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Date: Mon, 21 Sep 98 08:31:52 CDT
From: jagdish@igc.org
Subject: India/Globalization: Workers Campaign to Protect Health & Livlihood
Organization: ?
Article: 43635
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.21486.19980922121531@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Globalization: Workers Campaign to Protect Health & Livlihood

By Jagdish Parikh (jagdish@igc.org), Asialink, no. 16, early sep 1998

Dear Friends,

This issue is the second in a three-part series on work and focuses on some recent Indian worker's campaigns to protect their health and livlihoods, particularly in the face of globalisation.

These struggles are generally against disintegration and the strategies and tactics people bring to them are as expressive of their creativity as they are of the grim and painful reality of globalisation.

We begin with a mainstream economist's take on that grim and painful reality, excerpted from the Human Rights for Workers Bulletin, Vol. II, No. 7. May 14, 1997. Professor Dani Rodrik teaches international political economy at Harvard University in the USA. His book, Has Globalization Gone Too Far? is published by the Institute for International Economics.

Globalisation's Ills: An Economist's Diagnosis

... As Rodrik points out, the characteristic approach of many policy-makers, economists included, is to downplay the social tensions sparked by globalization and to brand "all concerned groups as self-interested protectionists."

Instead, Rodrik believes that "the most serious challenge for the world economy in the years ahead lies ... in ensuring that international economic integration does not contribute to domestic social DISintegration" ...

Globalization "fundamentally transforms the employment relationship." The labour of ordinary workers in one country can now more easily be substituted for the labour of workers in other countries. Owners of capital, highly skilled workers, and many professionals-fortunate in being able to take "their resources where they are most in demand" are not disturbed by this transformation, but most people are. As a result:

  • Workers now have to pay a larger share of non-wage costs, such as workplace safety measures and benefits.
  • Their earnings and hours worked are more volatile because of shocks to labour demand or labour productivity.
  • Their bargaining power has eroded, resulting in lower wages and benefits whenever bargaining is an element in setting the terms of employment.

Compensation Is Not Enough

Our second and third selections explore the "dangerous intersection of the environment, health and the economy" through worker's struggles for safe workplaces and recent court rulings on industrial pollution.

We turn first to the case of M.C. Metha vs. Union of India, excerpted from "Polluting Industries, Environment and Workers' Health: A Case for Intervention," by Mukul in the Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 32, No. 35, August 30 - September 5, 1997,

... The case of M. C. Mehta vs. Union of India, popularly known as "Ganga Matters" ... for the first time establishes a noble principle: a polluting industry which damages the environment outside the factory, simultaneously creates havoc for the health of the workers inside the factory. Hence the industry has to pay the price of its pollution to the citizens, in general, and to sick and suffering workers, in particular ...

The court judgement is important, but (how it) was achieved is as important as the judgement itself (and) gives a concrete example of (how) environmental initiatives, workers' organisations and support groups, people's science activists and others can work together on the burning issue of industrial pollution and can promote their cause mutually ...

It started in the distant tribal village of Chinchurgeria, Jhargram, in the Midanapore District of West Bengal state. A stone crushing unit, Surendra Khanij, started here in September 1987. The unit was manufacturing quartz powder from quartzite stone and supplying it to different glass manufacturing units ...

(Within three to four years, twenty workers died and twelve remain chronically ill.) ... Most of the workers were suffering from silicosis, one of the most deadly occupational lung disease in India ...

Had it not been for the existence of the Quark Science Centre at Jhargram, it would never have been possible to know the fate of the workers of the Surendra Khanij.

(According to) Bijan Sharangi, a 33-year-old school teacher and secretary of the Quark Science Centre, "In early 1993, we came to know of a series of workers' death and diseases in Chinchurgeria, through two foresters of the forest department ... We tested at least 100 villagers and then found that several of them were suffering from silicosis ... We organised a massive signature campaign among the villagers and people of Jhargram, demanding closure and compensation. We also organised many street corner meetings. When these programmes did not bear any fruit, hundreds of villagers from Chinchugeria and nearby villages assembled in Jhargram in April 1993 and sat on indefinite dharna (sit-in) outside the SDO office. Thereafter the SDO ordered the closure of the factory, which has been closed till date" ...

