Bengal jute mill workers face acute food scarcity amid lockdown, activists write to Mamata

A study conducted by Amra Sachetan Ek Prayas reveals that jute mill workers in Kankinara and adjoining areas are not just facing shortage of food but also lack of proper hygiene and soap to combat Coronavirus

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Kolkata: The lockdown has got another extension of 19 days. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, today announced that the lockdown would continue till May 3 in an attempt to control transmission of COVID-19. Some lauded the move, while many living in the bottom of the social pyramid cursed their luck.

Not many may be aware of the adversities of the jute mill workers, just a few kilometres away from Kolkata.

According to a field report filed by a group of researchers under the banner of – Amra Sachetan Ek Prayas, a large section of Jute Mill labourers, already victimized by the catastrophe of the communal riot which took place in Bhatpara, amid the General Elections in 2019, have been further alienated due the countrywide lockdown.

The researchers surveyed three labour colonies (Darba line, 4 Number line and 6 Number line), 927 households in ward number 8 of Bhatpara Municipality to come to the conclusion that these areas have been badly affected due to the on-going lockdown. “In the past 21-days, they have received rice, pulses and potatoes from local councillor only twice,” informed social activist Subha Protim Roy Chowdhury, who has been working in areas of Bhatpara municipality that has been affected by communal clashes.

He added, “Most of these daily earners have no option other than to wash their hands and clothes without any soap or detergent though regular and frequent wash of hands with soap or sanitizer is urgently solicited to avoid Corona Virus contamination.”

lockdown kankinara jute mill workers bengal
A notice by a jute mill company says about No Work No Pay system for workers in Kankinara

Chowdhury informed that letter concerning the condition of the jute mill workers had been sent to the Inspector in Charge, Bhatpara Police Station on April 8, 2020; but till date not a single step was initiated by the authority concerned. “A large section of victims and other labourers of that area have no ration card. Despite of recent announcement of distributing ‘food coupon’ for the people having no ration card, the access to food is beyond their reach,” he maintained.

Confirming the same was Rukhshar Perween, a resident of the jute mill worker’s colony in Kankinara. She said, “We don’t have the new digital ration card and hence, the fair price shop dealers are refusing to provide us the ration, promised by Didi (Mamata Banerjee). The local councilor had distributed rice and potato, along the same time, when a few relief workers and NGO’s that have been working with us since the communal clashes took place, provided ration kits and vegetables to us.”

Speaking to eNewsroom councilor of ward number 8, Md Maqsood Alam, said, “It has come to our notice that a large number of applicants for RSYK cards are yet to receive them. Hence, they are unable to avail of the free ration or ration at the subsidized price being provided by the government. We have written to the concerned authorities to come up with some solution. At a personal level, I am distributing ration to the affected areas.”

On being told that it was not enough to survive, he added, “I agree, but relief is being provided to them not just by us but also by several NGOs and Good Samaritans.”

lockdown kankinara jute mill workers bengal
An elderly woman receives detergent powder by another civil society group

Adding to plight of the jute mill workers, is the notice put up by the mill owners, declaring that no work means no pay. “The jute mills on March 23 put up notices declaring that the workers won’t be paid if they don’t work. This is adversely affecting the poor jute mill labours, who are already leading a difficult life. The families living in areas like Tina Godown, Coolie Lane, Darga Lane, Lane no 6 are already leading a life full of hardship. The area is dirty and needs to be sanitized as around seven to nine people live in a single room here, just like Mumbai’s Dharavi. We need to understand that it’s a high-risk area,” informed Debashis Pal, a social worker, who has been running a free coaching centre in Bhatpara’s riot-affected areas.

Chowdhury claimed, “Despite several notifications/declarations, issued by Government of India as well as Government of West Bengal, no Jute Mill company under Barrackpur Industrial area paid actual wages to their enrolled labourers during this ongoing Lockdown period.”

Making things more difficult for families to sustain themselves is the fact that the government-run schools despite being instructed to provide rice and potatoes to the mid-day meal beneficiaries, have been unable to do the needful.

Akhtar Hussain, headmaster of H M Himayatul Gurbha High School, speaking to eNewsroom said, “We have around 22 sacks of rice lying in the school premise. We had been asked to distribute the rice along with potatoes to our students on March 23. But the sudden announcement of nation-wide lockdown has made it impossible for me to travel from Titagarh to Kankinara. One of our representatives in Kankinara is in constant touch with the officials, the moment we get a go-ahead, we will dispatch the ration to our students.”

Moved by the plight of the jute mill workers, the researchers and activists have demanded for food coupon should be ensured through government-run distribution outlets and setting up of a helpline number or control room number to ensure food supply in a transparent and non-discriminatory manner. Local government authorities should be held liable for any starvation case. However, they stressed upon the need of the state government to ensure free supply of bath soaps to prevent spread of COVID-19 pandemic.

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