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Himachal Pradesh: A Report on ‘Plight of Migrant Workers’ during the Lockdown & Need for Protection of their Rights

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Himachal pradesh - a report on migrant labourers during lockdown

Shimla-Poor people like migrant labourers and workers are nothing more than insects for the governments in India. The attitude of the government and its treatment of the poor workers, who had migrated to other states in search of livelihood, during the lockdown is a very clear evidence of it. What is more pathetic is the fact that that their plight remained invisible to the remaining public as mainstreamed media was being paid more by their political masters for diverting public attention from real issues to rubbish, spicy news. Our society is rotten to such an extent that public also preferred the rubbish served by the media over the bitter truth. Except for a small section of people including social activists, volunteers and non-profit-organizations actually worked to provide some relief like ration to the poor. Spare some time to go through a report on the plight of the migrant workers prepared by the Himachal Pradesh Workers Solidarity (HPWS) – a voluntary solidarity platform.

The first day of Lok Sabha’s monsoon session earlier this week saw MPs raising questions about the condition of Migrant Workers during the lockdown. The response of the Labour Minister that no data on migrant deaths for the period was available has drawn much flak. Additionally, no data on return of migrant workers was available for many states including Himachal Pradesh.

The issue of invisibilisation of migrant workers in a state like Himachal Pradesh has now been raised in a report, highlighting the impacts of the ongoing crisis on this community which contributes significantly to the state economy. Himachal Pradesh Workers Solidarity (HPWS) – a voluntary solidarity platform formed in April 2020, in its report, describes the havoc that a sudden, un- facilitated and unplanned national lockdown announced in response to the COVID19 pandemic six months ago had on the interstate migrant workers stranded in Himachal. HPWS ran a helpline during the period, provided assistance in accessing ration and other relief, travel to home states, through administrative coordination, registrations, and information dissemination etc.

Himachal, in the context of migration, is different from neighbouring Uttarakhand, where the rate of migration out of state is higher, whereas in Himachal the rate of in-migration is slightly higher than out-migration.

Gagandeep, a journalist based in Karsog and part of HPWS, elaborates,

“Post the decade of 1980 -90, expansion of industrial activities in the Shivalik hill region, multi-level infrastructure and development projects, growing local interests in horticulture, and cash crop farming alongside tourism-dependent economy made Himachal an emerging centre for in-migration.”

Today, workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Nepal, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Kashmir constitute a large chunk of the migrant population in Himachal. Most of them are from Scheduled Caste, OBC, STs and minority communities. Difficult work areas and geography, insecure and unsafe living conditions, along with payment and other labour law violations, makes the situation even more difficult for them in mountain state like Himachal.

While the 2011 Census suggests that Himachal had approximately 3.10 lakhs migrant workers, this figure seems to be severely under-estimated due to lack of registration (under the Inter-State Workmen Act 1979), non-maintenance of data by State Labour Department and non-publication of all statistics of Census. The lack of data further worsened the pandemic crisis and impacted relief facilitation.

In response to the issues, the focus of the State was limited to distributing ration but ration alone was not enough for survival and sustenance. Ritika Thakur, another member of HPWS elaborates,

“Having some cash in hand was an urgent need to access gas cylinders, milk, medicines and other essential things like phone recharge, so that workers can at least call for support. Most of the people who contacted HPWS”, she adds, “had not been paid their wages and their savings had died out in payment of room rents and ration as loans and debts kept on piling up.”

Many migrant labourers complained about the interrogatory, apathetic and discriminatory attitude of the officials when they were called for ration support. Seeing no transport facility forthcoming, many workers were forced to walk back home on foot. When caught at borders they were put into quarantine centres forced to return or were left with no choice but to escape on foot.

“The online registration mechanism was completely inaccessible for workers and for weeks there was no response to registrations”,

according to Sukhdev Vishwapremi, a social activist and member of HPWS.

The first ‘shramik train’ ran as late as May 22, 2020.

“The government, meanwhile, allowed private bus operators to run on exorbitant prices,”

he adds.

Many workers were pushed to take loans or sell property/artefacts to be able to return home through these buses while 5000 HRTC buses remained standing in bus stands.

“The fact that the Central government shifted the burden of facilitating transport on the states without any significant co-ordination and clarity made matters worse, aided by lack of coordination and communication between nodal officers, both between Himachal and other states and within Himachal”,

Vishwapremi emphasized further.

According to the information shared by an officer from Himachal Pradesh Government (SDMA), 94,819 migrants had gone out from Himachal to various states of the country by June 23, 2020. As per the information received from SDMA under RTI, 14 shramik trains ferried around 13,183 people out of the state.

