news Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - 05:30
Imran Khan | July 22, 2014 | 2.31 pm IST Ramanna (65) has been loading and unloading rice sacks for the Karnataka Food and Civil Supplies Corporation (KFCSC) for the past thirty years. For his backbreaking work, he gets rupees six a quintal with no social security or employment benefits; and for 30 years of service as a porter, the government is still refusing to recognise him through a working employee identification card, and unwilling to pay him as per the current market rates.  As if all this was not enough, the state government has now issued a circular which would put people like him out of jobs without guaranteeing their job security. It is not just his individual story, says Ramanna, who looks wearied due to years of hard labour. More than 20,000 people have been working as porters since the Public Distribution System (PDS) was put in place in the state. “When I started work (30 years ago), I was paid around 25 paise. Now I get around Rupees 6 per quintal, which is one third (Rs. 18) of the market rate’’, says Ramanna who has barely managed to raise a family of five from his meagre income. In June 2013, the Congress government which came to power defeating BJP announced an ambitious populist scheme "Anna Bhagya" which aimed at providing 30kg of rice for Re 1 to the state’s 99 lakh Below Poverty Line (BPL) families. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah who announced this scheme on his first day in office got good support for his scheme from the progressives and intellectuals of the state. However, some were left out of this goodwill. The state government’s “Anna Bhagya” scheme has brought smiles to the 99 lakh BPL families, but not for these 20,000 porters, who deliver rice to the people by loading them from the godown to the PDS shops. The government has neglected their plight’’ says Dr. Vasu, state co-coordinator of Karnataka Jana Shakti (loosely translated as Karnataka People’s Power), which has been organizing these workers. On an average each porter loads and unloads minimum 150 quintals of rice per day from the stock at the state’s 300 food corporation warehouses to be later supplied to 20,450 food Fair Price Shops. At a minimum of Rs 6 per quintal, they earn roughly Rs 6,000 a month. Even these meagre wages are negotiated daily.  Most of these workers have been doing this for the past 30 years, without even a single one of them ever been made a permanent employee of the state. None of them receive the mandatory Provident Fund, Employee State Insurance or Health benefits as mandated under the Labour act of 1978. Ravi (37) a porter at Maddur (80 km from Bangalore) says that they often do not get work for throughout the month. Most of the time we work for 15 days at the food corporation, and the rest of the time try to find work outside. When asked, why they work for such low wages at the corporations, he says, “because it is a steady work”. But even this steady work has been cut short by the circular issued by the Karnataka government in May, which makes it mandatory for fair price shop owners to collect rice directly from Food Corporation of India, instead from state food civil supplies department, robbing them of their steady income, and even if it is notional financial security. Naturally, the workers have protested against the government's circular which they argue will seriously affect their livelihood and render them jobless. They are being laid off now after years of toiling for the government. “Our work involves a lot of physical work and long working hours, stretching sometimes to 12 hours a day’’ says Krishnappa (50) who works at the food corporation warehouse in Mandya (125 km south of Bangalore). And for that back breaking work, the porters are denied even basic facilities which are usually taken for granted. For instance, none of the warehouses provide drinking water, toilets or restrooms to wash. In between work, they have to make use of a wall or nearby bushes to relieve themselves. The contractors who usually operate these warehouses do not even provide tea or snacks at any given time of the day, even when their work stretches late into the night.  The government while awarding tenders to contractors has not even made it a point to include these issues in the contract. A copy of the last contract signed between the state food corporation and the contractors (June 1, 2012) which is in possession of this reporter, is a case in point. The government has set guidelines that the loading and unloading of PDS rice had to be completed within a week, even when its own circular of July 24, 2013 provides for work to be carried out in a period of 15 days. “This pushes us to our maximum limit. After a week’s work, we won’t be unable to work for at least three to four days as we suffer from back, knee and shoulder pain’’ Krishnappa says. Officials of the Department of Food and Civil Supplies acknowledge that the wages given to the workers are far too low, but they insist that it is the job of the contractors to give it. If they are fault, the government will take action on them. “As far as the new circular goes, it is still not been implemented due to opposition from workers,” Commissioner (Food and Civil Supplies) Harsh Gupta said. After years of suffering, with the help of Jana Shakti, the porters have managed to organise themselves into a union for the past three years; with chapters propping up all over the state. Three years of their collective struggle has resulted in pushing the government to grant a raise in wage of Rs. 2. On April 4, 2011, the BJP government had revised their pay from Rs 4 to Rs 6.  This is however, not evenly implemented all over. Activists highlight that, in many parts of the state, especially in the former BJP belt and especially in BJP's bastion (North Karnataka): porters are still paid Rs. 4. Dr. Vasu says that, compared to the porters of the Food Corporation of India, who are given permanent job with a wage of Rs. 246 per day, weekly off, provident fund and health benefits, none of these facilities are available to those who work at the state food corporation warehouses. “In Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, these facilities are extended to all the workers” adds Vasu. Activists of Jan Shakthi and representatives of porters union have made several representations to the state government in the past two months to no avail. But they are hopeful that before this budget session ends, the state government will agree to their demands. If not, they say they knock at the doors of the law.
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