US Swaminarayan network ‘responsible’ for deadly silicosis at Rajasthan mining site

counterview.net | May 19, 2021

Top civil rights network, Occupational and Environmental Health Network India (OEHNI), which is known to work for occupational safety and health (OSH) rights, has said that not only are the Swaminarayan temple owners in New Jersey responsible for “violating” the labour law of the US by paying a meagre $1 per hour to its workers, it is should also take the responsibility for high level of silicosis in Sirohi, Rajasthan, where stand stone for the temple is mined.

In a statement, Jagdish Patel, national coordinator, OEHNI, said, stones so carved in Rajasthan are exported to the sites where this temple is being built. More than 200 workers who were taken to New Jersey site were made to work for long hours and not paid minimum wages, even as “silica dust levels at work were neither monitored nor maintained as per US standards.”

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OEHNI was shocked to learn about the plight of the Indian migrant workers who were flown to the USA by their employer to build a Hindu religious sect Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) temple in the New Jersey state. We thank and congratulate the International Commission on Dalit Rights for filing a law suit for violating labour laws like minimum wages and safety at work. We appreciate and congratulate the brave workers who have dared to bring this challenge on foreign soil where they have poor political and social support.

BAPS has their workshops in Sirohi district in Rajasthan where sand stone in mined and worked on by the local craftsmen to carve the arches, designs and statues as per the drawings provided to them. They are exposed to dangerous levels of silica dust which is not monitored. Hundreds of stone workers have been victims of silicosis and have died prematurely. Most of these workers in India are not covered by social security and are not paid any compensation by the employer. Instead the state Government in Rajasthan pays them some relief.

Stones so carved in Rajasthan are exported to the sites where this temple is being built. It is shocking to know that more than 200 workers who were taken to New Jersey site were made to work for long hours, were not paid minimum wages in US and were working in hazardous conditions. From what we understand, the silica dust levels at work were neither monitored nor maintained as per US standards.

What is more shocking is to know that their passports were being confiscated by the employer to restrict their freedom. Most workers who do not know English must have very hard time. Their right to work with dignity was robbed from them. One of the sustainable development goals is Goal 8.8 Decent work which has been forgotten by the employer of these workers.

When they have been rescued, we hope and believe that they will be taken care of by the local Government and local supporters. We laud the statement issued by the The International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craft workers and its Administrative District Council of New Jersey (BAC) along with the Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh (PGMSS).
We support the action taken by the International Commission on Dalit Rights and we stand by the brave struggle waged by the workers. It will open up new windows to look at the conditions of the migrant workers brought under the name of religious volunteers. We demand quick and full justice for these workers.

We also recognize that workers in Rajasthan produce for temples in the United States and as an importing country; it should be concerned about the workers safety and work conditions. We also appeal to the Indian diaspora, who would be among the largest number of devotees of these temples to stand by the workers.

Two firms bid for additional works of Polavaram Irrigation Project

The New Indian Express | May 19, 2021

The technical evaluation of the bids will be done on Wednesday, followed by commercial/financial evaluation on Wednesday before going for reverse tendering, the officials said.

VIJAYAWADA: Two firms have filed bids for the additional head works of Polavaram Irrigation Project (PIP) in the second call given by the water resources government earlier this month.

The technical evaluation of the bids will be done on Wednesday, followed by commercial/financial evaluation on Wednesday before going for reverse tendering, the officials said.

According to information, Megha Engineering and Infrastructures Ltd (MEIL), which is already executing the head works, is one of the two companies that filed the bids for the additional works.

“Two companies have submitted the bids before the deadline on Tuesday and we will evaluate them on Wednesday. The qualified bids will be considered for financial evaluation, followed by reverse auctioning, with qualified bidders, on Friday,” a senior official from the water resources department said. The estimated value of the works is Rs 683 crore.

For the record, the water resources department had invited tenders last month for the additional works, but later decided to re-invite the bids as the bids filed by two companies that participated in the process had issues. Subsequently, a second call was given and time was given till Tuesday to file the bids.

It is learnt that the department wanted to award works to the existing contractor on nomination basis to ensure momentum in the pace of works as change in an agency would again involve logistic management.

​However, the department sent the bids for judicial preview and floated the tender after the government decided to go for bidding.

The additional head works include investigation, survey, preparation of designs and construction of RCC diaphragm wall end cut-off for spill channel, vibro stone columns and others.

Reverse tendering

The technical evaluation of the bids will be done on Wednesday, followed by commercial evaluation on Wednesday before going for reverse tendering.

Delink ration cards and vaccination from Aadhaar: former bureaucrat

The Hindu | Visakhapatnam | May 19, 2021

‘Over 3,000 tribals in Paderu area lost opportunity to get vaccination due to linkage norms’

Appreciating the State government’s decision to deliver ration almost near the doorstep of the beneficiaries, former secretary to the Union government E.A.S. Sarma said that linking the PDS ration cards and even COVID vaccination to Aadhaar, may not give the desired result.

