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Socialist, satyagrahi, satyashodhak, inspired by Jyotiba Phule, Ambedkar, Gandhi, Shivaji

By Bharat Dogra* 

Baba Adhav, 93,  has led a life of many struggles and efforts made in very difficult conditions, spread over seven decades, which brought hope to millions of workers. These efforts were particularly concentrated among the poorest and unorganized sector workers.
Unorganised workers form the bulk of India's workforce, yet the majority of these workers face several serious problems including difficulties in accessing social security. Neglected by both the government and the bigger trade unions, many of these workers suffer from exploitation, health hazards and highly insecure working and living conditions. This dismal and dark situation is lighted only here and there by a few encouraging initiatives in various parts of India to mobilise these workers.
Perhaps the brightest and most sustained of these efforts which has brought genuine relief and bigger hope to workers has been led and inspired by Dr. Baba Adhav. His efforts to organise head-loaders (hamals) started way back in 1952 when he was only 22. 
It has been a tremendous achievement to sustain such an effort for almost 70 years, linking it time and again with wider national efforts so that the experience gained and models developed in his main work area in and Pune (Maharashtra) can reach a much wider number of workers.
Baba Adhav received The Times of India's first Social Impact Award for Lifetime Contribution in 2011. As the newspaper reported, he got this award for "decades of selfless work to secure labour rights and social security for lakhs of people in the unorganised sector." Earlier the 'Week' magazine, which named Baba Adhav the 'man of the year' in 2007, called him, tongue-in-check, 'Coolie No. 1' for all his labours to help head-loaders get their rights and dignity.
If such awards have came quite late in the life of Baba Adhav, jail terms came too early. In fact Baba Adhav has served as many as 53 jail terms in his six to seven decades of struggles, the last one being in 2008. To sustain all this work and to keep expanding it for over 70 years in the middle of all these jail terms and other harassments is a monumental achievement, which becomes all the more inspiring when it is kept in mind that Baba Adhav neither sought nor received funds from the government or from foreign donors for his numerous activities.
Unlike several other initiatives for workers, this one has been marked less by rhetoric and more by innovative efforts. It was difficult to get enough funds for providing social security to head-loaders, so Baba Adhav and his colleagues thought up the idea of a levy on all payments made to head-loaders which could be used to provide provident fund, gratuity, bonus, insurance and other benefits to workers who lift heavy loads.
While organising head-loaders, who would have thought that women who clean the grain also need to be protected and organised? But this effort included them too and held talks with merchants to improve their conditions.
Who would have thought that the few scattered people who collect used lubricating oil for re-refining can also be organised and protected from needless harassment? But this effort tried to include even such completely marginalised and neglected groups of workers.
As a result of the dedicated, continuing and sustained efforts of Baba Adhav and his associates, many such small and big unions (called panchayats) embracing the marginalised and unorganised workers have been organised in Pune. Some of the unions also reach other towns and villages of Pune district, while some other unions - like head-loaders - reach some of the most remote districts of Maharashtra as well (or more specifically the agricultural produce marketing committees of these districts).
These unions have brought improvements in working, living and social conditions of workers. This is most visible in the case of older unions like those of head-loaders or hamals. Earnings have increased, over 400 houses have been built and others are on way. A school provides good quality, free education to children of hamals and other workers.
An information technology instruction unit is being started for senior students. Hamals get provident fund, gratuity and health insurance benefits, and now demand for pension is also picking up. Their union has made substantially successful efforts to implement an ILO resolution which limits the weight to be lifted by a head-loader to a maximum of 50 kgs.
This has helped to reduce health hazards for workers, although other hazards continue for more specific loads like those of chillies and cement. As a result of many-sided improvements, children of hamals are now able to access college education and some of them are getting engineering education.
Even in the case of unions formed much later such as those of rag-pickers, already substantial gains have been achieved. Rag pickers have been protected from police harassment and exploitation by scrap traders. Child labour has been greatly reduced and many of them can now access education. Group life insurance cover has been provided. In addition medical insurance cover is provided by Pune Municipal Corporation.
SwacH Coop project has helped to link improved livelihoods for rag pickers with environment protection. National and International linkages have helped to provide wide reach to innovative ideas and work. The union here (KKPKP) also provides the secretariat for a wider Alliance of Waste Pickers.
Similarly unions of domestic workers, vendors, rickshaw drivers and other unorganised sections have recorded important achievements. In the case of vendors, policy guidelines have been formulated by local authorities in addition to the 2007 national policy.
These as well as the union's support enable the vendors now to protect their livelihood rights more strongly then before, apart from resisting the illegal extortion made by the police and others. Even for those who are evicted, there is now a better chance for rehabilitation.
Domestic workers union wants reforms in the newly enacted legislation on the lines of the law for hamals. At the same time it is trying to speed up registration (which is essential in order to benefit from the new law) and this could not have been speeded up without the union's support. Auto rickshaw union wants recognition of this work as a public utility and social security by a Board for those who work for the utility.
Various unions are supported mainly by membership fees. Angmehanti Kashtkari Sangarsh Samiti provides an over-arching platform for various unions and workers organisations.

