Hundreds of migrant workers in the “hub of Indian handloom industry” are dismayed over being reduced to mere showpieces — crowds for rallies of all parties — in the country’s high-decibel electoral politics that has failed to address their problems.
On Tuesday, as we met several workers in Panipat, technically part of the National Capital Region (NCR), they rued how politicians always came with “a bagful of promises before elections” and then conveniently forget to work for the workers, most of whom are not registered voters here.
According to independent estimates, more than 1.25 lakh workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh among other states are working at various handloom units here. Thousands of unorganised units scattered around the district, part of the Karnal Lok Sabha constituency, together with export houses have built Panipat into a 4,000-crore handloom business centre.
But, for the workers, the poor implementation of factory laws — small unit owners do not even maintain official employment register — means no facilities of insurance or legal working hours, or even minimum wages. Plus, there are horrible working conditions. Workers in the unorganised sector are paid on per-piece basis of a given product, and a worker makes
3,000-6,000 a month. But factory owners do not furnish any proof of employment and avoid employee welfare plans.
Workers’ rights activist PP Kapoor said that less than 6% of these workers were registered voters in Panipat, though most of them had been staying here for more than a decade. “They do not have official proofs of residence and cannot avail facilities including voting rights and Aadhaar numbers,” said Kapoor.
Weavers like Sheetal Kumar Maurya, who is from Kaushambi in Uttar Pradesh, feel it is an exploitative system. “As political rallies are organised on Sundays, the factory owners close their units and give us dalchawal. Then we are bundled in buses to show us as supporters of respective parties. On such occasions, we are not given any money as work remains suspended to ensure heavy crowd at the rallies,” he said, while adding that not attending such rallies “surely means removal from job”.
A bedsheet weaver from Pali in Rajasthan, Anil Kumar, said that as owners of small-scale units did not provide identity cards or any material evidence to enable workers to register themselves as Panipat residents, they were devoid of several welfare schemes. “Shopkeepers charge ` 80-120 for one kg of LPG. In the absence of an ID proof, we cannot get proper LPG connections and find it hard to get mobile phone connection too sometimes,” said Imtiaz Ansari, staying here for more than 15 years.
An odd case was of Radha Charan from Mathura, who lost his job a day before Holi for demanding better remuneration. He insists that he is an ardent supporter of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), “But it is unfortunate that no one, including the BSP, has ever taken any interest in problems of industrial workers in Panipat.”
Similarly, Bacha Sahu of Bihar has been living here for 16 years: “Had we got voter cards, politicians would have been forced to think of us.”
“We are treated as a crowd by a system that wants to project us as sympathisers of political parties or as human machines that earn huge financial benefits for the factory owners,” he said, alleging that workers have to work 9am-7pm shifts at least.
Besides the mainstream political parties, a large section of industrial workers has lost hope in the Left parties and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) too.
Activist PP Kapoor said the Left was regularly fielding Mam Chand Saini, an industrialist, who is the CPI-CPM candidate this time too. “During workersfactory owners rift, Saini on several occasions has appeared as a stakeholder of the factory owners’ association,” said Kapoor.
As for the AAP, many say the rookie party’s workers are more interested in photo opportunities in the media and had never visited the dingy lanes where workers live.
Yet, there are also people like Naseem from Kairana, a UP village located on the PanipatSaharanpur border, who still want to exercise their right even if it doesn’t bring them tangible relief: “I will go to my village on the polling day to press NOTA (none of the above) button.”