Joining the demand for a universal pension scheme are headloaders from Pune who have travelled on their motorbikes across four states

Jantar Mantar, Delhi's Hyde Park, is used to witnessing unusual protests but few could be comparable with the one staged by 100 hamals (headloaders) on 50 motorcycles who roared in on Monday morning to join the Pension Parishad's dharna for a universal pension scheme for workers in the unorganised sector.

The zeal and commitment of the ‘pension bikers', who travelled across four States, after they were flagged off from Pune by Dr. Baba Adhav on Labor Day (May 1) is understandable from the fact that they are all members of the Hamal Panchayat in Pune that has been leading the struggle to secure basic rights and entitlements for the unorganised sector for over half a century.

The genesis of the Panchayat's efforts goes back to the mid 1950s when Dr. Adhav, a practicing doctor, noticed that the bulk of his patients were hamals. “They were living and working in the most squalid and unhealthy conditions and this was resulting in a number of health problems. That was when I decided that something must be done to improve their lives.”

A long movement ensued resulting in the enactment of the Maharashtra Mathadi, Hamal and Other Manual Workers (Regulation of Employment and Welfare) Act, 1969. However, this was immediately challenged by employers, who appealed to the Supreme Court — the bone of contention being the levy that was going to be imposed to provide various benefits to employees.

But after a seven-year battle, the Court upheld the legislation and employers had no option but to comply.

Under the Act, which applies to both government and private sector organizations, the hamals are eligible for provident fund, insurance, gratuity, medical benefits and a bonus. Nevertheless, the hamals now want a pension as they say Kam hoe tho lahb!

Once they become too old or sick to work they have no steady income and as Baba Adhav added, “If they have a regular pension coming in, their children will respect them and take care of them.”

The hamals are also very clear that they are fighting for a universal pension scheme and not just for themselves; which is why they stopped in towns and villages as they travelled to Delhi to explain the issue and garner support for the movement.

Shahaji Barde spoke of how a group of women farmers in Susner village near Ujjain had asked them if they were on a pilgrimage to which they had replied, “We are on a pilgrimage for the cause of old age pension.” Even in Delhi, they have visited markets like Azadpur Mandi, to motivate headloaders like them to support the movement.

As Subhash Lomte, coordinator of the Pension Parishad, added, “The government would do well to immediately implement a new scheme.”

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