Himshi Singh from HPWS reminds, “more than 80% of the migrants took the road on their own expense in which the government merely provided e-passes for private transportation, and the number of people who walked on foot is not yet known.”

Adding further she remarks,

“It’s tragic that in the midst of this crisis, FIRs were registered against reporters who did stories on migrant worker’s condition and on the other hand no action was taken against fake news or media who communalised the issue leading to violence on minority communities like the migrant workers from Kashmir”.

The report highlights how Himachal was one of the 12 states who made major dilutions in labour laws in favour of companies and ‘ease of doing business’.

Almost five months have passed living with this epidemic and even as the success and failure of the lockdown are debated- the economy is falling in doldrums and our governments seem inconsistent and directionless. As per the estimate by ILO, 400 million informal workers in India will fall to critical levels of poverty than ever before- a situation that demands urgent cognizance, state accountability and a responsible approach.

In this regard, HPWS in this report has made the following recommendations for the State:

  1. Release in the public domain all the information about relief/support provided to migrant workers
  2. A joint task force be set to bring out a comprehensive report on the conditions and needs of migrant labourers in the state within 6 months
  3. Provide universal Access to Ration, Economic and other Relief Facilities
  4. Housing facilities for Migrant workers who have been living in Himachal and hostel facilities for seasonal labour
  5. Housing facilities for Migrant workers who have been living in Himachal and hostel facilities for  seasonal labour
  6. Compliance of SC/HC orders-setting up helpdesk/grievance redressal centres at Panchayat, Block, Tehsil  and District levels and conducting employment and skill-based survey of the migrant workers who have returned from other states
  7. Dilution in labour laws be withdrawn and all changes scrapped and strengthening the time-bound  ‘Grievance Redressal’ system and Labour Courts Mandate the registration of all migrant labourers working in the state under ISWMA 1979

HPWS will be submitting the report to various state and central agencies for further advocacy and hopes that the HP Government will take adequate measures to protect the interests of the migrant worker communities in the state.

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Feature Photo: Sumit Mahar, Volunteer HPWS

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The Story of Himachal’s ‘Friendly Leopard’ from the Viral Videos

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Viral Himachal Leopard Cub Video

Kullu-Several videos of the ‘leopard incident’ in Tirthan Valley, Kullu district, Himachal Pradesh, are going viral in India and would soon spread to international media. Anyone who is watching these videos is wondering as to how a wild predator who avoids humans, habitats, roads etc. and is a shy feline happened to be playing with people amid a huge gathering of people around him, traffic jam, and a lot of noise. It’s just like a fantasy to see a wild animal having such close, friendly contact with humans despite not being familiar with humans. Not only it was dangerous for the animal itself but also the ignorant people chasing him with mobile cams in their hands. That’s what we could infer from the response given by forest officials after watching the behavior of the people in these video clips. Himachal Watcher has also compiled several video clips of the incident.

A lot of our curious readers had been writing regarding the incident, so we talked to people who actually have knowledge regarding wildlife and animal behaviour in order to find a possible explanation for this rare leopard-man contact. It turned out, opposite to the fun people were having with this animal, it was a sensitive matter for the wildlife officials. 

We talked to the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Banjar, Praveen Thakur and HPFS, Sachin Sharma, who is currently posted as DFO, Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP).  Readers had been asking us questions; Where did it come from? How did it become so friendly with humans? What happened to the cub later? So we requested DFO, Banjar, Praveen Thakur, to answer these and some other important questions related to the incident. 

What you already know is that a leopard came out of the wild onto the road near Sarchi – Nagladi bridge in Tirthan valley on January 14. This belt comes under the Great Himalayan National Park. People stopped their vehicles and came out to record videos. The leopard was seen playfully grabbing different people. A traffic jam and a huge gathering of people, mostly locals, were seen in the videos. It was something that people had never seen, at least in this part of the world. 

The DFO, GHNP, also admitted that this is highly uncommon to see such ferocious wild predator getting so friendly within a few hours after contact with humans. But in this case, it was just a cub, aged about seven to eight months. 

“I haven’t seen or heard of such an incident where a wild leopard became so friendly with humans that he started to play with them. These animals are generally shy and smartest in the feline families. They avoid humans and their habitats,” he said.

When asked whether a cub of its age, considering strength and growth of nails and teeth, was capable of inflicting harm or not, he said that on sensing a threat it can. He condemned the behaviour of the people as it was not only dangerous for them but also the animal.

