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Migrant Workers in Himachal’s Baddi Forced to Walk Back Home as State Govts Remain Apathetic

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Baddi migrant labourers going back home on foot

Solan: The heart-wrenching exodus of stranded migrant workers from cities back to villages in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown happening across the country is now unfolding in Himachal’s industrial belt Baddi as well. About 30 organisations, comprising of trade unions, civil rights groups, youth alliances, independent social organisations and networks from Himachal, Uttar Pradesh and the country today issued an appeal in support of workers from other states stranded in Himachal and the need for urgent coordination between states to ensure and facilitate their safe return to their homes.

The Baddi-Barotiwala-Nalagarh Industrial area in the Solan district of Himachal Pradesh houses more than 2000 industrial units and is known as the pharma hub of Asia, said the collective appeal of these organizations.

With an annual turnover of more than 60,000 crores, this zone has a major concentration of migrant workers in the state of Himachal Pradesh, possibly between 1.25 to 1.5 lakh people. These workers belonging to various states mainly Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa have been under severe distress due to the sudden announcement of a country-wide lockdown, the appeal said.

The appeal specifically highlights the distressful state of thousands of migrant workers in the Baddi-Barotiwala-Nalagarh industrial area and the lack of response of the administration and respective governments to ensure urgent evacuation of those who want to leave.

“Post the lock-down, as factories remained closed down, in the absence of any sources of income, these workers soon ran out of the savings, if any, to buy rations and pay off their room rents. In the initial period contractors took care of some relief which soon ended and accessing the government-sponsored relief has not been easy either. Their only desire and demand, for the last month and a half, has been to be able to return to their homes, but it is unfortunate that while the Himachal Government has been able to bring back its native residents, the same efficiency and empathy has not been shown in ensuring the return of these workers who contribute hugely to the state’s economy”,

the statement said.

“Although the news has clearly stated that Himachal government will bear the cost of travel for migrant labourers, private operators have started plying their buses with the permission of administration but have been charging exorbitant amounts from the already deprived workers. This has been causing further panic and stress among these communities. Over the last few days, with no Government assistance forthcoming, after losing all hope and patience, workers have picked up their bags and baggage, their tiny children, the elders and the women and have started walking on foot the journey of several kilometres in a desperate attempt to return back to their homes,”

the statement said.

Specifically highlighting the case of workers from Uttar Pradesh, who have long registered themselves on the online portals to travel back, the statement also raised that “private bus operators are charging exuberant fares from already deprived people and with no State help forthcoming, the migrant labourers have been forced to walk back home several hundred kilometres with their children, elders and women”. 

The statement also condemned the dilution of labour laws as well as the suppression of freedom of the press by filing charges against journalists reporting the plight of the workers and the negative impacts of the lockdown and demanded the withdrawal of these.  Highlighting that the Haryana Government has arranged for free food and public transportation trains as well as buses till state borders for labourers to reach their respective States, the statement questions why Himachal has not done the same.

“The Himachal Government needs to understand that any coercive or apathetic measures in regard to forceful retention of these workers will only lead to psychological insecurities and loss of their trust in Himachal as a State”

read the statement.

The signatories in their appeal stated that it is the responsibility of the State government to ensure that the dignity, the constitutional and human rights of these migrant labourers are protected and respected.

Following Are the Demands Made Through This Appeal:

  1. Himachal government needs to coordinate with other state governments and urgently facilitate movement of migrant labourers stuck in Baddi-Barotiwala-Nalagarh Industrial area.
  2. Public transportation by bus for the evacuation up till the state borders needs to be arranged by the state government free of cost.
  3. Up until then a mechanism of ensuring that relief rations with regular follow-ups are provided to the families of stranded migrant workers without having to make repeated demands needs to be put in place.
  4. The status update of these arrangements should be released in public domain through the media and regular press releases so that people have all information and clarity is established.
  5. We condemn the suppression of freedom of press through the FIRs on media persons reporting on issues of migrant workers and demand that these charges be dropped immediately.
  6. The suspension and dilution of labour laws along with the provision of extension of working hours for adult workers from 8 hours to 12 hours be immediately withdrawn.

 

List State and National Signatories

Himachal Pradesh Organizations

  1. All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC)
  2. Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti
  3. Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU)
  4. Citizens’ Rights Forum, Kangra
  5. Communist Party of India, Himachal Pradesh
  6. Himalayan Students Ensemble (HSE)
  7. Himdhara Environment Collective
  8. Jagori Grameen
  9. Mountain Women Rights Forum
  10. People’s Action for People in Need (PAPN)
  11. People’s Campaign for Socio-Economic Equity

 

Uttar Pradesh Organizations

  1. Sangatin Kisan Majdoor Sangathan (SKMS)
  2. MNREGA Majdoor Union
  3. Purvanchal Kisan Union
  4. Humsafar
  5. Mahila Yuva Adhikar Manch
  6. Rihai Manch
  7. National Alliance of People’s Movements, UP

National Organizations

  1. Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN)
  2. National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM)
  3. Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), Rajasthan
  4. National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW)
  5. Socialist Party of India
  6. Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan (JJSS), Bihar
  7. Pennurimay Iyakkam, Madurai, Tamilnadu
  8. National Platform for Small Scale Fish Workers (Inland) [NPSSFW(I)], West Bengal
  9. Andhra Pradesh Vyavasaya Vruthidarula Union (APVVU)
  10. Kosi Navnirman Manch, Bihar
  11. Telangana Vyavasaya Vruttidarula Union
  12. Sanyukt Trade Union, Pithampur, Madhya Pradesh
  13. COVID Action Support Team (COAST)
  14. Khudai Khidmatgar

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The Unsung Economic Emancipator of the Shimla Hills

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Shimla satyanad strokes contribution in himachal's economy

Shimla- May 14th, 2020 was marked as the 74th  death anniversary Satyanand Stokes- the man who brought the American Delicious variety of apples to Himachal Pradesh. 

It was in the winter of 1916, Satyanand Stokes, planted a new strain of apple variety known as Red Delicious at his Barubagh orchard in Thanedhar, 80 Kms northeast from Shimla. During his visit to his home town Philadelphia in 1915, he found out that a new strain of apples has been developed by the Stark Brothers in Louisiana.

Later that year while returning to India, he managed to smuggle few apple saplings, hidden in pillows, to India from Louisiana. That’s how the apple cultivation sprouted in Shimla Hills, which would in later years, transform the economy and destiny of these hills.

Samuel Evans Stokes was born in Philadelphia on 16th August 1882 in a family in the business of elevators– running in the name of “Stokes & Parrish Machine Co” (Later merged with Otis). 

    In 1904, he met a doctor couple- Mr. and Mrs. Carleton, who used to run a home for leper patients in Northern India- at Philadelphia, while they were raising funds for the building churches and were also looking for volunteers to work in a leper home in Northern India. Influenced by their work, he decided to join them in their work in India. 

At the age of 21 years, he landed on the shores of Bombay on 26 February in 1904 from Philadelphia and started working in Leprosy home in Sabato, Solan (what was then Punjab). As this was his first summer in India, the extremely hot conditions of Indian summer forced Mr. Carleton to send him to take rest at Church at Kotgarh, near Shimla. 

While recovering in Kotgarh, he explored the surrounding hills. Having fallen in love with the eternal beauty of these hills, he immediately decided to spend the rest of his life at Thanedhar; a small village in Himachal Pradesh, fondly labelled as the “Mistress of the Northern Hills” by Rudyard Kipling.

Satyanand Stokes was moved by the plight of the villagers, who were stricken in extreme poverty. Back then, the majority of the people around Thanedhar were shepherds; only a handful of them cultivated wheat and potatoes. He started experimenting on the varieties of pear, plum, and apple saplings at his orchard in Barubagh, Thanedhar. By 1928, the apples from his Barubagh orchard had taken over the surrounding hills propelling the area into a nascent stage of apple cultivation.

Initially, his American origin, unfamiliarity to local dialects, customs, and traditions acted as a barrier between him and villagers. As a result, he was treated as an outsider.  Stokes realized this early enough, he noted in his diary: “There seems to be an invisible barrier that stands in the way of any unaffected natural relationship.”

     To overcome these invisible barriers, he learned the Pahari–a dialect of Hindi language, spoken in this area– gave up his western attires and started donning the local ones. He also married a local woman named Agnes on September 12, 1912. 

Himachal PRadesh All About Satyanand Stokes

     His interaction with the Sadhus, who were on their way to Kailash Mansarovar induced him to read Bhagavad Gita and Upnishads in English; later on, he also learned to read the Sanskrit language. Moved and influenced by the principles of Arya Samaj and other religious texts, he embraced the Hindu religion in 1932. And his name was changed from Samuel Evans Stokes to Satyanand Stokes. 

Harmony Hall, his estate house was built on the ridge above Thanedhar in 1912. The two-story building is an architectural marvel of the sloping slate roof, wooden beams, and dresses stone and certainly with western influences such as chimneys and big windows.

