Jan Adhikar Manch, an alliance of working class organizations, trade unions and individuals, based in Odisha expresses deep concern while bringing to light the manner in which it is business as usual for the Odisha government as it issues notices exempting mining corporations and steel corporations from measures taken to observe the lockdown in the country in the face of the pandemic COVID -19. These places have thousands of workers and daily labourers, largely adivasi and dalit, who are compelled to report to work at grave risk to their own health and well being and that of their families and village communities. When self-isolation, social distancing, not-more-than-seven people should gather are few decisions taken by the government to check spreading of this virus, why are mining companies exempted?
The Odisha government through an order (8980/H&FW) issued by the Health and Family Welfare department on March 24, 2020 has excluded mining and steel industries from any restrictions on preventive measures to be taken to check the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. These companies and plants are deemed to be providing “essential services”. They include: (1) Any service or establishment dealing with the production, supply or distribution of coal, power, steel or fertilizers, and (2) Operations of mines of iron ore, coking coal, thermal coal, limestone, dolomite, manganese, chromite etc as well as operations of ferro alloys, iron ore pellet plants, etc which are critical raw material for steel making. During the lockdown period no one is supposed to step outside. However, workers employed in mines, processing plants and steel industries are expected to continue working as mining and steel making is made out to be an essential service. Needless to say, this decision of resuming mining and steel production would spread the Corona virus more easily and make common people more vulnerable. The Manch is deeply concerned about the health of workers, their families and village communities.
It may be noted that the Odisha government was a step ahead of the central government in declaring a week long lockdown from March 22 to March 29. However the discrimination practiced against the working class speaks volumes of its blatant hypocrisy. On one hand the Odisha police are seen mercilessly beating up ordinary people on the roads to observe the lockdown ordered by the central government. The police on duty are seen brutally punishing and then humiliating daily wage labourers; and regional news channels do not hesitate to flash these images across the state in complete violation of any sense of dignity or privacy of individuals thus caught on the roads. On the other hand the state government is oblivious of the well being and health risks of workers as it orders mines and corporations in Jajpur, Keonjhar, Koraput and Raygada districts to continue functioning. The wheels of capitalism cannot ever stop for the state and its corporations. The working class, which is the life line of the economy, is today put under grave danger so that profits do not suffer even if their lives are at stake as we can see:
- At a meeting held on March 24 in the office of the Deputy Director of Mines, Jajpur Road regarding implementation of guidelines and preventive measures for containment of Corona Virus, companies were directed to continue mining operations and transportation at the minimum level. Workers are compelled to attend duty with grave risk to their health and well being. It is well documented that the people of the Sukinda and Danagadi block have a high rate of respiratory problems, skin ailments and TB due to the pollution caused by mining operations. Their health and well being have already been severely compromised. In such a scenario, the pandemic if unchecked, can take a heavy toll on entire communities.
- The same is happening in Raygada district. In exercising the powers conferred in the government order of Health & Family Welfare Deptt, Govt of Odisha, the District Collector has allowed industries like Utkal Alumina International Ltd(UAIL) at Tikiri, JK Paper Mills Ltd(JKPM) at JK Pur, Indian Metal & Ferro Alloys Ltd(IMFA) at Therubali, Fimakem India Ltd at Kumutipentha to operate their plants with minimum employees/workmen in batches & shifts, while observing the norms of social distancing & other instructions. The Congress MP from Koraput Constituency tweeted Chief Minister Naveen Pattanaik to completely shut down the industries to contain further spread of COVID-19 in the state.
- At Bamaberi (Barbil) in Keonjhar district, when workers opposed going to work in the iron ore mines, they were brutally lathi charged by the police. Hundreds of trucks are running on the Bamaberi-Keonjhar-Paradeep Road.
- In Kodingamali of Koraput district, trucks are transporting bauxite from Kakariguma station to Vedanta refinery plant in Lanjigarh making lives of the local people more vulnerable than before in the current situation.
- In Ganjam district, Gopalpur Port is fully functional with hundreds of workers huddled in close groups. Local people alerted the press about a goods ship that had arrived from foreign shores on the 27th
How can the Odisha government keep its prime agenda of mining intact by terming it to be essential service? Can we allow the Odisha Government to give this exemption to these companies, put workers’ health at risk and pave the way for the Corona virus to spread and pose life threatening hazards to the people of Odisha?
Jan Adhikar Manch is deeply concerned at multiple levels in reaching out this message to the people of Odisha:
- Are the lives of mine workers and industrial workers in these areas dispensable? Who takes responsibility of the health and well being of these workers, their families and communities? How can they be prevented from getting infected with the Corona virus?
- The state government’s announcing the opening of 1000-bed hospitals for Corona virus treatment and giving four-month advance salaries to doctors and nurses to boost up their morale is a sham. These acts of benevolence conceal the inhuman and callous policies and actions that threaten the lives and well being of the working class.
- If the Odisha government is inclined to curb the pandemic, how can mining be considered an essential service that should not be stopped? How can there be any foolproof method of isolating the virus when there is state sanction of mining operations and steel production involving hard labour in conditions of poor health and environmental standards?
- All mining operations and steel production should be suspended immediately in the interest of preventing the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and in the interest of the health and safety of the people of Odisha.
Constituent Organizations of Jan Adhikar Manch: All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha (AIKMS); AIKKS, AIKMS, Adivasi Bharat Mahasabha; Upakulia Jami O Jungle Surakshya Samiti; GASS; CMS-Odisha (AIKMKS); Janbadi Lekhak Sangh; Banwasi Surakshya Parishad, Kandhamal; Basti Surakshya Munch; Humanist Rationalist Organization; MASM; Campaign Against Fabricated Cases; Malkangiri Zilla Adivasi Sangh; IFTU and TUCI
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