Organizing Workers and Farmers in Gujarat: An Interview with Paulomee Mistry, Vice-President of GALU

Following my interview with Veda Bharadwaja regarding The Hunger Project India’s focus on empowering women to address hunger, I spoke with Paulomee Mistry, who has been Vice-President of the Gujarat Agriculture Labour Union since 2004. GALU, which claims more than 50,000 worker members in the Indian state of Gujarat, supports workers on a range of labor and human rights issues. Paulomee described GALU’s work and its members, and discussed whether Indian legislation adequately protects the rights of agricultural workers.

Who are your members, and what do they do?
Gujarat Agriculture Labour Union has membership of 59,879, including annual and lifetime workers. The members are both men and women, and belong to tribal, Dalit, and other backward castes in Gujarat.

Most of our members are landless labor[ers], while some are small and marginal farmers owning up to 1.5 acres of land. The small and marginal farmers don’t have irrigation facilities, and they have to depend on rain or conventional sources of … water, like wells. They cultivate food grains during the monsoon, and grow subsistence crops like wheat, maize, and pulses. They cannot grow cash crops like cotton, vegetables, or tobacco, which require irrigation facilities. Hence, during the remaining part of the year, they migrate out of their villages, to work as agriculture labor for the big farmers.

What are some of the most pressing issues that agricultural workers face in Gujarat?
The common issues confronting the agriculture labor[ers] are non-payment of minimum wages, exploitation and harassment by big farmers, [in]effective implementation of labor laws, [and] no effective enforcement of social security laws to protect the agriculture laborers.

The government policy in Gujarat has, in the past three decades, favored the big farmers’ lobby at the cost of ignoring the small and marginal farmers. … The pro-big-farmer policy of the Gujarat government, irregularity of rainfall, low productivity of land, low price support, market price fluctuation … all have resulted in the marginalization and increased food insecurity among thousands of small and marginal farmers. In a related phenomenon, the small farmers are being forced by situations of created distress [into] selling the land and being rendered landless forever.

What does GALU do to address these issues?
Gujarat Agriculture Labour Union has been addressing the issues of unemployment, lack of food security, lack of social security, low levels of education, lack of protection as workers, and overall under-development of … agricultural laborers in Gujarat since 1988.

The union takes up workers’-rights-related issues such as claims of non-payment or [under-]payment of wages, harassment by big farmers, compensation for death and injuries, abuse of women workers, and the like.

GALU also undertakes public policy education, [especially] pertaining to the labor laws, entitlement of workers, benefits under various government schemes, fight against exploitation of workers, legal advocacy on behalf of workers, etc.

What current laws protect agricultural workers in India, and how much are they enforced?
There is only legislation called Minimum Wages Act, 1948, which provides a framework for protection to the agriculture labour in India. The Government of India has recently enacted a new law titled Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008. As this is a Union act, many states [have] yet to formulate the rules for implementation at the state level. Hence, the law is only on paper as of now.

The Minimum Wages Act is poorly enforced, if at all. … Agricultural labor is spread wide across the state, into [the most] remote corners. The Ministry of Labour has very inadequate personnel and infrastructure to monitor the effective implementation of the act, since the monitoring mechanisms are more suited to the organized sectors of labor, while agriculture is an organized sector. Further, the Ministry of Labour is supposed to revise the minimum wages within every five years. Until 1996, the agricultural labor minimum wage was a pitiful 15 rupees per day [US $0.27 in today’s dollars]. Effective lobbying by GALU led to a policy revision and the daily wage was increased to Rs. 34 [per day, which is US $0.61] in 1996.

Until 2008, the minimum wage of agricultur[al] laborers in Gujarat was the lowest in the country …50 rupees, less than US $1. Due to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, [the] Gujarat government was forced to increase minimum wages in agriculture, which now stands at Rs. 100, less than US $2. GALU … has put forth a demand for increasing the minimum wages to minimum living wages, [which would] be Rs. 225 per day.

However, the biggest challenge that we continue to face is the strong and politically active big farmers’ lobby, which has consistently created hurdles in allowing the government to revise [and] increase the minimum wages. In many respects, this is created due to a conflict of interest within the government, since most of the ministers are themselves big farmers.

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