(Later) Nagrik Manch, (citizens' platform or forum) a labour support group in Calcutta, along with six central trade unions, intervened in the Supreme Court and filed a public interest (law suit) ...

The story does not stop here, the compensation only a beginning ...

... It is indeed rare to find a hospital in the country established by workers and their unions. Shrmajivi Hospital, only 3.5 kms away from Howrah Station and at walking distance from famous Belur Math, is an inspiring endeavour of workers of a closed and sick industry. They started it out of their own necessity and also to expand the union's activities in a hitherto neglected field. But slowly it has become an essential activity of the whole community in that area, and local teachers, artists, doctors, social workers and students have all become involved in it in one way or another.

Surrounded by factories, mostly closed small shops and houses, Shrmajivi Hospital stands out on main road, going towards Howrah. The hospital is like a home - a small old house of five and six medium-size rooms, a staircase going through the verandah and a first floor with tin-shaded working space. The rooms are exceptionally neat and clean ... (but everything bears) a simple, raw, robust look ...

"Of course the charges are just here, but we do not come here only for that reason. In this area alone, there are two government hospitals and dozens of private nursing homes. They also provide treatment to patients. Even if one could afford them, one comes here. We feel at home. Here we feel as if we will live longer," says local resident Pratap Sinha, who has undergone a long treatment in the hospital ...

... They decided in April 1997, to set up a bi-weekly occupational disease detection centre at the hospital, which will be one of the rare ones in West Bengal. To deal with the problem of industrial accidents, they would also like to develop ... micro-vascular surgery in future. "But this all will develop only if the participation of workers, their unions and other people will develop. Seeing the present situation one is very hopeful.

Who Pays the Costs of Pollution?

The Shramjivi Hospital and its worker-led community management is doing away with the dichotomy between "worker" and "patient."

Similarly, the Delhi Janvadi Adhikar Manch (the Delhi Democratic Rights Forum) works to extend workers' control. BOL - the reproductive rights network on the Web - has this to say about their work:

An Indian Supreme Court order on July 8, 1996, directed the closure or relocation of 168 polluting factories in Delhi.

In response to this and other measures to "clean up" the Indian capital, a group of labour and human rights organizations have founded the Janvadi Adhikar Manch. As part of its mission, the Manch has chronicled the impact of these rulings.

The Manch reports that some 50,000 workers lost their jobs due to the July 8, 1996 order. The group further details continued violations of compensation provisions of the Supreme Court order. To date no compensation has been given to workers who have lost their jobs due to the ruling.

The Manch warns against reducing the issue of pollution to "beautifying Delhi for the rich." The polluting factories may simply relocate to other areas of lesser real estate value or with lower wage differentials, without reducing pollution emissions. While no real gains may result in overall environmental improvement, many dependent factory workers may unjustly suffer.

The Manch's March 1998 report interviews 53 women ... The women talk at length about poor living conditions, overcrowding in slum dwellings, and lack of access to water, electricity and other resources. They note a need for gainful employment after the closure of factories. In the Delhi case, workers were being unfairly penalized for failure on the part of owners of capital to meet environmental operating standards.

The controversy surrounding the Supreme Court ruling points to a need to consider the dangerous intersection of environment, health, and economy. The Manch warns against environmental movements that have too easily become the mouthpiece of elite interests and (says) that the health and well-being of working women must be factored into initiatives to "clean up" the Indian capital. The controversy generated by the struggle to relocate factories in Delhi highlights the need to scrutinize the interests and politics behind legislation to improve the environment and opens up a new forum for debate over the health and well- being of working women.

*** Our final selection comes from "History in the Making - Women Design and Manage an Alternative Public Distribution System," by P. V. Satheesh in the Forest, Trees and People Newsletter, No. 34.

Rice Was a Wonder Grain

Like elsewhere in India, a public distribution system (PDS) operates in the villages around Zaheerabad in the Medak District of Andhra Pradesh ... (But) the women of Zaheerabad never grew rice ... It was always sorghum, pearl, finger and other millets mixed with a host of pulses that made up the crops on their lands and meals in their pots. Suddenly rice has invaded their kitchen via the PDS.

