On Wednesday, after the Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh rally in Delhi, daily wager Somnath Mankar decided to stay back in the national capital till his demands were met. Mankar, 35, from Kalwan in Nashik, is fighting for land rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, for Adivasi farmers like himself. On Wednesday, he joined thousands of other farmers, labourers and workers – from across India –as they rallied in central Delhi in a sea of red flags and caps.
“Since the Kisan Long March, our demands have not been met,” said Mankar, referring to the massive protest march in Maharashtra, in March, in which at least 40,000 farmers participated. “We are being harassed by forest officials who do not allow us to work, or get our ration cards made. Modi says that everyone should have a house but forest officials tell us that we cannot live in our home in the forest…Our families have spent their lifetimes there.” Mankar added that 200 other people are facing the same problem in Nashik. “We will stay back till the government does something,” he said. “Last time, they said six months and we went back to our homes. This time we are in the capital and we will not leave till our demands are met.”
The Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh rally was organised by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, All India Kisan Sabha and All India Agricultural Workers Union, all of which are associated with Communist Party of India (Marxist). The demands include loan waivers for farmers, effective implementation of labour laws, more job opportunities, increase in minimum wages to Rs 18,000 a month, and recognition of anganwadi workers, helpers and Accredited Social Health Activists as government employees.
The workers, labourers and farmers came from different parts of India including Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar. Most of them stayed in tents erected at Ramlila Maidan in central Delhi, while some said they would spend the night at the railway station. According to reports, at least 1.5 lakh people participated in the rally.
Apart from shouting slogans about their demands, many protestors were also seen selling literature on workers’ and farmers’ movements, Marxism, as well as trinkets like key chains in the shape of the hammer and sickle and badges bearing the logos of the unions that organised the rally.
Wednesday’s rally in Delhi was seen as a follow-up to the Kisan Long March, during which at least 40,000 farmers in Maharashtra walked the 180-km distance from Nashik to Mumbai with 15 demands for the Devendra Fadnavis-led state government. These demands included waiving off farmers’ loans, the implementation of the MS Swaminathan Committee’s report that details reforms to protect farmers’ rights over their land, and proper implementation of minimum support prices.
Many workers who participated in the Kisan Long March also attended the Delhi rally. They told Scroll.in that they came to protest for the second time as the demands put forward to the government during the Kisan Long March had not been met.
‘Implement labour laws’
Gopal Gudme said that he had saved up for the last three months to be able to attend the rally. Gudme, 65, a construction labourer from Nanded in Maharashtra, was also present at the Kisan Long March. “There is no guarantee of work in this unorganised sector,” he said. “In a month, there is work only for 10 to 12 days. There is no pension or insurance. None of our demands have been met since the march. We want better implementation of labour laws as builders and government are conspiring together.”
Sitting among a crowd of farmers from Nashik, Subhash Bhusar, 50, seemed pessimistic about the chances that the government would give in to their demands. “I do not think anything will happen,” he said. “We want so many things but the government is not even listening to us.”
One of the demands in this rally was that the government should pay Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act workers on time.
Ram Rasik Ram, 46, who came from Begusarai, Bihar, said that he had not been paid his wages for the work he did in 2015 under the scheme. “The government official threatened us not to complain and said he would pay us,” he said. “Till now, we haven’t got paid. We want our money on time and we want work. We haven’t been given work under this [scheme] since three years.”
As a labourer for state-owned telecommunications company Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, Prakash Mandal said he has seen many of his co-workers getting injured while on duty. Mandal, 43, was among 200 other workers from West Bengal’s BSNL Casual Mazdoor Union who participated in the rally.
His job as a casual labourer involves climbing electricity poles, joining cables underground and assembling fiber optic cables. “We want to be recognised as permanent employees,” Mandal said. “We have no insurance or pension. When we climb up on electricity poles, we do it without any protection gear being given to us.”
Around 400 workers in the same union from Tamil Nadu joined the rally with another set of demands. “We are protesting against the contract system and privatisation done by this government,” said KT Sambandham, the district secretary of the union from Cuddalore. Sambandham also said that the union questioned why the Central government had not allocated 4G spectrum to Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited yet. “After the coming of Jio, the government has only been supporting private entities,” he said. “We want immediate allocation of 4G spectrum.”
Anganwadi workers, helpers and Accredited Social Health Activist workers from various states joined the rally with specific demands to increase their minimum wages and recognise them as permanent government employees.
Romila Macwana, an Accredited Social Health Activist worker, came with her six-year-old child from Rajkot, Gujarat. She spent Rs 1,800 on train tickets, an amount that exceeds the salary she is paid as an ASHA worker. Macwana added that she is the only breadwinner of her household and she attended the rally to demand that workers like her get paid a minimum wage of Rs 18,000. “We are exhausted,” she said. “We are made to work all day and we are only paid Rs 1,000 a month for it. I don’t have time to take care of my own children. If we are paid more, then at least we become eligible to take loans.”
The streets of Delhi were crowded with workers marching towards Jantar Mantar. There, many of them laid out sheets and sat on the pavement to rest while street vendors set up stalls and sold food and water.
As she sat to take a break, Garjeet Kaur recollected when she started working as an anganwadi worker. “I started in 1997 with a salary of Rs 400,” said Kaur, 50, from Fatehgarh Sahib in Punjab. “Our jobs are in danger. We have been regularly protesting against the government. We don’t get a pension…our salaries our too low. How can we continue to work like this?”
All photographs: Aabid Shafi.