“Amid such a chaotic environment, the behaviour of any wild animal would be unpredictable. If not intentionally, the cub could have inflicted minor injuries to someone while playing. In that case, the reaction of people could have been hostile and things could have gone wrong,” he said.

In his opinion, this rare instance can’t be termed as a result of man-animal conflict. No other instances where these animals attacked or caused harm to humans in this region have been reported, he said.

The DFO, Banjar, Praveen Thakur said he was also surprised but also gave an explanation.

“It was an eight- to-nine-month-old cub, who got separated from its mother. The mother with its cubs lives in a nearby forest in a territory of four to five square kilometers. There was an incident of fire in the area and the cub, most probably, got separated from the mother due to it,” the DFO told Himachal Watcher.

Regarding the friendly behaviour of this cub, he said,

“Several videos are going viral on social media where the cub was looking comfortable and friendly with humans amid a crowd. Adult leopards show behavioural changes before becoming mature animals. They mostly avoid humans. But it was not an adult leopard, but just an 8 to-9-month-old cub,” he said.

“However, the cub did not get friendlier at the starting and was avoiding vehicles. As per my knowledge, for the first few hours, the cub was seen roaming around in a distress and avoiding humans and vehicles. (Watch Video). Initially, a couple of vehicles stopped to see the cub. As it was just a cub unable to hunt and survive at its own, it got friendlier after sensing that humans were not harming and, thus, were no threat. Cubs can get friendly on sensing no threat. Similarly, cubs and young offspring of several other animals can get friendlier.”

If watched video clips carefully, the cub was curious and trying to explore this new environment. But at the same time it was distressed as it had gotten separated from its mother and was in a environment not natural for it.

Citing a previous case, the DFO said,

“Not long time ago, we had rescued a bear cub. He had also become friendly within no time.”

“In the present case, we have identified the family. Mother lives in the forest not far from our Rest House. The area falls under the Great Himalayan National Park and is not far from the road. The family is not entirely unfamiliar with traffic and human movement,” he told HW.

In the current incident, he said that it’s a case of separation of the cub from mother.

A forest fire was reported in the territory of this family, and the mother or the cub got stuck somewhere due to it, resulting in a separation.”

He confirmed hearing calls from its mother. Mother would make a particular sound as a form of a call when trying to find its cubs, he explained.

He said that the department received the information regarding the presence of this cub among humans a little late. On receiving information, a rescue team was dispatched, which reached the spot within half-an-hour.

The team caught the cub with a net without much difficulty, he said. As it was healthy and had no injury or disease, it was released into its natural habitat as guidelines say that in such a case the animal should be released to its natural habitat as soon as possible to reduce distress.

He also said that teams are continuously monitoring the movement of the cub to ensure that it reunites with its mother and do not venture into human habitats or comes near the road again.

The mother and the cub are only a couple of kms distance apart. The cub would also make calls, which would help the mother find it, he said.

He rejected speculations of this cub being raised as a pet.

“His mother would have not been making calls if the cub was raised as a pet. These calls imply that the cub got separated very recently,” he said.

“After consulting wildlife experts, we have decided that in case the cub is seen venturing into human habitats or places having human presence and displaying same friendly behaviour again, then it would have to be captured and sent to the rescue centre in Gopalpur in Kangra district,” he said.

If it would grow up while remaining in friendly contact with humans, it might not get capable of attaining hunting skills to survive at its own in the wild. Moreover, these animals could inflict grieve injuries unintentionally while playing.

However, we are certain that the mother would soon find the cub. We will keep monitoring it until the mother stops making distress calls, he said.

On being asked whether this cub was capable of hurting or injuring a human, the DFO said that cubs of this age lack hunting skills, and it’s mostly after one year of age that the mother starts training them.

The DFO, however, expressed more concern over the behaviour of the people than that of the animal.

Most of these people were locals and they are often made aware about dos and don’t on an encounter with a wild animal.

“As soon as I came across the videos, I contacted a few people who were present on the spot including the Pradhan of the area and told him to ask people to stay away from the cub and to not chase him for photos and videos. I had even spoken to the local police to help manage the situation as people were not even listening to our Rangers,” he told HW.

“It was a complete nuisance that the people were creating by causing a traffic jam, chasing the cub, and trying to get close to it. We are trying to identify some people visible in the video deliberately going near the cub,” he added while informing that there are provisions of three to six months of imprisonment for those creating nuisance for or teasing wild animals, especially those protected. Leopards are protected under Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act.

