Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Madhumita Dutta and Jagdish Patel - Dead Men (of Gujarat) Tell No Tales:
A report by a two member Supreme Court appointed committee in 2006 had revealed that 16% of workers in Alang may have contracted asbestosis, a debilitating lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos fibres. The National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad diagnosed 16 cases of asbestosis in Alang in 2006. But till date its not known whether the workers have been compensated or the status of their health since all information has been stonewalled despite repeated Right To Information (RTI) requests by Raghunath Manwar, a former power plant worker and occupational health activist.
Amidst a plethora of articles published, trying to explain Mr Narendra Modi’s nation-wide popularity leading to BJP’s eventual electoral win in the 2014 parliamentary elections, a column by Mr Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar in Times of India caught our attention. In his usual style, exuding confidence, Mr Aiyar attributed Mr Modi’s victory in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to “the message carried home by migrant workers in Gujarat”
Apparently Mr Aiyar found his “biggest, credible explanation” (for Modi’s win) while on a pre-election tour in these states where he quizzed the villagers about Modi. Villagers who were otherwise skeptical of the “vultures who came around promising the moon at election time” were swayed by the ‘tales of good governance’ that migrant workers brought home from Gujarat.
While Mr Aiyar doesn’t explain what these ‘tales’ are since he confesses that these are ‘not very detailed or specific’, one wonders who are these migrant workers that Mr Aiyar refers to? And might it be possible that there are other ‘tales’ that are never fully told by the workers when they come visiting families after long periods of time?
In their recent analysis of the much touted Gujarat ‘model of development’, economists CP Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh pointed out that while per capita income in Gujarat is 20% higher than rest of the country, the average wages in the state is much lower compared to other states with similar per capital income. Statistics reveal rural wages in Gujarat to be 20 per cent lower and urban wages to be 15 per cent lower. The two economists further looked at the prices of essential consumption items and calculated that if a male casual worker in rural Gujarat finds a job for 25 days (a miracle by itself) then his wage could support only 3.1 people at consumption above the poverty line, which is slightly above the lowest which is 3.0 (in Chhattisgarh), whereas the all India figure is 4.6.
A look at the working conditions in some of the places where the migrant workers work and live, tell a far grimmer tale than what Mr Aiyar’s informants might have told him.
The Alang shipbreaking yard in Bhavnagar, located in the coastal Saurashtra region of Gujarat, is one of the biggest such yards in the world. Old ships—oil tankers, freight carriers, luxury cruisers, defence ships from all over the world come here for scrapping to recover steel and other recyclable/reusable materials. An army of over 30,000 migrant workers tear down the ships with gas cutters, saws, hammers, pulling massive steel plates and iron blocks with chains. Local workers don’t work in these dangerous yards. Migrants from Gorakhpur district in Uttar Pradesh, Ganjam district in Odisha, Munger, Saran, Gaya districts of Bihar, different districts of Jharkhand come to work at Alang. In a year 15-20 deaths are known to occur in these yards besides a large number of accidents every month. As recently as March 2014, 2 workers were killed and 3 critically injured when a huge steel plate fell on them while they were working in the night at one of the plots in the yard. The dead workers were from Ganjam district of Odisha. The most common causes for fatal accidents in Alang are falling steel plates, falls from great heights and fires while cutting open the gas or oil filled pipes in the old ship. Besides the accidents, workers in these yards are exposed to high levels of toxic fumes and chemicals from paints and oils in the ships and deadly asbestos fibres that are used in the engine rooms for insulation... read more: