Baba Adhav managed years ago what others are trying today – combining trade unionism with social reform.

A commonly voiced criticism of the trade union movement is that scattered, extremely vulnerable sections like domestic workers, rickshaw pullers and head loaders have not received the necessary attention. Secondly, trade unions have not been adequately linked to wider social change.

Baba Adhav is a veteran trade unionist of Maharashtra who has been able to overcome both these limitations. With remarkable continuity for nearly 60 years, this 82-year young trade unionist has combined the organisation of head loaders, rag-pickers, domestic workers and other weaker sections with pro-dalit social reform initiatives aimed at breaking the narrow-minded rigidities of Indian society. Inspired by Jyotiba and Savitri Phule's work in Maharashtra, Baba Adhav has integrated the approach of Baba Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi and other leading social reformers in ways which can be an invaluable lesson for the younger generation of social reformers.

This remarkable story started around 1952 when Baba Adhav, then a young doctor practicing in Pune, was approached by head loaders to lead their union. Adhav not only agreed, but also brought a new innovativeness to the trade union struggle. Till that time it was considered very difficult, if not impossible, to work out any scheme of provident fund and other social security measures for scattered segments like head loaders having no fixed employer.

But Adhav and his colleagues worked out a new system in which a 33 per cent levy could be fixed on each head load payment and then deposited with a tripartite board. This fund then became the base for providing provident fund, gratuity, bonus, medical insurance and other social security benefits to head loaders. This scheme of social security for unorganised sector workers was singled out for praise by the Second Labour Commission.

Once this scheme worked out successfully in Pune, it gradually spread to other parts of Maharashtra, including the agricultural produce marketing committees in remote villages. The Maharashtra Government enacted a separate law for head loaders which emerged as model legislation for unorganised sector workers. A separate colony called 'Hamal (head loader) Nagar' was established in Pune, with about 400 multi-storey flats, a school and a community centre. A community kitchen employing 100 women and preparing fresh, nourishing, cheaply priced food for about 12000 workers everyday was started, and has continued uninterrupted services for over three decades. Even after the impact of recent inflationary tendencies, a thali consisting of chapatis, rice, curry, vegetable and a laddu (sweet) costs only Rs. 20.

This success prompted similar efforts to form unions among domestic workers, rag pickers, auto-rickshaw drivers, hawkers, and other weaker sections. As I discovered during a recent visit to Pune, there is even a union of those scattered workers who collect used oil for recycling. Directly or indirectly, all these efforts have brought at least some benefit and even bigger hope for future to millions of unorganised sector workers. While consolidating their base in Pune and to some extent in other parts of Maharashtra, Adhav also linked up with wider efforts being made for the social security at the national level, and at the age of 75 years he mobilised a cycle yatra from Pune to Delhi to campaign for the rights of construction workers.

In the middle of all these hectic trade union activities, Baba Adhav has continued his many-sided social reform initiatives. These have included, among other things, a campaign and satyagraha for equitable access to drinking water sources in rural areas and another campaign for justice to nomadic and de-notified tribes. Baba successfully struggled to obtain pension for devdasis.

At present Baba Adhav is closely involved in a hectic national campaign for pensions for unorganised sector workers and poor elderly people. When I left his office at Pune, he was in the middle of planning a huge public demonstration, while on the same afternoon he was to write forewords for two research books on social reform initiatives in Maharashtra.

More In: Society | Metroplus