He urged the people to avoid wild animals if they happen to encounter them. Stay away from them, do not gather around and obstruct their path. Left alone, on sensing no threat, these animals eventually find their course and go back to their natural habitat, he said. In the current case, the situation would have led to chaos if it was a mature leopard, he said.

Even if you want to watch the animal then, at least, maintain a safe distance or remain in the vehicle, he added.

When asked whether this instance can be related to man-animal conflict and is a matter of concern or not, the DFO said,

“This can’t be termed as a matter related to man-animal conflict and isn’t a matter of concern as long as animals do not enter human habitats and kill livestock or attack humans. Moreover, such judgement can’t be made based on a single instance.”

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Farmers Welcome SC Order to Stay Implementation of Farm Laws But Suspicious About Formation of Committee

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stay on farm laws

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday stayed the implementation of three contentious farm laws passed by the Centre Government, which has led to huge protest from hundreds of farmer groups. The stay implies that the Centre Government can’t take any executive actions based on these laws till further order. 

“The implementation of the three farm laws (1) Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; (2) Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020; and (3) Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, shall stand stayed until further orders,”

said the order passed by a panel headed by the Chief Justice of India (CJI) Sharad A Bobde on Tuesday.

Further, the MSP system would continue as it was before the enactment of the laws.

“As a consequence, the Minimum Support Price System in existence before the enactment of the Farm Laws shall be maintained until further orders. In addition, the farmers’ land holdings shall be protected, i.e., no farmer shall be dispossessed or deprived of his title as a result of any action taken under the Farm Laws,”

the order said.

With this order, the SC hoped to end the ongoing impasse over the contentious farm laws.

The farmers who have been protesting for over the last 45 days, welcomed the SC’s order.

However, at the same time, the Apex Court ordered the formation of a committee to listen to both sides and make recommendations to the court. The committee, which would comprise of Agriculture economist Ashok Gulati, Bhupinder Singh Mann, Dr Prmod Kumar Joshi, former director of National Academy of Agricultural Research Management), and Anil Ghanwat from Shetkari Sangathan, was asked to submit its report in the court within two months.

The CJI, in its order, speaking about the purpose of this “extraordinary” order, said,

“While we may not stifle a peaceful protest, we think that this extraordinary order of stay of implementation of the farm laws will be perceived as an achievement of the purpose of such protest at least for the present and will encourage the farmers’ bodies to convince their members to get back to their livelihood, both in order to protect their own lives and health and in order to protect the lives and properties of others.”

Though a stay on the implementation of laws was welcomed by protesting farmers, several unions said that they would not accept this committee and the protest will continue. They said the Government is trying to form this committee through the Supreme Court. This committee, they said, included persons who have already been justifying the farm laws. They said the purpose of this committee is nothing more than creating a diversion. The protest would be armed up and only a repeal of laws would be accepted, the unions said. 

At the same time, the SC was undeterred with these statements and said there is nothing that can stop it from forming a committee. The SC asked the farmers to cooperate with the committee.

On the other hand, the Government was more concerned about that other political parties would think of the stay as a “political victory”.

Further, the Government has also expressed apprehension about security breach due to the tractor rally planned by protesting farmers on the Republic Day.

K.K. Venugopal, Attorney General, told the court that there are reports that the farmers’ bodies may take out a tractor rally on January 26, 2021, disrupting the Republic Day Parade and celebrations However, the same was stoutly denied by Dushyant Dave, learned senior counsel appearing for a few of the farmers’ bodies on the ground that at least one member of the family of each of the farmers from Punjab is in the Army and that they would not disrupt the Republic Day celebrations.

The Court, in its order, said that several rounds of talked between farmers and the Government have failed and there was no solution in sight.

“The situation on ground is: (i) that senior citizens, women and children are at site, exposing themselves to serious health hazards posed by cold and covid; (ii) that a few deaths have taken place, though not out of any violence, but either out of illness or by way of suicide,”

the order said.

The court also lauded the farmers for carrying on the agitation peacefully without any unwanted incident.

Further, the Court orders also mentioned separate petitions filed by individuals/residents of the NCR complaining of blockade of roads/highways leading to Delhi and terming it an infringement of the fundamental rights of other citizens to move freely and to carry out trade and business.

Stay on 3 Farm Laws and Formation of Committee: Read Full Order of Supreme Court

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Inflation, Increased Cost of Food Items, Ration, Crumbling Health Infrastructure, and 100 Gram Sugar: Govt’s Diwali Gift to People

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hp govt's gift on diwali 2020

Shimla-The Himachal Pradesh Government has collected over Rs. 86 crores in the name of the COVID-19 relief fund, but only Rs 25 crore was spent. It was stated by Sanjay Chauhan, former Mayor of Shimla and a senior CPI (M) leader. It’s a shocker considering negligible relief measures and the state of health infrastructure crumbling amid a pandemic. The unpreparedness of the state government to deal with community spread of coronavirus is coming to light as its COVID-19 hospitals have begun to run out of beds in isolation wards. Two major medical facilities -Indira Gandhi Medical College & Hospital and DDU Hospital in Shimla- are packed to their full capacity. 

What’s not shocking is that Chief Minister did hail the Prime Minister, exactly as he was told, claiming that the nation is out of COVID-19 crisis. It suggests that the Chief Minister is little aware of the surge in cases and over 400 COVID-19 deaths, of which 93 were reported during the last 12 days of November month. Yesterday, the state has reported over 700 cases with six deaths, which is alarming.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi deserves all praise for his dynamic leadership as he is successfully steering the Country amid all troubles and difficulties. He has successfully brought the Nation out of Covid-19 crisis,” 

said Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, while addressing a public meeting at Sihunta under Bhatiyat Assembly Constituency on Wednesday. 

Talking about the real situation and relief measures, the state Government became a laughingstock and was being trolled on social media after it announced 100 gram sugar and 500-gram rice per person to all ration cardholders as a Diwali gift. If that was not enough, according to a media report, this quota has still not reached the depots. There is a possibility that it would reach the cardholders only after Diwali.

The reason behind this backlash is not only that 100-gram sugar is too trivial to be called a gift or relief, especially amid a pandemic when common people, especially those falling in middle and lower-income groups, are faced with unemployment and economic crisis.

While the people were hoping for relief from their elected government, inflation was on the rise. Currently, prices of food items including vegetables and other essential commodities have also witnessed a huge increase. Further, cut in subsidy on electricity, hike in bus fare, increase in property tax, rise in diesel and petrol prices etc. have put additional burden on the commoners. 

Then there were other issues like relaxation in garbage collection fee for the period of lockdown. Sadly, the public did not get any relief even in garbage bills despite staging protests. 

Meanwhile, Ministers made news for spending tax money on buying luxury vehicles and VIP numbers. 

Oppositions, Congress and CPI (M) have also targeted the government over its failure to provide any considerable relief to the people when it’s most needed. As per oppositions, the current government has no control over the market or inflation.

Chauhan also raised the issue of thousands of vacant posts of doctors, para-medical staff, nurses etc. at medical facilities across the state. He said that of the total 1000 posts of lab technicians, 700 were still vacant. He said that the government did not prepare for a community spread despite having a time of eight months during the lockdowns. It was due to this lackadaisical attitude of the government that currently IGMC and DDU hospitals have run out of space in isolation wards, he said.

He also said that, in an all-party meeting convened on March 21, CPI(M) had given the government 12 recommendations to effectively deal with the situation. The party had suggested that thousands of vacant posts should be filled at the earliest, all government buildings construction of which were completed should be prepared to accommodate COVID-19 patients. Similarly, at least four blocks of the under-construction building of IGMC should also be equipped with facilities to accommodate patients, the party had suggested. 

On November 8, 2020, the state unit of Mahila Congress staged a protest over a huge increase in prices of food items. They wore garlands of potatoes and onions and marched from the party headquarter to the Office of Deputy Commissioner, Shimla. Women alleged that the people have received no relief despite such a huge crisis. Instead, the current government is encouraging hoarding of essentials.

The opposition also said that the government has increased the rate of cereals provided through the public distribution system. This increase is Rs 5 for cereals and Rs. 9 for mustard oil. Vegetable prices have gone beyond Rs 50 during the festival season. It also said that the registration fees of vehicles have also been increased.

Sanjay Chauhan is of the view that to provide relief, the government should deposit at least Rs 7500 in the accounts of consumers and provide them with 10 kg ration per person for free.

He also said that recently the government has hiked the charges for electricity and installation of meters. The government has now withdrawn its notification restricting schools to charge only tuition fee and allowed them to charge full fees, including those pending for the period of lockdown, he said. This decision has come as a huge financial burden for parents and is causing mental harassment. 

The policies of the current government are only benefiting corporates, while other sections like labourers/daily wagers, small scale industries and businesses, shopkeepers, farmers are faced with financial crisis and unemployment due to lockdowns imposed in view of corona pandemic, Chauhan said. 

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