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35 lakh Gujarat tribal migrants' freedom sought from "bondage-type" condition ahead of state assembly polls

By Our Representative
With an eye on influencing 27 reserved tribal of the Gujarat state assembly, three non-political organizations have together under the banner of Sthalantarit Adivasi Shramik Manch (SASM), putting up one-and-a-half dozen demands, insisting on steps to the taken to "free" migrant tribal workers from the allegedly bonded-like condition, both in cities and in rural areas.
Talking with newspersons in the presence of tens of tribal migrant workers, who have been working on construction sites in Ahmedabad, Vipul Pandya, who heads Bandhkam Majur Sangathan (BMS), said, the Supreme Court has clearly defined as to whom should one call bonded workers.
"A labourer is under bondage under the following four conditions: Absence of freedom to choose one's employment, denial of freedom to relinquish one's employment whenever desired, debt bondage, and less than minimum wage payment. Migrant workers are brought by contractors to cities to work on construction or brick kiln sites, or on agricultural fields. Many of them fullfil these criteria for being identified as bonded workers", Pandya said.
"The contractors pay a sum of Rs 15,000 or so as advance to a migrant workers' family to work on urban sites or agricultural farms. They are bound by the contractor's condition not to leave the job for the period from which they should work. While the contractor tells these families that they would be paid rest of the amount after the completion of the period of work, this is seldom done. The amount get is less than the minimum wages", Pandya said.
Apart from BMS, the two other migrant workers who have joined to form a common platform are Aajeevika Bureau and Majoor Adhikar Manch.
Claiming to be an influential force among the approximately 35 lakh migrant workers, most of whom come from the eastern tribal belt, SASM's yet another major is for having a separate legal redressal cell with judicial powers at the district level to deal with disputes related to minimum wages, non-payment of wages, caste-based discrimination, sexual harassments and violence, accidents and accidental deaths.
Then, SASM wants setting up of a 24x7 labour helpline to register cases and provide immediate relief to migrants in distress and bondage; relief of Rs 3,00,000 in case of accidental deaths through the Chief Minister’s funds; social security for families in their home villages; and provision of ration under the National Food Security Act, (wheat at Rs 2, Rice at Rs 3) through food coupons or mobile ration shops at the work site.
SASM has also demanded provision of 200 days of employment to women tribal migrants at the source villages through better implementation of MGNREGA, temporary labour colonies with basic facilities such as water, sanitation, health and education neasr the site of work, waiver of charges for luggage and children while migrating in buses; onsite educational facilities for children; and payment of wages directly in individual bank accounts.
Apart from this, Pandya said, "We are going to represent before the Election Commission to allow voting rights in the cities or rural areas where the tribals migrate to work. If NRIs are sought to be given voting rights, why not these workers, who build others' houses yet are landless."
Pandya further said, "We have come to know that Rs 1,700 crore under the Gujarat Building and other Construction Worker Welfare Board. Instead using these funds for the benefit of migrant workers, including their housing, health and nutrition, the state government has been using it, for instance, for housing sites of metro workers on Ahmedabad. This is especially unfortunate when most migrant workers don't have basic housing, and are forcibly removed from even the shanties where they live."
Talking with newspersons, migrant workers pointed towards how they live in inhuman conditions in cities. One of them, Anandiben, said that the authorities in Ahmedabad have forced her family, as well as others, to be moved from one place to another four times over the last two decades, but they have been refused a respectable place to live. "Currently we live on footpath in the Thaltej area, for which we must pay Rs 2,000 per month to a local strongman", she added.

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