Mumbai — 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.
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)
Punjab Director General of Police (DGP) Dinkar Gupta on Tuesday barred all police personnel with medical issues, as well as women cops with children under five from the frontline duty in a bid to protect them from undue exposure to the risk of Covid-19.
The decision has been approved by Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who has asked the DGP to ensure all protective and welfare measures for the corona warriors.
The DGP said there had been concerns expressed on this count during several calls received on the newly launched tele-counselling facility for anxious police corona warriors and their families.
At present, there are over 48,000 police personnel engaged in curfew enforcement and relief measures across the state and the tele-counselling facility was launched on April 20 to equip police officers and their families with additional information and skills to cope with the psychological aspects of the Covid-19 duties, including a high degree of risk of contracting infection. (IANS)
It has been a year of protest — from Hong Kong to Bolivia, and from France to Lebanon. Few parts of the world were spared significant protests in 2019.
In Russia’s capital, Moscow, protesters were outraged by rigged elections. In Britain, people rallied against Brexit, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Serbia, Ukraine, Albania and the central European states all experienced major demonstrations. Separatists battled police in the restive region of Catalonia. Dissent in the Middle East prompted talk of a new Arab Spring.
In the Americas, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela all experienced popular unrest. And the list goes on.
“The data shows that the amount of protests is increasing and is as high as the roaring 1960s,” according to Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, an academic who studies social change at Vrije University in Amsterdam.
Protest like it’s 1848
The year 2019 has drawn comparisons to 1848, when the ruling elites and monarchies in Europe were at a loss as to how to deal with the turbulence and anger tearing through the continent.
Then, as now, the immediate grievances propelling protesters onto the streets differed from country to country: 170 years ago, some were protesting at the dysfunction and corruption of their states and anger at hidebound elites for resisting modernization and liberal change. Have-nots marched out of economic despair. Nationalists wanted to break away from empires. Anarchists wanted to blow everything up.
In the so-called Spring of Nations — revolutions of 1848 — seemingly small incidents or government decisions could spark the trouble. So, too, in 2019.
France’s Yellow Vests, drawn largely from low-income earners in small-town and rural France, took to the streets and blockaded roads to protest higher “green” taxes on fuel. The same in Chile and Ecuador — planned sharp rises in fuel prices and metro fares triggered the fury this year of low-income and rural communities.
But behind the immediate causes, far more substantive and structural grievances have fueled the worldwide protests. In Lebanon, demonstrators initially took to the streets because of frustration over a tax on WhatsApp, but that was just the spark for an ongoing conflagration of rage over corruption and Iranian influence on the country. The Yellow Vest agitation morphed into a general exasperation about being left-behind economically.
In Hong Kong, an extradition bill was the prompt, but also a symbolic one for protesters furious about a creeping Beijing-dictated authoritarianism.
The 2019 protests have had some common themes, say analysts, including anger about stifled democracy and the demand for greater political freedom. Anger about corruption and the perception that political systems are rigged have been common grievances.
Some commentators have tried to tie all the protests together, arguing rallies and demonstrations and blockades more often than not are a reaction to anti-democratic and right-wing forces taking hold in many places around the world.
Maybe so for some but not all, and there are plenty of contradictions. And then and now, protesters on the left or right of the political spectrum share on thing in common — a firm conviction that things should and can change.
One big difference with the past, though, has come with social media and the internet. Modern communication has helped to fuel anger and assist greatly in the organization and recruitment of protesters to take on authorities.
“The traditional system of enforcing power from top to bottom is increasingly being challenged,” says Thierry de Montbrial, of the French Institute of International Relations.
Populist nationalists rallying in the past year in Italy and Germany have nothing in common with huge pro-EU protests in Britain, where those taking to the streets wanted to force a second referendum on leaving the European bloc. Climate-change protesters sowing havoc in Britain and Australia are demanding the kind of green tax increases that are enraging the Yellow Vests.
“Some protests may look like a sign of democratic decay amid a rise of populism and alienation with the political status quo — for example, in Brazil, the United States or France,” according to Richard Youngs, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment, a Washington-based research institution.
“Others may look like a futile rattling of the political cage under growing illiberalism and authoritarianism, such as in Hungary, Morocco or Thailand. More optimistically, protests in places like Algeria, Venezuela and Sudan may signal a heartening indicator of the persistent aspiration for democracy and peoples’ willingness to fight for it in very different parts of the world,” he added in a commentary.
Maybe the attempt to impose a catch-all order to the unrest of 2019 misses the point and the historical comparison should be with the immediate years of upheaval after World War I. In a new book, “Crucible: The Long End of the Great War and the Birth of a New World, 1917-24,” historian Charles Emmerson suggests that countries lose all their moorings during periods of unrest and the result is just chaos.
“The established order is swept away,” writes Emmerson. “People who were nothing are catapulted into prominence … the real becomes surreal.”
In the immediate postwar years that Emmerson chronicles, many people felt powerless, lost faith in the ability of traditional political authorities to protect them and to restore predictability, and resented unequal distributions of wealth and power. So, too, now. (VOA)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday launched a 60-billion-rupee ($842 million) plan to tackle water shortages in the country’s seven heartland states where agriculture is a mainstay.
India, the world’s second-most populous country, faces the worst long-term water crisis in its history as demand outstrips supply, threatening farm output and overall economic growth in Asia’s third-largest economy.
Almost every sector of the $2.6 trillion economy is dependent on water, especially agriculture, which sustains two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion people.
“Water shortages in the country not only affect individuals and families; the crisis also has an effect on India’s development,” Modi said. “We need to prepare the new India to deal with every single aspect of the crisis.”
The plan launched by Modi would help replenish ground water and boost overall availability in Rajasthan, Karnataka, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat states, which produce staples such as rice, wheat, sugar and oilseeds.
India is the world’s leading producer of an array of farm goods, and nearly 60% of the irrigation for agriculture comes from ground water, mainly through electric water pumps. Subsidised electricity gives farmers an incentive to pump out more water, a key reason behind fast-depleting water tables in the vast country.
Supplying clean drinking water to millions of poor people and reviving moribund irrigation projects were a key part of Modi’s policies for India, where the monsoon accounts for nearly 70% of the annual rains needed to water farms and recharge aquifers and reservoirs.
Nearly half of India’s farmland, without any irrigation cover, depends on annual June-September rains to grow a number of crops.
Drinking water is also an issue, as about 200,000 Indians die every year due to inadequate access to safe water and 600 million face high to extreme water stress, according to the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog, a think tank chaired by Modi.
According to UK-based charity WaterAid, about 163 million people in India — roughly 12% of the population — do not have access to clean water close to home.