Himachal Pradesh Satyanad strokes house in shimla

The Harmony Hall -Residence of Satyanand Stokes

Satyanand Stokes also built a pent roofed style temple next to Harmony Hall in 1937 which is known as Paramjyoti Mandir or the Temple of Eternal Light. The temple has a Havan Kund and carved inscription from Bhagavad Gita and Upnishads that aptly sums up his philosophy of life.

Shimla Paramjyoti Temple

Paramjyoti Mandir

    In the year 1924, he also started a Tara High School in memory of his son who died at a tender age of 8 years.  At this school, he used to educate the children of local farmers on religion, Hindi and English language, horticulture, self-defence, etc. A special emphasis was laid on the education of girls.  

Satyanad strokes role in introducing apple to shimla

Stokes also carved a niche for himself in the Indian freedom struggle, with his notable contributions. The Jallaiwala Bagh massacre in 1919 made a profound impact on him, prompting him to join the Indian National Congress; holding the unique distinction of being the only American member of the All India Congress Committee. In 1920, he represented Kotgarh at the Nagpur session of the All India Congress Committee.

In the following year, he was instrumental in signing the Congress manifesto of giving up government jobs and exhorting them to join the freedom struggler. 

He was charged with “sedition” during the protest against the Prince of Wales Edward VIII’s visit to India and was imprisoned in Lahore (now in Pakistan) jail. This made him the only American to be imprisoned by the British in the Indian struggle for Independence.

  His remarkable work was acknowledged by Mahatma Gandhi in Young India—a weekly paper-by publishing a front-page article titled “Reward of Adoption.”  

     Satyanand Stokes and Gandhi shared an interesting relationship: both disagreed on many things, but their difference of opinion never came in the way of their emotive love and reverence for each other.

“In spite of our intellectual the difference, our hearts have always been and will be one”,

Gandhi once told Stokes affectionately.      

  A social evil of the Begar (forced labor) system of the British and local Rajas was prevalent in the Kotgarh Ilaqa. He found it nothing, but a means to exploit the poor people and fought to abolish the Begar system.   

Satyanand Stokes breathed his last on May 14, 1946, but not before he had entered the folklore of Shimla Hills. He dedicated his entire life selflessly to the social and economic upliftment of the people of Kotgarh Ilaqa.

His Holiness the Dalia Lama beautifully sums up his philosophy of life:

“The true expression of nonviolence is compassion. Some people seem to think that compassion is just a passive emotional response instead of a rational stimulus to action. But to experience genuine compassion is to develop a feeling of closeness to others combined with a sense of responsibility for their welfare.”

His selfless deeds acted as a springboard for the economic and social prosperity of the Shimla hills. It would only appropriate to call him “The Unsung Economic Emancipator of the Shimla Hills.”

A generation has benefited from his unmatched legacy, oblivious of reparation we all owe to him. To keep following his shown path of compassion, and work for the welfare of society would be a fitting reparation to him-if ever, there could be one.

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HP Health Dept Scam: There is More to It Than Just Alleged Bribery

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HP Health Scam Rajiv Bindal's role

Shimla-Following the alleged scam in the Himachal Pradesh Health Department, which has been linked to bribery in the procurement of PPE kits, the sudden resignation of the Bharatiya Janata Party chief Dr. Rajiv Bindal, and new twists and turns have left people baffled amid the pandemic. The fact that the Health Ministry is directly under Chief Minister Jairam Thakur makes it embarrassing for the party not only in the State but also at the national level.

The opposition has demanded resignation of the Chief Minister saying that if Rajeev Bindal who is claiming to be innocent resigned on moral grounds, then CM should do the same as the Health Ministry is directly under him.

The audio clip related to the alleged scam appeared on May 21 following which Director, Health Service, AK Gupta, was arrested and suspended. A person identified as Prithvi Singh has come out claiming that it was he who recorded the telephonic conversation with Gupta because his payment for delivery of medical equipment to the Health Department was put on hold.

Ambiguity in media reports and little or no release of information by the Vigilance Department investigating the case indicate the possibility of political influence and pressure from the party’s top leadership.

According to an Indian Express report, investigating officer DSP Kailash Sharma and public prosecutor Sandeep Attri told the court during the hearing of Gupta’s bail application that Prithvi Singh is a liaison for Bio Aid – a Derabassi-based firm. They told the court that Bio-Aid had supplied PPE kits worth over one crore to the HP Health Department.  The court was also told that Gupta allegedly demanded bribe but hadn’t received it.

“On this, the special judge (forest) Arvind Malhotra remarked that since bribery had not yet taken place, it could not happen now. “You cannot force him to take it”.