Rice is a seductive cereal. It ... needs no processing. Comes ready to cook. Mix with water and put it on the stove. ... Women loved it ... Rice was a wonder grain ...

It took few years for the women of Zaheerabad to see and understand the other side of the rice.

The first effect was on their nutrition. Rice is (mainly) carbohydrate.... An increasing number of women and children started becoming anaemic.

The second toll ... was on their lands. With more and more PDS rice coming from the resource-rich belt-like coastal Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, what was the need to grow any food crops on their dry lands at all? ... Dryland farmers' lands were gradually put to fallow.

The women were hardest hit ... Their (traditional) agriculture took care of a variety of their needs. It gave them a nutritive crop mix that included pulses, cereals and green leafy vegetables. It provided fodder for cattle, fencing material for their fields and houses, and straw for their thatch ...

... In the district of Medak (in Andhra Pradesh) alone, more than 100,000 acres of land have been put to fallow in the last ten years almost as a direct result of PDS ...

(The women's self-confidence) is linked to their role as skilled food-producers and to (being the seed-keepers) of the community. As food production becomes less important, the status that accompanies (it) is lost. Being reduced to food consumers, dependent on purchased food for their survival, undermined one of their few sources of self-esteem and self-respect ...

The women of Deccan Development Society (DDS), who had organised themselves into sanghams, voluntary associations of the poor Dalit women, deliberated on this issue in their meetings.

One answer was to reclaim their fallows. They would breathe new life into their half-dead lands. They would plough it and manure it. As the land came alive, they would raise a crop of sorghum on it ...

But this needed investment. To the tune of 2600 Rs. an acre. No financial institution offers such loans.

The women decided to fight for reversal of this policy (and through the) DDS (approached) the Ministry of Rural Development, which saw the merit in their case and approved funding for ... a Community Grain Fund (CGF).

(For) the past three years, (women) in thirty villages around Zaheerabad ... have been managing this path breaking programme.

In each village they identified 100 acres of fallows, most of which belong to marginal farmers.

Meetings were held in each of these villages with the project partners, DDS and village poor ... Money was advanced over a three-year period to the farmers for ... ploughing, manuring, sowing and weeding. This money was later repaid in the form of grain grown on the newly developed lands. Rates were fixed for the entire three-year period.

Committees of women were formed to look after ... the project in each village. They, in turn, selected about twenty acres each and supervised the work on these personally ...

Unfortunately, just when the crops were ready for harvest, a heavy cyclone hit the region in October. It rained continuously for around 18 days ... (Yet,) a few months after the harvest, the first year's repayment of sorghum for the grain bank was completed ... (The women) knew that if they failed (the community grain bank) would never have a second chance.

The grain collected was stored by the village committees ... in decentralised fashion, using indigenous storage techniques ... The next step for the women of the village sanghams was to identify around 100 poor households in each village for grain distribution. The sorghum from these banks was to be sold at subsidised price to these families.

... For the first time in the history of this region, Dalit women, poor and from the lowest social rank in the village, decided who among the villagers were poorest and qualified for the community grain support.

The proceeds from the sale of the grain are deposited in a bank as the community grain fund. The money is utilised year after year to reclaim more fallows in their village thus contributing to increased productivity ...

Through this CGF Programme the women have brought over 2,500 acres of fallows under plough ... This has meant that they were able to produce three million extra meals in 30 villages or 1,000 extra meals per family. The fodder provided by the newly cultivated fields sustained over 6,000 head of cattle in 30 villages. Finally and more important, in each village 2,500 extra (daily) wages were created - 500 for ploughing, sowing and manuring, and 2,000 for weeding. In all 75,000 extra (daily) wages earned in 30 villages.

If the experiment continues to be successful, the women of Deccan Development Society will have established the first decentralised public distribution system in the country, one with local production, local storage, and local distribution - all adapted to the specific needs and opportunities at the village level ...

Asialink - Electronic Newsletter
Information Exchange for Social Change
Issue No. 16 (Early September 1998)
(Document Size: 16.5 KB, 2411 words, 365 lines)

We welcome your comments. Send your questions or comments to
Jagdish Parikh (jagdish@igc.org)