The last few months have been a difficult phase for the entire country. An unprecedented pandemic has brought the entire nation to a standstill. The COVID-19 crisis stopped being merely a health issue and became a multifaceted challenge very early. The economy of the country was badly hit and the already marginalised sector was the worst affected. This was evident in the haunting spectacle of long rows of migrant workers walking back home from different cities, their meagre belongings perched on their head.
The plight of the migrants became amplified in incidents which showed that instead of the disease, lack of livelihood was a bigger concern for them. The absence of any social security and safety nets for migrant workers, the absence of trade unions and the informal nature of the industry ensured that these people were denied of any basic support. The government responded with a working policy only after a week or so. Even then there was no clarity in the instructions. Labourers were asked to stay put in the cities where they worked. But government help was slow to come. Ration was made available to workers eventually but cooking was another challenge as most were rendered homeless. The government shelter homes soon became overcrowded and social distancing was next to impossible in these living spaces.
The lockdown was constantly violated because workers continued to walk back home despite restrictions. In fact, extreme instances came to the forefront when workers walking on railway tracks were killed or travelling in trucks met accidents. News channels continuously kept breaking tragic stories of how workers sold their meagre belongings to pay for expensive rides back home, how a daughter cycled her ailing father for more than two thousand miles. In such a situation, when government’s initiatives fell short of reaching out to the needy and downtrodden, the civil society stepped in, in a strong way. From relief work to co-ordinating travelling plans for labourers, to running community kitchens to feed them, various civil society groups put in a tremendous effort.
Assam was no exception. The sudden declaration of lockdown led to a chaotic situation. A large number of labourers who have travelled to different districts were left there without any work or any means of return. The labour contractors in many places decided to leave the labourers to their fate. Repeated appeals by the government to pay labourers and other employees even when they were not working fell upon deaf ears. The working class who earlier led a dignified life were reduced to destitutes. Not just financial independence, they were also stripped of dignity.
In Assam also many civil society organisations, individuals stepped in to help these people. One organisation among such was the Padatik Nari Samaj, an organisation led by a number of women activists. The organisation came into being when in December, 2019 some members gave a call for a meeting to discuss the issues of working women. The members have earlier also mobilised public opinion in favour of providing social security to women working in unorganised sectors – be it as domestic workers or as construction labourers. It was in this meeting that the idea of a platform was floated to give women of Assam a more vocal role in the happenings of the state. The idea took a formal shape in the form of Padatik Nari Samaj.
While the organisation emphasised on women’s issues and was led largely by women activists, it was in no way an exclusive women’s organisation. In fact, many male volunteers have played an active role from the very beginning. The organisation emphasised on extending rights to women working in the informal sector. From the very beginning itself, the organisation and its activists were clear about a long-term political solution to these problems.
The next big step of the organisation came in the month of February in 2020. This was also the time when the entire country and especially Assam was in throes of large-scale protracted protests against the amendment to the Citizenship Act which gave the non-Muslim minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh some leverage in case of grant of citizenship. Also, these minorities will not be considered illegal immigrants in India.
Protestors across the country pointed out the discrimination inherent in the amendment. It randomly restricted the provision to three countries and only six religious communities, leaving countries like Myanmar and communities like Rohingiyas. Unlike other states, the northeastern states of India especially Assam saw widespread protests ever since the amendment was proposed. The sole reason being Assam already bore the brunt of immigrants till 1971 and was unwilling to take anymore. The protests took a tragic turn when five protestors were killed. The victims included a student of tenth board.
In this context Padatik Nari Samaj gave a call for a meeting on February 8. The meeting was under the slogan Pratirodh or protest. This was a call to bring together people and especially women from different parts of Assam and walks of life. The agenda for the protest started from protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act and then went on to demand women’s reservation in Parliament, safeguarding labour rights with special emphasis on women working in informal sector to the greater misogyny that abound the society.
Along with these issues, the organisation also worked on addiction, questioning gender-based taboos and systemic discrimination. These activities of the organisation brought the members in close contact with slum dwellers and migrant labourers. When the pandemic hit, they got distress calls from the 20 slums that they earlier worked on. The delve in relief work during COVID-19 crisis as mentioned by Pooja Nirala, one of the co-ordinators, was almost accidental. When the migrant workers they worked with were left with no work and no food, the group had to take up relief work for immediate relief. The organisation reached out to a large number of people and could arrange for food and ration for a few hundred families.
The organisation also co-ordinated with the migrant workers who were stuck in other states and started coming back once the government started running Special Shramik Trains. Apart from this field-based work, the organisation took up crucial survey work which can have important impact on policy levels. The group carried out a survey on the impact of lockdown on street vendors and the report will be made public soon. Two members of the group Karishma Hazarika and Bidisha Barman did a ground report on a gangrape case in Assam’s Gohpur.
Some other noted personalities working with the group is eminent writer, social activist Rashmirekha Borah. Drawing from her days of activism in SFI and collaborations with other groups like Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, has relentlessly provided a progressive feminist approach to the organisation’s activities. Mehzebin Rahman and Pooja Nirala have years of experience of working with YUVA and working amongst workers in unorganised sector. These activists along with some other volunteers are carving out a newer space in the social sector.
What is interesting about the organisation’s work is their clarity of stand on the role of government. Pooja Nirala who was busy co-ordinating relief work very clearly states that NGOs cannot replace governments. The long-term solution to the plight of migrant workers, unorganised sector can only come in the form of policy. Relief work and social organisations can only supplement such initiatives. The organisation also does not shy away from taking a stand on political matters.
Women in Assam and the larger Northeastern region have always been very vocal in various socio-political and cultural issues. Starting from the legacy of Nupi Lan or Women’s War in Manipur were movements led by Manipuri women against the British empire. Manipur has still retained this legacy in the form of Mothers of Manipur or Meira Paibi leading a protest against army brutality in the garb of Armed Forces Special Power Act to Ima Keithel or Asia’s largest all women market.
Similar women are scattered in the histories of other states in the region. Assam also saw active women participating in the various movements that rocked the state from time to time. The Padatik Nari Samaj is a glorious addition to this rich legacy. The organisation which is yet to get a formal organised structure has already made its mark. It has not only emerged as a women’s organisation voicing women’s concerns, but also as a platform providing safe space to multiple identities. The group got queer activists on board too. Aimed at ensuring a broad-based alliance of progressive women and men, the organisation is all set to push forth changes at so many levels – be it discursive or field based social work.
The organisation through its systematic challenge of gender-based discrimination, social taboos is challenging patriarchy at one level and also taking up livelihood issues of women which have real time impact on their lives. Domestic workers and women labourers often face discrimination and violation at work place. The group infuses a language of rights in the fight of these women, bringing dignity to their work.
The COVID-19 crisis once again exposed the lopsided impact it had on workers. The migrant labourers were already in a disadvantageous position. This was further accentuated by the nature of the crisis. However, the end of the lockdown led to another problem. To make up for the economic loss that the country suffered, many state governments diluted laws that protected labour rights. In such a scenario relief and rehabilitation work infused with a language of rights can go a long way in solving the problem of migrant workers instead of merely providing immediate temporary relief.
In a patriarchal set up, women are discriminated against on multiple fronts. Experiments at various levels have proven that when women are given decision making powers, they work in a way to ensure equity of all stake holders and give equal importance to social issues. In such a scenario, a group like Padatik Nari Samaj will ensure intersectionality—where women can engage with issues that affect women and simultaneously play a more active role in larger issues that concern the state and society. Organisations like this will no doubt fill a void in Assam in providing a much-needed platform to women and other marginalised voices in the society.