But other media reports, especially in Hindi daily Amar Ujala and News 18, have mentioned this amount to be only Rs. 45 lakh. The daily said that earlier it was believed that Prithvi Singh was working for a BJP leader involved in the scam, however, Prithvi was only trying to get his payment released. The daily suggested he was not working with or for any such leader.

News 18 also published a similar report in which the Channel claimed that Pritivi Singh said that he was compelled to offer bribe as he did not have any other way to get his payment released.

On the other hand, according to the Indian Express report, the court was told that Gupta was not directly a part of the procurement procedure as he was not a member of any of the two committees formed to invite tenders. It’s not all, both the defense lawyer and the prosecution told the court that audio-clip was recorded in mid-April, and tenders were invited twice before the recording of the clip. Also, the Defense lawyer told the court that Bio Aid firm was not in the list of qualifiers for these tenders. Bio-Aid made all supplies before tenders were floated.

The report also stated that the prosecution indicated that it might not go for extension of police remand for Gupta.

Meanwhile, Gupta’s wife alleged that she was threatened by Vigilance officials when she tried to meet her husband. She also said that Gupta wasn’t given access to a lawyer.

However, the answer to the question regarding the identity of the involved BJP leader and his role was nowhere mentioned. Another curious question is; why BJP Chief Bindal resigned? What he has to do with this alleged scam? Bindal said he resigned on “moral ground” as fingers were being raised towards the party. He also said that he did not want to influence the investigation, which makes no sense at all.

It’s notable that Bindal did not try to defend his party or seek proof of involvement of any BJP leader even once before tendering his resignation. National BJP chief JP Nadda at once accepted his resignation.

From these facts, it is being derived that the party had already made its mind or had asked Bindal to resign after the matter relating to the scam reached the high-command. Further, media has already moved on to the topic of “BJP searching for its new State chief”.

However, a report published by India Today said that Prithvi was an employee of a company owned by Bindal’s family members.

“A close aide and an employee of a diagnostic centre owned by his (Bindal’s) daughter and son-in-law, Prithvi, offered Rs 5 lakh bribe to the arrested health director Dr. AK Gupta,”

the report said.

The report also said that “Dr. AK Gupta was also close to Dr Rajeev Bindal, who had also sought a three-month extension to his service as he is retiring on May 31, 2020.”

Then, there are reports that suggest that Bindal, five-times MLA and former health minister, was being seen as a potential challenge to Jairam Thakur as CM candidate. The incident is also being seen as evidence of power tussle in BJP. Bindal was hoping to secure a seat in the State Cabinet after BJP came to power. But he was disappointed. It’s also speculated that when a berth in the Cabinet got vacated due to the elections of Food and Civil Supplies Minister Krishan Kapoor to the Lok Sabha from Kangra, Bindal was again disappointed.

The veteran Congress leader and former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh suggested that the resignation of Bindal is nothing more than just a diversion to take the pressure off the Chief Minister as he was heading the health ministry.

Moreover, to put BJP in a questionable position, some of its leaders including the Veteran party leader and former chief minister Shanta Kumar came down heavily on their party.

“It is not only crime and shameful act but a sin. Imagine a MNREGA worker donating Rs 5,000 of her savings to the COVID fund in Himachal Pradesh and these people are trying to pocket the money. Highly shameful,”

Shanta Kumar said as a reaction to the alleged scam.

On the other hand, Congress is demanding a probe by a sitting judge of the State High Court to ensure a fair investigation.

Former Mayor of Shimla, Sanjay Chauhan, has also demanded a probe by a sitting judge of the State High Court for clean trial. He also asked the State Government to make expenditures made in the name of Corona pandemic in the State public.

He also targeted the State Government over the recent case relating to irregularities in the purchase of sanitizers for the State Secretariat.

“Over 20 days have passed since the order was given to the Vigilance to probe the scam relating to purchase of sanitizers for HP Government Secretariat, but no action has been taken so far,”

Sanjay said.

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HP Health Deptt Scam: BJP Chief Bindal Resigned on “Moral Grounds” or Asked to Resign by High Command?

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Why Rajive bindal resiged

Shimla-In a time when the corona pandemic is haunting India as well as the entire world and a huge amount of budget is being allocated for health infrastructure, services, and equipment like PPE kits, ventilators etc., officials and politicians in India are as usual ensuring their cut in corruption. Are all the donations that people are making towards the PM/CM Relief Funds to fight COVID-19 safe in the hands of the current Government? No surprise that a cut from the 20 lakh crores, which the Prime Minister claims has been released as a relief for the people, would end up in the pockets of bureaucrats, politicians, and middlemen.