In a letter addressed to the Chief Minister, he pointed out that thousands of tribals have not been able to go through the verification process associated with the issuance of the Aadhaar numbers, as they reside in remote and inaccessible areas. In such a scenario, linkage of Aadhaar may not serve good for the tribals, he said.

Mr. Sarma pointed out that Aadhaar linkage in the Paderu area of Visakhapatnam district had deprived more than 3,000 tribals of their opportunity to get vaccination, as a result of which they stand severely exposed to the virus.

Substantiating his claim, the former bureaucrat said that an NGO, Lib Tech of India, has carried out a comprehensive study of the numbers of the tribals adversely affected by not being able to get Aadhaar numbers, the range of the factors responsible for it and the corrective measures that need to be taken urgently to enable those tribals to get access not only to PDS rations but also to vaccination.

Based on a field study in villages from two mandals, followed by telephonic interviews with people from 50 Gram Panchayats across four ITDAs, the study estimates that between 7,000 and 35,000 families have been excluded from the PDS in ITDA areas.

‘Involve Gram Sabhas’

Mr. Sarma suggested that the State government should take advantage of the provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) which empowers the local tribal Gram Sabhas in the formulation and implementation of all schemes meant to benefit the tribals.

The verification process in close consultation with the Gram Sabha would be simpler and more authentic and would make the scheme more meaningful and beneficial. The Gram Sabhas should be fully involved in identifying the beneficiaries in the case of all such schemes, he said.

Tribals in Telangana flag illegal constructions in Agency areas

The New Indian Express | May 19, 2021

Leaders of the Adivasi Hakulla Porata Samithi (Tudum Debba) and other activists have been strongly opposing these constructions.

ADILABAD: Tribals protested in front of the Adilabad District Collector’s office here on Tuesday, demanding action against those developing illegal layouts in Agency areas. Multi-storeyed buildings have come up on many of these illegal layouts, some even on government lands, violating the PESA Act.

Leaders of the Adivasi Hakulla Porata Samithi (Tudum Debba) and other activists have been strongly opposing these constructions.

They submitted a memorandum to the district panchayat officer to take action on people responsible for illegal constructions. Adivasi Hakkula Porata Samithi district president Godam Ganesh said that the Commissioner of Panchayat Raj Department had given directions to each district and panchayat secretary to protect Agency lands.

The government is also taking other steps to curb land encroachment in these areas. The State is enforcing the LTR 1/70 Act in the Agency areas and orders have been issued to take action in accordance with the provisions of Regulation 1/70, LTR.

Apart from this, the government has made it clear that authorities should demolish illegal structures without giving any notice to the owner.

The Land Change Regulation Act, 1959 and the Land Change Prohibition Act, 1/70 are in force in the Agency areas, which prohibit buying and selling of land among non-tribals.

​However, mandal level officials and village level panchayat officials have neglected to implement these acts. Illegal layouts and constructions have taken place in Ichoda, Gudihathnur, Indravelli, Narnoor, Jainoor, Gadiguda, Utnoor, etc.

Without Addressing Legacy Issues, Can Digitising Land Records in India Be a Game Changer?

The Wire | May 18, 2021

For millions of rural families who still lack access to good internet connectivity or are computer illiterate, the programme may end up increasing out-of-pocket expenses.

As part of the Digital India Land Records Modernisation Programme (DILRMP), the central government intends to create an Aadhaar-like unique identification for every land parcel in the country. The initiative named Unique Land Parcel Identification Number (ULPIN) will assign a geo-referenced 14-digit alphanumeric unique ID for each land parcel surveyed in the country. ULPIN has already been launched in 11 states, and the Centre intends to do a countrywide rollout by March 2022.

This is a welcome addition to the previous digitisation steps taken up by DILRMP like establishing data centres at all administrative levels, computerisation of registration and record of rights, digitisation of cadastral maps among many others. ULPIN is expected to further contribute towards the larger goal of creating an Integrated Land Information Management System (ILIMS) that is intended to improve real-time information on land resources, develop land banks, optimise land use and assist in policy and planning.

The opportunity in digitising land records…

The current paper-heavy physical management of land records is inefficient and replete with red tape which in turn creates a fertile ground for corruption by land mafias, especially in rural areas. The common man has little say in this and is at the mercy of revenue officials. So it follows that India must upgrade to a modern and efficient land records management system that works for both the administration and common people.

Land records digitisation which started in 2008 has ushered tangible benefits in many states. For example, Jharkhand now has a dedicated web portal called ‘jharbhoomi’ where any land owner in the state can see the status of their land tax, pay the due amount online, register land and homes, or apply for online land mutation.

ULPIN can further enhance similar single window citizen services delivery and can potentially prevent land fraud and bring in much needed transparency, especially in rural areas where many land records are outdated, missing or disputed. ULPIN will most certainly guarantee uniqueness in all transactions, especially if blockchain technology is utilised. It would also be a massive step in enabling seamless interoperability across government departments, financial institutions and even revenue courts.

