Chhattisgarh unionists seek international support for jailed leader Bhagawati Sahu

It's been nine months since Panchayat member and union leader Bhagwati Sahu was imprisoned in Ravaan, Chhattisgarh, for allegedly assaulting two employees of the Ambuja-Holcim cement factory and making off with Rs.3500 and a Nokia 2700 Classic cell phone.

Next month, a delegation from the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Union (ICEM) is expected to visit the plant at Ravaan. Mr. Sahu's union, the Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh (PCSS), has also filed a complaint with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), suggesting that activists are seeking to connect local struggles to broader international movements.

"Multinationals are cutting jobs in the West where they pay $8 an hour and hiring contract workers here for $2 a day, affecting the working class in the West and in India. The complaint was necessary because multinational companies are extremely powerful and operate across the globe, so international institutions have to step in. Our complaint is not a judgment of the Indian judicial system in any way," said Sudha Bharadwaj, PCSS's legal advisor.

In court submissions, the police say that Mr. Sahu is a man of criminal antecedents, pointing to the 18 cases registered against him. Mr. Sahu has been twice denied bail in light of these cases. Mr. Sahu's lawyers say he has been framed and victimized for standing up to Ambuja Cement, a subsidiary of Holcim, a cement manufacturer with production sites in about 70 countries.

Union members have noted that in India, an overburdened judicial system means that the process is often the punishment for those awaiting trial. 2010 data provided by prison authorities indicate that approximately 60 per cent of Chhattisgarh's inmates are prisoners under trial, and may ultimately be found innocent. Ambuja-Holcim has denied these allegations. “There is no malice or victimizing …as alleged. Nor is his case anyway connected with his position in any union. [sic]” said a spokesperson for Ambuja-Holcim in an email, adding that a local court had forbidden Mr. Sahu and his associates from holding meetings within 500 metres of the plant premises.

On March 6 2011, two Ambuja cement employees filed separate complaints at a police station in Ravaan alleging they were attacked and robbed by Mr. Sahu and his associates. Mr. Sahu was arrested two months later in May 2011.

Union members deny these allegations, claiming that Mr. Sahu's arrest and subsequent imprisonment are a consequence of organizing contract workers to demand better working conditions, and for supporting an agitation to claim a tract of land adjoining the plant. A 1983 agreement between Indian cement manufacturers and trade unions restricts the use of contract labour for ancillary processes like packing and loading and mandates that contract labour be compensated at the same scales as regular employees. Recently, the High Court directed ACC Cement, another Holcim-owned cement company, to regularize a number of contract workers employed in core activities in their plant in Jamul, Chhattisgarh.

Contract workers said Mr. Sahu helped contract workers agitate to force contractors to pay the legally mandated minimum wage. “Workers with different contractors were paid different salaries,” said a contract worker who has worked with five different contractors and sought anonymity fearing reprisals from his employers. Workers said that contractors billed the company at minimum wage (Rs.169 per day on average), but took a hefty cut.

“If you complain they (contractors) accuse you of ‘netagiri' (playing politics) and dismiss you,” the worker said, adding that workers had to pay between Rs 500 and Rs 700 for safety equipment like helmets, boots and goggles.

“Indian law allows employing contract labour. There are adequate provisions with regard to their wages which the company follows scrupulously…the Company follows all the provisions of the law with regard to the contract labour We follow Cement Board Agreement of 1983,” said a company spokesperson in an email, adding that the company provided all workers with safety equipment free of cost. Mr. Sahu's other battle concerns a tract of land between the plant boundary and Bhadrapalli village. “That land is grazing lands for the entire village,” said Hariram Verma, a former Bhadrapalli sarpanch.

Mr. Verma said the land was granted to the plant (then owned by the Modi Rubber company) on the condition that the company took possession of the land in three years, failing which the land would revert to the government.

“But the company didn't take the land then,” Mr. Verma said. When Ambuja tried to erect a fence around the land in 2010, Mr. Sahu, and Mr. Verma organized a protest and filed a case in the Chhattisgarh High Court.

Ambuja-Holcim maintains that the land has always belonged to the cement plant, claiming that, “The total land was acquired by the State Government and allotted to us (earlier Modi) on a 99 year lease. It has been in our possession since February 23, 1982. Thus, the statement is not based on facts.”

Villagers also narrated a list of seemingly minor complaints that have snowballed into a larger conflict: a company rail line between Ravaan and Bhadrapalli has forced residents and school children to take a much longer route to get from one village to another; villagers feel that the company draws more than its fair share of water from the irrigation system in the summer months; blasting from the plant's limestone quarries has damaged some homes and granaries, while increased truck traffic has meant more accidents. Ambuja representatives point out that the company has also generated employment in the area, including 990 contract positions held by locals, and is in the process of implementing “socially relevant projects in the needy segments of the local communities”.

In the meantime, Mr. Sahu bides his time in prison. “Our second son was born on December 30, but he hasn't seen his father,” said Pushpa Sahu, Mr. Sahu's wife. Mr. Sahu caught a glance of his boy when family members showed him a video clip during a prison visit.

RELATED NEWS

Working for labourFebruary 22, 2012