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‘Invisible’ Women Brick-kiln Workers in Punjab Demand Their Rights

Women brick-kin workers in Punjab are demanding equal pay and accomodation

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Hundreds of women brick-kiln workers from India’s Punjab state have come together in a rare gathering to demand equal pay and better accommodation, as the country’s often invisible women laborers become increasingly vocal in their fight for rights.

More than a thousand workers, most belonging to India’s so-called lower castes and tribes, met in the city of Bathinda last week in perhaps the first such gathering in the country.

The women workers in brick kilns are invisible — they are not recognized as workers, they don’t get paid for their work, and they have no rights or benefits,” said Gangambika Sekhar, an advocate with Volunteers for Social Justice, that organized the event.

“We wanted to send a message to the government: ‘you say there are no women workers in the state’s brick kilns. Well, here they are’,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Unknown number of workers

There are no official figures for the number of people employed to cut, shape and bake clay-fired bricks, mostly by hand, in tens of thousands of brick kilns in India.

According to the Center for Science and Environment, at least 10 million people work in these kilns.

Exploitation of workers, many of them poor migrants from other states, is common as brickmaking is largely unregulated, experts say. Most of the workers are illiterate, paid a pittance, and held in debt bondage.

The wealthy state of Punjab is home to more than 600,000 workers in brick kilns, by some estimates. About half are women, who are not included in the kiln’s records and are not paid a separate wage from their husbands.

Many of the women workers are sexually abused, and conditions for pregnant women are particularly bad, as they do not have access to medical facilities, and are forced to work well into their pregnancy, activists say.

Women are enslaved by the patriarchal system, they are enslaved by the caste system, and they are enslaved by the minimum wage, which is such a pittance that they are forced to live in abject conditions,” said Manjit Singh, a retired professor of sociology at Panjab University.

Better conditions

A signature campaign was launched last week in Bathinda to appeal to President Pranab Mukherjee for better conditions for the state’s women brick-kiln workers. Activists are also trying to organize the women into unions, similar to efforts in Maharashtra state.

There are signs that women workers elsewhere are heeding the call to unionise and fight for their rights.

Last week, protests in the southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu by garment workers, mostly women, forced the government to scrap a controversial proposal to change the rule on pension withdrawals.

“Women workers – from teachers to textile workers and daily-wage workers – are so desperate, they are demanding their rights,” Singh said.

“They are learning the benefits of a collective voice, and of coming out on the streets and protesting, rather than doing so within the confines of their workplace. We will see more of this,” he said. (VOA News)

 

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‘Concept of equality’ pervades world’s biggest community kitchen

The Golden Temple complex itself gets millions of visitors from across the country and other parts of the world annually

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Bangla Sahib is one of the most famous place of worship of Sikhs in Delhi. Wikimedia Commons
Equality is important for the biggest community. Wikimedia Commons

If there is one big leveller for people, irrespective of their religion, caste, gender, social status or riches, it is the “langar”, or community kitchen, at the Golden Temple complex, where the holiest of Sikh shrines, the Harmandir Sahib, is located, in this city considered holy by Sikhs.

Referred to as the world’s largest community kitchen, the Sri Guru Ram Das Jee Langar Hall of the Golden Temple complex is unique in several aspects. On an average, it feeds over 100,000 people daily — from children to old people — from all religions, castes, regions, countries; and people from varied social, economic and political backgrounds.

“It is a 24×7 operation that carries on day and night all 365 days of the year. This has been going on for centuries, since the concept of langar was introduced by Guru Nanak Dev (the first Guru of the Sikh religion and its founder; born 1469) and propagated by other Gurus,” Wazir Singh, senior in-charge of the langar preparation, told IANS here.