For rural landowners, accessing loans and land-based government schemes might become easier and people living in the disaster-prone areas might not have to worry about losing their land documents to floods and fire anymore as their land ownership will be digitally secured and accessible. If not anything, ULPIN will at least provide a better picture of land ownership in India and help identify illegally held lands by bad actors. The ULPIN digitisation, therefore, seems like a good initiative, at least in principle.

…comes with certain caveats

India might be a growing IT hub but the digital divide is still a huge concern in this country – a sad reality that was revealed in the pandemic when students from far flung areas struggled to attend online classes for want of the internet, laptops or smartphones. For the millions of rural families who still lack access to good internet connectivity or are computer illiterate, the online facilities by virtue of ULPIN will be of little use. In fact, this may end up increasing their reliance on ‘internet middlemen’ and increase their out of pocket expenses.

The Centre has said that linking Aadhaar number with ULPIN will be based on consent but it is safe to assume that sooner or later the linkage will become mandatory. Moreover, nobody wants to be left out. The perception of missing out on future “imaginary” benefits due to the said linkage itself will drive people to opt for the same.

Individuals still face issues with Aadhaar in terms of mismatched IDs and biometric verification which in many cases deprive rural beneficiaries of their rightful access to government schemes. Linking Aadhaar with ULPIN can potentially create conditions of further alienation of the marginalised sections of the society.

One of the significant repercussions of the ULPIN initiative will be in the forest sector where it is can potentially undermine the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The landmark Act provides individual and community forest rights (IFR and CFR) over forest lands that the local communities have been using traditionally for centuries.

According to a 2019 TISS report, a decade after the FRA implementation, only 14.67% of the potential forest area have been recognised across the country. So, what does ULPIN mean for the hundreds of thousands of India’s forest dwelling citizens whose rightful claims to forest land remain unsettled.

Additionally, what happens to the resources of villages which are government property on record but have been claimed by gram sabhas as part of their FRA rights. In the absence of any formal land-holding titles, these customary lands might be at risk of being added to the land banks and made available for developmental activities, industrial establishments or CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority) plantations.

In states like Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha, these CFR (commercial forest reserve) lands are already under immense pressure for raising such plantations by the forest department. There have been cases where CFR rights are intentionally delayed or rejected to accommodate for such plantations (often monocultures).

Then there are millions of hectares of land in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh called ‘orange areas’ which erroneously show up in both revenue and forest department land records. This bureaucratic mismanagement has caused disputes over 3.8 million hectares of land causing an estimated 1.5 million poor farmers to live in perennial insecurity. This issue has not been solved in the last 50 years, and it doesn’t look like a digital intervention like ULPIN can be of any aid. Instead, a rushed implementation can further complicate this complex issue and raise land legacy tensions.

As with any top down heavy initiative, ULPIN too risks doing too much in too little time overlooking the immense complexity of issues related to land ownership in India. As government officials from tehsils and blocks rush toward completion of their respective targets within a stipulated time, will they consult all the stakeholders, settle long-pending land rights, resurvey disputed lands and change land plot numbers before assigning a unique digital identification?

A similar digital experiment with land has already been carried out by a few nations in South America. An extensive report by GRAIN shows how the land digitalisation process in five South American countries is paving the way towards mass privatisation and financing of land, disregarding the socio-ecological function of such community and public lands through a process that is termed as ‘digital land grabbing’. The report warns about reducing such common lands to mere financial instruments that has facilitated land grabs on massive scales, often at the expense of peasant and indigenous territories.

The fact that the ULPIN initiative shares similar tools (geo-referencing, digitised cadastral maps, private titling, land market, bank integration) as used in the South American nations raises some immediate red flags. Although this development is taking place in a far-off continent, it still provides valuable learnings for India, especially on the importance of safeguarding community and public lands. Any attempt to bulldoze the initiative across all states without making robust provisions for collective titling of common lands may lead to severe land legacy disputes in future.

Digitisation of land records and its unique identification can certainly lead to efficient management in land administration in India. However, just like any other technology, what matters is how the technology is wielded in the shadow of underlying interests of the political economy of India. In a country where vast amounts of land records are outdated, disputed or unaccounted, ULPIN will hardly be able to be the game changer that it is billed to be, unless the pending rights are settled and land records are updated post resurveys.

Otherwise, it simply ends up in a costly exercise in validating historic land dispossessions and existing illegal encroachments by the rich and powerful. So, in a way the initiative provides a timely reminder and massive opportunity to first create an enabling environment, rectify old injustices and update existing land records before going ahead with the proposed digitisation.

This will need time and patience and so, instead of a hurried campaign to cover the entire geography of India in a few years and earn some political points, ULPIN, for now, should be limited to only those land parcels where rights and legal statuses are well-settled.

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