An example of this is Himachal Pradesh’s Health Department and politicians. Just after a week of an audio clip of an alleged deal between the Director, Health Services, Dr. Ajay Gupta and an employee and close aid of a politician appeared; Dr. Rajiv Bindal has resigned from the position of State BJP Chief. His resignation was also accepted almost immediately. He claimed that he resigned on “moral grounds” as he was hurt after the party’s name was associated with the alleged scam. He claimed that the party and the Government are clean and have no role in this alleged scam. It’s hard to digest that BJP Chief resigned even though no particular name of any political leader has been confirmed officially. The pubic and oppositions are sensing something fishy in this act of the BJP party chief.

The resignation came right after the mater reached the Office of the Prime Minister. Some sources say Bindal didn’t resign but was asked to resign on the behest of PM Office anticipating a political upheaval not only in the State but at the national level.  Five times MLA Bindal has served as health minister, remained the Speaker of State Legislative Assembly, and then given the charge to lead the party in Himachal.

It’s not the first time that Bindal had been in controversy over alleged corruption. In 2016, he was booked under several sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Anti-Corruption Act.  He was, with some others, alleged of appointing several employees in the Solan Town Council in 1998 and 2000 by allegedly defying provisions under the Himachal Pradesh Town Service Act. Bindal was the Chairman of one of these committees. However, his cases were withdrawn in January 2019 after BJP came to power in the State.

Oppositions and public are demanding a CBI probe into all purchases made during the period of lockdown. Senior BJP leader and former Chief Minister Shanta Kumar also expressed anguish over the ongoing corruption in the health department, especially when the nation is going through turbulent times due to the pandemic.

प्रैस विज्ञप्तिभारतीय जनता पार्टी के वरिष्ठ नेता एवं हिमाचल प्रदेश के भूतपूर्व मुख्यमंत्री एवं पूर्व सांसद, शांता…

Posted by Shanta Kumar on Saturday, 23 May 2020

It’s pertinent to mention that it’s not the first such scam, irregularities were earlier reported in the purchase of sanitizers. According to the allegations, hand sanitizers were bought at a price higher than the actual price. Moreover, last year, a letter from a BJP’s leader had created a stir in which serious allegations were labelled against the minister and officials of the health department.

What Happened Earlier

Director, Health Services, Dr. Ajay Gupta was suspended after a 43-second-long audio clip leaked in the media on May 21, 2020. In the audio, two persons can be heard talking about bank accounts and transactions of Rs. 5 lakh. The charges are that the Director was allegedly asking for a bribe in purchase-related to health equipment in wake of the pandemic.

Additional Chief Secretary RD Dhiman had to hand over the case to the Vigilance department soon after the audio clip appeared.  Ordering immediate probe is something that BJP is presenting as proof of State Government and Chief Minister Jairam Thakur’s innocence.

The Director confessed that he was one of these two persons heard speaking in this clip. Later, late that night, the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau arrested Gupta.

Then, he got admitted to the Indira Gandhi Medical Hospital complaining of poor health due to his diabetic condition. He was discharged on Monday, May 25. After his discharge from the hospital, he was produced in a court from where he was remanded to five days of police custody.

His house was raided by a Special Investigating Unit headed by IPS Shalini Agnihotri and jewelry worth Rs. 4 lakh and Rs. 28 thousand cash was ceased. Several documents, mobile phones etc. have also been ceased.

On May 25, the Vigilance team informed that the Director holds over a dozen accounts in various banks. As many as 20 ATMs and Credit cards were also ceased in the raid on his office and residence.

Then, media reports said that the entire scam is linked to some influential leader of Bharatiya Janata Party. According to a Hindi Daily, the person to whom the Director was speaking is an employee of a firm that the alleged politician is affiliated to. This firm was allotted the tender for the purchase of equipment related to COVID-19. The Daily said the Director had negotiated the deal for a bribe of Rs. 5 lakh.

The politician involved was reportedly making attempts to get an extension for the Director who was to retire on May 31. After the audio clip went viral, the politicians tried to hush it up but could not do so as the Vigilance had already arrested the director.

Not only the Director but the committee constituted for taking decisions on purchases for the Health Department has come under the scanner.

Since Gupta’s arrest, the Vigilance Department has not released any information regarding the person on the other side of the phone. No other arrest has been made so far. However, it was reported that a close aid to the politician involved was being questioned regarding the scam.

However, the public fears, investigation of this scam is likely to be botched up as influential politicians and bureaucrats are said to be linked with it. In the name of investigation, the Director or a couple of other officials would be held responsible. Still, the investigation might not reach its conclusion for years, as it happens when influential politicians of a party are involved in scams.

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