Social entrepreneurship

However many of the economic gains could not have been sustained and protected but for the simultaneous setting up of several co-operative credit societies alongside the unions or panchayats, in order to enable head-loaders, rag-pickers, vendors and rickshaw-drivers to obtain credit at a low interest rate.
It is this facility which enabled them to escape the clutches of moneylenders while at the same time also expanding their income-earning activities (such as by purchasing auto-rickshaws or expanding their retail vending business), constructing houses and educating their children.
Earlier most of the workers had to borrow from private moneylenders at a high interest rate of 5 to 10 percent per month. The high interest made it difficult to pay back the loan, or to invest profitably in any new entrepreneurial activity. Commercial banks did not encourage workers as customers or groups of customers with their small savings and needs.
On the other hand the setting up of their own cooperative credit societies with their own share capital enabled workers to obtain loans much more easily at a much lesser interest (compared to private moneylenders) while at the same time having a strong sense of ownership of the entire effort. This sense of ownership motivated them to contribute to the strength of the credit-ops by timely repayments of their loans.
At regular intervals new credit co-ops were started for head-loaders, vendors, auto-rickshaw drivers and rag-pickers. Keeping in view the high interest rates of moneylenders, the combined impact of these initiatives has been to save millions of rupees for weakest section families which could then be used for small-scale entrepreneurial activities as well as for housing and meeting education expenses. The fact that frustrating delays and bribes could be altogether avoided at the time of obtaining loans increased the possibility of using easily accessible money for entrepreneurial activities.
A visit to well-maintained co-operative credit societies revealed the pride union workers take in their own credit institutions. A huge, financially self-sustaining community kitchen has been another example of social entrepreneurship initiatives. Another successful initiative has been SWaCH Coop, a wholly owned cooperative of self-employed waste-pickers and other urban poor.
This has opened up new possibilities to some of the poorest people to obtain better livelihood opportunities which are linked to protection of environment in the form of more and better composting as well as greater opportunities for useful recycling of waste. As smartly dressed women drive waste-carrying vans and their pick-up vans are welcomed by citizens, this becomes an example of fighting poverty, providing dignity to the poorest while at the same protecting environment and creating a cleaner city.

Wider role

As Baba Adhav says:
"Our effort is to combine improvement of living conditions, working conditions and social conditions. Hamals have higher earnings, bonus, provident fund and insurance. They have houses, their own school and community centre. But in addition we need social improvement, a sense of dignity and pride in their work, which is linked also to wider social change that can break the shackles of caste, hierarchy and narrow-minded discrimination in Indian society."
Baba Adhav's yearning for wider social change is inspired by the work of Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, Baba Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, Chhatrapati Shivaji and others greats of our history. Their teachings are spread among people with a special emphasis on contemporary needs and relevance. For example the teachings of Chatrapati Shivaji here are linked to his concern for protection of environment and for communal harmony.
Nitin Pawar, who has been closely associated with Baba Adhav's many-sided work, says:
"Although at the national level, it is Baba's contributions to unorganised sector workers which have been most highlighted, it will be a great injustice to confine his work only to this aspect. He has striven for much wider mobilisations in many areas to end socio-economic injustice. Way back in 1972 at the time of a serious drought Baba worked tirelessly to end discrimination in access to water-sources in villages where-ever there was social discrimination.
“Then he fought a long battle for providing justice to nomadic and denotified tribes, and another one on behalf of devadasis or women who were victims of social oppression, so that pension could be provided to them. When he stopped his private medical practice due to wider social involvement, he helped to create public-spirited hospitals.
“He was closely involved with Hamid Dalwai's efforts for social reforms among Muslims as well as for reforms in the Bohra community. During emergency he valiantly resisted slum-demolition and he was promptly sent to jail for 14 months. Whether working as President of the PUCL or in other ways, Baba contributed to civil liberties in many ways. He helped to set up a National Integration Committee and fought and resisted sectarian forces at several fronts."
In fact Baba Adhav was much ahead of his times in taking up issues like displacement of farmers caused by dams and other projects. These efforts led to a rehabilitation policy in Maharashtra at an early stage. Baba's vision of social change has a special place for a wider role by women. Women dominate the membership of some of the unions like those of domestic workers, rag-pickers and, to a lesser extent, vendors.
A socialist, satyagrahi, and a satyashodhak (someone who yearns for truth to prevail) is how Baba Adhav likes to describe himself. He is all this and more, a symbol of hope for millions of workers and oppressed people. Even during his elderly years he did not hesitate to join national level struggles and efforts for new laws for social security and universal pensions. His wife Sheela has been the biggest support for his many-sided activities and achievements.
Baba Adhav is today among the most respected social activists in India, with his great work combining mass mobilisation for justice with social entrepreneurship initiatives for many decades.
*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. Books: “Planet in Peril”, “Man over Machine”, “When the Two Streams Met” aand”Protecting Earth for Children”



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