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Docu: Pension scheme of migrant adivasi workers in Thane district

By SushmitaVijay Ravikumar & Shiraz Bulsara

[The language in the video is Warli. Do enable the English subtitle by clicking on the cc tab on the video, if the subtitles don’t show up automatically.]

In the state of Maharashtra, senior citizens above the age of 65, who are destitute and below poverty line, are entitled to a pension of Rs 600 a month. Of this, Rs 200 come from the Union government under the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Anudan Yojana and Rs 400 come from the state government under Shravan Bal Yojana. To put this in context, an income of less than $1.25 per day per head was defined as extreme poverty by the World Bank in 2005. Adjusting for purchasing power parity this is Rs 25 per day and Rs 750 per month. There has been much criticism of the meagre amount of the pension as well as the stringent eligibility requirements. Under the banner of Pension Parishad, a battle is being waged to improve these conditions. The testimonies in this video were recorded on January 12, 2014, to be shown at the public hearing of the Pension Parishad on Jan 17.

Pension activists have taken the stance that pension for the elderly should not be viewed as charity, but as the right of the people after a lifetime of hard work. Workers in the unorganized sector engage in extremely strenuous manual labour under difficult physical conditions and without adequate nutrition or rest. The problems of poverty and exploitability are especially pronounced among adivasis. In her book Adivasi Life Stories, Indra Munshi mentions the following common modes of seasonal employment among the adivasis of Thane district: salt panning, brick making, sand dredging, deep sea fishing, and construction (66). With any of these forms of seasonal employment, it is common for entire families, along with children, to migrate to the work site. In the first few days after they arrive, the workers must get material to set up make-shift shelters. During this time, they are not paid and survive on only the rice they have brought from home. Throughout the labor season, the workers need to fetch water and firewood and this work is done mostly by women.

In Munshi’s book, Babubhau, an Adivasi man, describes the conditions in a brick kiln: “[The brick kiln workers] wake up at midnight and work till 10 or 11 in the morning.  After they wake up, they have to start carting the mud and mixing the sand, ash and husk and slowly kneading it with water to prepare the clay to make bricks.  By then it is evening and so they wash, go to the shop, buy something and catch some sleep for about three hours” (136). According to Suman, an Adivasi woman, “Once we start making the bricks we don’t get any rest as this is not on a daily wage basis but on piece rate…The quantity of mud to be kneaded is enormous, approximately one truckload of mud. Water is provided by the seth through a pipe. Our clothes get completely messed up. The men wear only the loin cloth. It is very hard work…Even if our children cry, we ignore them and work…” (208).

Migrant workers receive small advances during their stay at the work site, but the wage is settled only at the end of the season. Workers often get duped of their wages, and due to many levels of subcontracting, it is often impossible to catch hold of the actual employer and recover the wages. Working for very low wages, and sometimes cheated of even that, the adivasi worker comes back from a season of migratory work “with a big bundle of debt on her head” (in the words of Tulsi, one of our interviewees). Often these adivasis are indebted to the contractor, and they are obligated to work for him the next season. And in this way they get old with no possibility of saving money.

Getting hold of the meagre pension provided by the state is also a difficult battle for the elderly poor. It is very complicated for them to collect the necessary documents, and they inevitably end up paying agents to fill out their forms and navigate the bureaucracy. Adivasis working in the agricultural and unorganized sector often have little understanding of institutions like banks or government agencies. Tulsi talks about a failed attempt at opening a bank account, “But it appears that my papers were not sent or have not come back from Delhi, so I could not open an account.” She was required to have a bank account to get the pension money, but she does not distinguish between the process of setting up a bank account and that of getting the pension money from the government. Kasthakari Sanghatana, based in Dahanu, Thane district, has been involved in the fight to get adivasis their pensions.

As background to the video, we quote Shiraz Bulsara of the Sanghatana, describing their efforts and the frustrations they encountered:

“In the year 2007, while working in Jawhar and Mokhada talukas, we saw that a lot of aged people, especially women, were dying of hunger. These deaths were being officially registered as ‘natural deaths’. We also saw that a lot of poor adivasis didn’t get pension and the people who got pension were the ones with political connections. So, we started a movement and filed 3000 pension applications. Many people started getting pension as a result. But, the pensions stopped after a year or two. On investigating, we found out that their ‘life certificates’ weren’t given. And if they wanted their pension, they’d have to file a fresh application. For the aged, it is not possible to collect all the documents again – that process also involves a lot of expenditure. In Dahanu taluka, we filed 1200 new pension applications. But there was no response for a year or two. After putting a lot of pressure through campaigns, the Tehsildar admitted that these applications were lost. We were promised that camps would be set up in various places, where the aged can go and fill out the forms. Thousands of people went to these camps. But less than half of the applications were approved, the rest remain excluded.”

The testimonies in this video are by people in the Dahanu taluka who still haven’t gotten their pensions. Our readers can imagine the near impossibility of getting pension for those destitute elderly, who aren’t backed by an activist organization.

Photo-credit: The Guardian

Authors:

Sushmita & Vijay are both postdocs in Mathematics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai. On the side, they have been working with the activist organization Kashtakari Sanghatana on various issues concerning Adivasi life.

Concept & Direction:

Shiraz Bulsara is an activist working on feminist, labour and adivasi issues. She has been working with Kashtakari Sanghatana for almost 30 years.

***

For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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