ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Urban Pollution: Driving Workers to Desperation

Attempts to reduce urban pollution must begin by ensuring that those who are most affected by it, the workers in 'polluting' industries, are safe. Recent events in Delhi however only aim at removing the victims rather than the cause.

The Supreme Court through an order on September 12 instructed that "all polluting industries of whatever category operating in the residential area must be asked to shut down". The order made it clear that this was the first step and that rest of the units operating in violation of the Master Plan 2001 (MP), were to be closed or relocated at a later date. It was also known since 1996 when the Supreme Court ordered closure of 168 'hazardous units' that units throwing effluents in river Yamuna and those located in the 'non-conforming' areas would be closed or relocated. The apex court's concern for quality of life in Delhi is commendable. However, a disproportionate responsibility is placed on those who sell their labour power in order to secure a life of dignity. Pollution cannot be fought without improving the living and working conditions of the bulk of Delhi's population who are workers. The solution does not also lie in driving the bulk of the working people out of Delhi either by rendering them jobless through closure of industrial units or making them homeless by destroying their shanties which stand on public land. The apex court believes that migrants who form bulk of the workforce will have no objection to moving 40 to 50 kms away. But without assurance of a job and an improved quality of life such an approach would recreate the same pathetic conditions from which they are displaced. Since the court orders remain silent on improving their working and living conditions as well as on protecting the interests of the 'workmen' the onus is on the government to do something. In real life little is done for them. The existing mechanism for resolution of industrial disputes is skewed in favour of the employers, litigations can take years and in the unequal battle workers are invariably at the receiving end. And civic amenities for them fall short of requirement. Therefore, a piquant situation faces workers who are reduced to being helpless bystanders between an active judiciary and an inactive executive.

The then BJP government as well as the present Congress dispensation during the past four years, did nothing until on November 14 the court concerned with the non-compliance of its orders threatened to prosecute senior Delhi government officials for contempt. Things began to move furiously. The Delhi government decided to misread the order and instead of targeting the 'polluting industries' began sealing 'all industries' in the residential areas. Thus instead of few thousand units affected in one sweep about 98,000 units employing, according to the officials, 20 lakh workers became the target of sealing procedure. This combined with the absence of any provision for the 'workmen' in the judicial orders made things worse. Significantly, the order passed in July 1996 referred to the 'workmen' and provided explicit measures for them. The silence subsequently is startling and the root cause of the pent-up anger among 20 lakh working people who stand affected by judicial fiat. Granted that this anger was exploited not only by small industry owners, but also by the BJP and Congress. It would anyhow be wrong to dismiss the sense of insecurity faced by the workers who have been left high and dry. On hindsight by misreading the order the Delhi administration was seeking to make the problem appear insurmoutable and impossible to achieve within a short period. The objective was to build pressure for amending the Master Plan whereby those non-conforming areas which are 70 per cent industrial, could be turned into industrial areas. The central government offered to make some changes allowing units consuming 5 KVA power and employing 10 workers to be excluded from threat of closure. But this would have saved only 3,000 units. Whereas amending the MP could 'remove' 80 per cent of the problem without addressing the issue of conditions at the shop floor and place of residence of bulk of the working class population.

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