November 26, 2009
By Partho Sarathi Ray, Sanhati
This is a report on the Falta SEZ, the first SEZ of India, located around 55 kilometres from the heart of Calcutta city in West Bengal.
What was established by the government of India as the Falta Export Processing Zone (FEPZ) in 1984, turned into the Falta Free Trade Zone (FFTZ) and finally appeared in its current avatar as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) under the West Bengal SEZ Act, 2003, the first SEZ act passed by any state government in India. Therefore, the Falta SEZ earned the dubious distinction of being the first SEZ in India. After the government of India passed the SEZ Act in 2005, the Falta SEZ came under the purview of this act, becoming the pioneer of the 500 odd SEZs set up all over India, becoming the epitome of the neo-liberal capitalist policies of the central and the nominally “leftist” West Bengal state governments.
1. Signboard of Falta SEZ on village road approaching the SEZ [Click to enlarge]
But, what goes on in and around a functioning SEZ? What is the status of workers in an SEZ and what is the effect of an SEZ on the lives and livelihoods of people living in contiguous area? These are things that are needed to be known in order to approach the issue of SEZs by both activists and academics. In order to find out, a fact-finding team, having strong connections with local inhabitants of Falta and with workers of industries within the SEZ, have been visiting the Falta SEZ and speaking to a wide cross-section of people, whose lives are now inexorably tied to the SEZ which has grown up in the midst of their farmland and fishing areas. These are the first impressions from those visits.
The Falta SEZ is located in the southernmost part of the South 24 Parganas district, near Diamond Harbour. It is located on the bank of the river Ganga, not far from where it joins the Bay of Bengal. The deltaic alluvial land in the area is one of the most fertile in the world, and fishing is also a major source of livelihood of most people in the area.
The rationale of setting up the EPZ, and later the SEZ in this locale, was supposedly that the proximity of the river and the sea would allow the export of the goods manufactured in the SEZ at low cost, earning foreign exchange in the process. Therefore the SEZ was set up over 280 acres of land, 193 acres of which belonged to Calcutta Port trust and 87 acres was acquired land. Most of this land was river silt that had been deposited as land-fill during the widening of the river channel, which is the best land for agriculture, whereas the rest was agricultural land already in use. Four sectors (Sectors I-IV) have already been set up, whereas Sector V is in the process of establishment. People who had already been living in the area prior to river widening were displaced and resettled in the area now called Highlands. They are facing displacement for a second time because of the expansion of the SEZ. There a number of densely populated villages all around the SEZ such as Nainan, Neela and Karaghata from where people go to work in the industries located within the SEZ.
In Karaghata village, most people belong to the Ruidas (leatherworkers), Bauri (boatmen) and Muslim communities. The Ruidases traditionally work with leather but also play the ceremonial drum, the dhaak, and also make cane utensils and furniture. However, these professions are slowly dying out as people from nearly every family now go to work in the SEZ.
The condition of workers
About 60% of the workforce in the SEZ are women, and many of the local inhabitants knowingly observed that the reason behind such a large number of female workers is that they are easier to exploit. Wages for female workers are uniformly around Rs 10 less than that for male workers. The dominant system of employment is contractual, and on a daily basis. Many people assemble near the gates of the SEZ every morning, and they are employed if there is work for that day. Some people have regular jobs on a contractual basis and very few are direct employees of the industries.
The daily wagers get Rs 81 per working day, although the official wage is Rs 100 to Rs 110, depending on the type of work. Workers in some industries are paid as low as Rs 50-60 per day. The contractors get the difference. The permanent employees get Rs 3000 a month. A certain part of the wages (Rs 450 for permanent workers and Rs 150 for contractual workers) is deducted per month in lieu of ESI and provident fund. But nearly no worker has ever received a receipt for these deductions, and has no hope of utilizing ESI or provident fund.
There is widespread resentment against the contractors, who deliberately get people from outside the area as workers to maintain a reserve army of labour and keep wages down. They, in collusion with the companies operating in the SEZ, ensure that even permanent workers are not retained for a long time, maintaining a constant atmosphere of job insecurity. Many of these contractors, like Debu Karmakar, are influential members of the ruling party, the CPI(M), and have accumulated great wealth over the past few years.
The companies in the SEZ hire and fire workers as they like. As there are no trade union rights of workers in SEZs under the SEZ Act, there are no registered trade unions. There is a CITU union which claims to fight for the workers’ rights, but there is nearly unanimous agreement that Tapas Mandal, the leader of this union is hand-in-gloves with the companies in the SEZ. In many industries, wages are paid as late as 26th or 27th of the month. The fact-finding team met a “permanent” worker who was employed by VSFT Pillow and Quilt Ltd., and fired three days back because he demanded that wages be paid within the 10th of the month. This worker had to drop out of college while studying for his bachelors in science, and had worked as an agricultural worker before he had to join the factory as agriculture declined in the area. Protesting against the companies or against the contractors has invited physical assault in many cases.
