People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
February 25, 2001
Beedi Workers Conference Calls For March to Parliament
P K Ganguly
THE All India Beedi Workers Federation (CITU) from its Third Triennial Conference held at Farakka, West Bengal from January 26 to 28, 2001, gave a call for March to Parliament programme by Beedi workers in pursuance of their demands.
The entire town of Farakka was well decorated by red flags, festoons and banners, including the premises which was named as Benoy Chowdhary Nagar and the Hall, named as Vimal Randive Manch.
The conference was attended by a total number of 265 delegates and observers including 44 women from almost all the Beedi producing states of the coutnry, representing about 2.5 lakh Beedi workers organised under the federation.
The conference started with flag hoisting by C Kannan, the president, followed by placing of wreaths to the martyrs memorial by the delegates and observers.
At the outset the conference condoled the death of all comrades who passed away during the period from the last conference. It also condoled the death of a large number of persons and those affected in the recent devastating floods in Bengal.
In a separate resolution the conference also condoled the death of thousands of people in the severe earthquake that rocked Gujarat on January 26, the news of which came in the evening. The conference called for contributions by all workers in the industry and for immediate relief operations by the government.
In the morning the chairman of the Reception Committee, Hasnat Khan, MP welcomed the delegates. C Kannan delivered his presidential address P K Ganguly, general secretary of the federation placed the report.
The report dealt with the effects of the globalised economy in general and on the Beedi industry in particular. It pointed out how the BJP government at the centre was aggressively pursuing the policy of liberalisation at the behest of the US-led imperialist countries, throwing open the vast market in India to be captured by the giant multinational cigarette companies like Philip, Morris, British American Tobacco, R J Reynolds, Rothmans of Pall Mall, etc. This was by way of allowing them to market mini-cigarettes with reduced excise duties and increasing the excise duty on Beedis, and also allowing 100 per cent FDI with excise exemption in the name of developing the under developed regions.
The government has taken steps to put statutory warning labels on Beedi packs on the ground of health hazards. The ban on smoking also was going to hit the Beedi industry as well as the tobacco growers. All these measures were being taken without any plan for alternative avenues for the millions of tobacco growers and fifty to sixty lakhs of Beedi workers. The move was also there to levy uniform excise duties for Beedi rolled in hands in India and those rolled in machines by the MNCs. In this background the USA had banned import of several renowned Beedis from India in the name of Child Welfare and Workers rights under US Trade Law, Section 301. At the same time there is a move to allow import of Beedis from the USA and other western countries.
While all these measures had created a serious crisis in the industry, the government remained totally unconcerned about the service and working conditions of the lakhs of Beedi workers in the country. It has even refused to call conciliations to discuss the demands placed by the federation several years ago.
The report dealt with the organisational matters and the growing struggles launched by the Beedi workers in different states and the ripe occasion for joint movements with other trade unions. It called for a March to Parliament programme jointly with other trade unions after the forthcoming elections in several states. Twenty nine comrades including nine women from all the states participated in the discussion. They severely criticised the government policies and narrated about their conditions, abysmally low wages, denial of welfare measures, housing problems and their movements and efforts to gear up organisational activities and membership. They expressed their preparedness to join the Delhi March programme when it is adopted. The report of the general secretary and the statement of accounts were adopted unanimously.
DISCUSSION ON WORKING WOMEN
Since women workers constituted the overwhelming majority of the beedi workers in the country one of the special features of the conference was a thorough going discussion on taking up the specific demands of the women workers, their involvement and mobilisation in movement and union activities and bringing them up in leadership positions.
The report of the general secretary laid emphasis on this point and the issue was reiterated through a resolution moved by Hemalata, seconded by Papu and supported by Ranjana. It was the experience that while the women workers suffered from the common problems of the Beedi workers, they were more vulnerable, ruthlessly exploited with all round discrimination and their specific demands and problems remained unattended to. In many states they are paid less than their male counterparts. Identity cards are often issued in the name of their husbands or other male members. As a result they are denied the welfare and other benefits. Provisions like maternity benefits, creches, etc are not implemented. While there is gross violation in implementation of various legal provisions, this callous negligence is marked when it comes to implementation of the specific provisions for the women workers. In addition, they are subjected to sexual harassments by the contractors and middlemen.
The report and the resolution called upon the unions to include the specific demands of the women workers in the charter of demands, take the women leaders and cadres in the negotiations and take up these demands therein. It was pointed out that all these specific demands of the women workers were incorporated in the 21-point charter of demands fomulated by the federation, and these demands have to be focused in the action programme being launched by the unions. While reviewing the weaknesses, it was pointed out that despite the decision of the working committee to ensure at least 25 per cent women delegates in the conference, the women delegates/observers constituted only about 17 per cent. Only from Maharashtra majority of the delegates were women, nine out of fourteen.
SUB-COMMITTEE ON WORKING WOMEN
There was a lively debate on the issue, which was concluded by the general secretary of the federation. The conference decided that sub-committees on working women in the Beedi industry would be formed in all states, followed by districts and in unions, and state level conventions on working women in the industry would be held in each state to discuss these issues, and include women cadres and workers in the leadership positions at all levels and involve them in decision makings and day to day activities of the unions. Tasks were formulated in this regard. There was a consensus that since women constituted the vast majority of the Beedi workers in the coutnry, this fact should be reflected in future in all committees, movements and the conference of the federation.
M K Pandhe, general secretary of CITU addressed the delegates session on Janurary 27. He called upon the delegates to gear up the organisational activities, increase the membership of Beedi workers in each Beedi manufacturing state and launch all India movements jointly with other trade unions to compel the government to concede the demands of the Beedi workers.
The conference elected a working committee of 59 members including 14 office bearers. C Kanan, P K Ganguly and R K Swamy were re-elected as president, general secretary and treasurer respectively.
A massive open rally of about 50,000 workers was held on January 28. The rally was addressed by Budhadeb Bhattacharjee, chief minister of West Bengal and M K Pandhe, general secretary of CITU as the main speakers. Others who spoke were P K Ganguly, Abdul Hasnat Khan, Chittaranjan Sarkar and K Hemalata.