Unlike other government organisations and institutions in India, there are no provisions for reservations based on caste or religion. Wikimedia commons
The Golden Temple complex provides food for many. Wikimedia Commons

At any given point of the day or night, the place is not only swarmed by devotees wanting to partake what is considered as blessed by service but by hundreds of volunteers who are ever-so-ready to be part of the voluntary cooking and serving process. The langar food is even sent thrice daily to the two Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC)-run hospitals in Amritsar, especially to a ward where treatment of mentally-ill patients and drug-addicts is being carried out. The SGPC is tasked with the management all Sikh shrines.

“We have over 500 volunteer employees. The sangat (community) also pitches in with great enthusiasm daily. People come from across Punjab on trucks and tractor-trolleys — even other states, different countries — to help in this massive exercise of making and serving food. Several local residents, including women, have been coming here for years. People take time out of their government and private jobs to serve here, irrespective of their religion or caste. We welcome everyone with love,” Wazir Singh, speaking in Punjabi, pointed out, even as he continued to issue instructions to staffers involved in cooking the langar.

The langar is all vegetarian — comprising mainly of dal (maa-chole ki dal), rice (slightly salted for taste), chapattis, achar (pickle) and a vegetable, along with something sweet (kheer or prasad). In the morning, the “chai langar” comprises of tea and rusk.

The devotees sit down on the matted floor inside the langar hall in rows. To manage the huge rush, the SGPC volunteers allow only a few hundred to enter the hall at one time. The whole operation is carried out in a meticulous manner as a daily routine.

Also Read: ‘Government chalked out 1984 anti-Sikh genocide’

“The whole exercise is quite enormous but it goes on, with the blessings of the almighty, seamlessly. The daily expense is around Rs 15 lakh. We use 100 quintals (100 kg) rice and up to 30 kg (each) of dal and vegetables daily. Over 100 LPG cylinders (domestic size) are used daily for the cooking along with hundreds of kilograms of firewood for the traditional cooking. Nearly 250 kg of ‘desi ghee’ (clarified butter) is used in the cooking. We have over three lakh steel plates. We can serve 10 lakh (one million) people in a day,” Gurpreet Singh, in-charge of the kitchen, told IANS. SGPC functionaries pointed out that 30,000-35,000 people from Amritsar and nearby areas are daily visitors to the shrine and partake langar thrice. Many of these are migrants from other states and poor people who cannot afford meals.

“Our doors are open for everyone without discrimination. We follow the concept of equality here,” said Amrit Pal Singh, a SGPC official at the Information Office. The chapattis, in the thousands, are made on eight chapatti-making machines and even by hand by women and men volunteers. The steel utensils (plates, glasses and spoons), used by devotees, also numbering in lakhs, are washed voluntarily by the devotees themselves or by volunteers.

“The shrine complex has such a spiritual attraction about it. The langar served here leaves you satisfied in many aspects. The whole experience touches your soul,” Ramesh Goyal, a devotee from Bathinda, said.

“I had always heard about this shrine. Today, what I experienced was heavenly. The langar service is unparalleled in any religion. They do it with so much devotion and humility despite such huge crowds. It is unimaginable,” Tariq Ahmed, who had come here with his family from Patna in Bihar, told IANS. Anup Singh, a young Sikh devotee from Amritsar, often accompanies his grandparents and parents to the shrine.

Sikh Community, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh
Children belonging to Sikh Community, Wikimedia Commons 

“I love to serve chapattis to the people having langar. It is a very satisfying and fulfilling experience,” he said. “The whole exercise is carried out selflessly. It is a big task but everything is carried out smoothly. We keep introducing changes depending on the needs of the devotees,” Roop Singh, Chief Secretary of the SGPC, told IANS.

The SGPC, known as the mini-parliament of Sikh religion, manages the Golden Temple complex and gurdwaras across Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. It has an annual budget of over Rs 1,100 crore, mostly from donations at the gurdwaras.

The Golden Temple complex itself gets millions of visitors from across the country and other parts of the world annually. The strong Sikh diaspora in other countries like United States, Britain and Canada actively contributes to the shrine and visits it whenever they can. IANS