There were reports of horrendous working conditions in many industries. The SEZ has 271 companies, of which 107 are closed. Many which are open are also sick. Many industries which close down reopen under new names, denying all dues to workers who had previously worked in them. Some factories were reportedly burnt down deliberately by the owners to escape paying back bank loans taken for setting up the industry. These seem to comprise quite a widespread practice to deny workers their rightful dues.
Many of the industries have hazardous working conditions and nearly no protection is provided to the workers. Many people who work in the cotspin industry or quilt-manufacturing industries complained about cotton dust which they have to inhale and which gives rise to respiratory problems. They are not provided with masks; rather they bind handkerchiefs around their noses. Sometimes, when there are inspections from the Development Commissioner’s office, they are provided masks and helmets, which are taken back when the inspectors leave.
Accidents are rampant; the fact-finding team met many people who have lost fingers or hands. Workers who have had accidents have had to wait for hours before they received medical attention. A worker, who had lost his hand while operating a machine, received only Rs 20,000 as compensation and receives Rs 1500 as monthly pension. Some people did not even get compensation; Uttam Haldar who lost his hand was ordered by the company to get compensation from the contractor.
In Nainan village, the team met the family of Mohsin Sheikh, a 27 year old worker who had been crushed to death by a 25 kg valve while working in the factory of Datre Ltd. The police even refused to lodge an FIR. The worker’s old mother lamented the fact that many young people in these villages try to put in longer and longer hours in these factories because the pay is low and there is constant fear of losing the job. Working hours are totally unregulated; another worker in Nainan complained that in Patton industries, workers work for 12 hours but their employment cards are punched for 8 hours. People reported that there are industries where the machinery makes such a great noise that people are not able to work there for more than six months.
Another major industry in the SEZ is waste plastic recycling. Waste plastic is shipped in from all over the world and women are employed to sift through and clean these waste plastics, often contaminated with hazardous chemical and biological waste, with their hands. Many women reported that they are unable to continue in this job for long because of the horrible working conditions, but many are forced to get back to this job because they have no other means of income.
2. Women and children carrying away waste material from the SEZ [Click to enlarge]
Sexual exploitation of women workers by supervisors is also widespread, but is kept under wraps. Women workers often have to tolerate sexual harassment in order to retain their jobs, many even have to cook and take food from their home for the supervisors.
There are no mechanism for addressing workers’ grievances. Workers in Nainan village reported that a year ago there was a fast by workers to demand higher wages. The development commissioner who is the final arbiter of affairs in an SEZ didn’t agree to meet the workers. After a prolonged agitation when he met them, he guaranteed that no worker would lose his job as a result of this agitation. However, his guarantee was not kept and many workers were fired. For the workers in the SEZ a life of low wages, permanent job insecurity and hazardous and demeaning working conditions is the reality today.
Effects of SEZ on surrounding villages
The SEZ has had immense adverse effects on the life in the surrounding villages too. With the initial land acquisition for the SEZ, agriculture was adversely affected in the area. The process of expansion is taking over more agricultural land. Notices for further land acquisition were served to landowners in Sundarika mouja last year.
The loss of agricultural land and the setting up of industries in the SEZ have put agriculture in permanent decline in the area. Many of the local inhabitants now also work as casual labourers, driving cycle vans, working in construction etc. Pollution from the industries located in the SEZ is also causing tremendous damage to the environment of the surrounding villages and the livelihoods of people.
3. Garbage from the SEZ littering the surrounding villages [Click to enlarge]
In Neela village, a black soot released from the Kohinoor paper mills is covering all plants and habitations, causing tremendous loss to agriculture. Also, the steam boiler of the hydraulic press of the Kohinoor factory creates such a terrible noise that children are developing nervous disorders.
In Nainan, periodic release of a red acidic effluent in the canals going through the village is polluting the groundwater and killing off the fish in the river, which is a major source of income for this village mostly inhabited by fisherfolk. There is massive groundwater depletion too, and tubewells can only function if boosters are fitted. Lot of the waste generated in the factories is carried away by the inhabitants of the surrounding villages for recycling, and this garbage can be found to be littering the surrounding villages. The entire area is paying the price for being the locale of an SEZ set up without any environmental impact assessment and with the sole objective of generating profits.
4. Red sludge from the SEZ polluting the water bodies in the area [Click to enlarge]
This is the first time that we have had a glimpse of what the reality of an SEZ is. It is the exemplification of lawless profiteering by capitalists, facilitated and lawfully allowed by the Indian state. If this is what the neo-liberal paradise holds for India, it is no wonder that people all over the country are rising up against it.
5. A part of the SEZ from across a paddy field
6. Villagers pointing out plants covered with soot
7. A polluting factory beside a village
8. Plants covered with black soot in the adjoining villages
9. The river Ganga which is the life blood of the area
10. The new industrial growth centre being set up by WBIDC