money from government treasury?

Damaged crops does picture tells lie
                                                                 Damaged crops: Does picture tell lie?

While talking to the Circle Officer over phone, I was sitting in a boat carrying relief materials with few elderly people from Tapajuli char. The elderly people were reading my body language and conversation with the Circle Officer. They completely understood what the Circle Officer was telling me! One of the elderly people’s reaction was somewhat like consoling me “Don’t feel sorry, this is happening to us for ages.

This is what written on our forehead” Citing the example of their 411 No. Alipur (Tapajuli Pathar) Lower Primary school, Abdur Razzak said that, the head teacher of the school is not attending her duty for the last two years. The assistant teacher appointed through TET (Teacher Eligibility Test) occasionally comes to school and since the arrival of monsoon; the assistant teacher has also stopped attending his duty. The char people have even brought the issue to the notice of Deputy Commissioner and other officials of education department of Barpeta district. But nothing has changed so far and the school which was established by British government in 1945 has become just a structure with four walls and a roof.

Picture was taken on a working day
                                                                    Picture was taken on a working day

The media, the civil society, the political class or the administration, no one is bothered about the suffering of these ill-fated people. I remember the shameful incident of last year’s flood in Goalpara. The flood victims who demanded relief and rehabilitation were brutally beaten up by the police and slapped deadly criminal charges on them. Perhaps, the flood affected people of these chars have realised – it is better to be silent and suffer rather than getting beaten up!

Plight of the Construction Workers of Guwahati

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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!