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Archive for March, 2006

Bhatta Mazdoors : The struggle continues

Posted by Taimur Rahman on March 24, 2006

Published in The Post 24/03/2006

Taimur Rahman

The life of Bhatta Mazdoors is a world unto itself. Cramped in their bare brick hovels they continue to live in a period of history that is more reminiscent of medievalism or slavery than the modern world of a concrete jungle that runs on their very labour-power. Not merely the method of production of bricks but even the mode of living of these unfortunate people remains frozen in an obscure time period.

In the late 1960s this inaccessible world was interrupted by a powerful social movement for the rights of bonded labourers. Although the beginnings of the movement coincided with the populist upsurge of the late sixties and continued uninterrupted through the 1970s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that it assumed centre-stage and caught the public’s imagination. Perhaps it was the fact that while other social and political movements imploded, the Bhatta Mazdoor movement continued to gather pace, or perhaps it was simply the bravery of the movement in exposing the decrepit and slave-like conditions in the brick production industry, in either case, the Bonded Labour and Bhatta Mazdoor movement became so powerful in the 1980s that even the establishment recognized that the matter required immediate attention.

It was as a result of a combination of legal and social pressures, in which no small part was played by the press, that the Supreme Court of Pakistan took the decision in 1988 to abolish the peshgi system (the peshgi system is responsible for keeping bhatta workers in a cycle of debt bondage). The decision was further consolidated in the 1992 Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act that is a powerful and progressive piece of legislation.

The Act was clearly worded such as to leave no doubt whatsoever in anyone’s mind where the law stood with respect to bonded labour. The Act stated that, “Every obligation of a bonded labourer to repay any bonded debt shall stand extinguished” and that “no suit or other proceeding shall lie in any civil court, tribunal or before any other authority for the recovery of any bonded debt.” Further, not only shall any decree or order for the recovery of bonded debt passed before the Act be considered null and void but all property taken from bonded labourers or their families or mortgaged either by a creditor or by any court, tribunal or authority for the repayment of a bonded debt shall be restored within 90 days to the bonded labourer. Every bonded labour who had been detained in civil prison was to be released from detention immediately. Any creditor who attempted to collect any peshgi would be handed a criminal sentence of up to three years in prison and a minimum of Rs 15,000 in fines. And any bhatta owner engaging in the practice of bonded labour shall be liable to a prison sentence of two to five years and a minimum fine of Rs 50,000. Similar legislation also stated that all bhattas were to be registered and that labour practices were to be brought into accordance with industrial labour laws (including minimum wage laws, old age benefit, social security and so on). Needless to say this represented an unprecedented and complete victory in the legal sphere for the Bhatta Mazdoors. However, the real conditions of Bhatta Mazdoors did not change substantially.

The bhatta owners counter-attacked with two measures. First, they went into appeal in 1993 in the Federal Shariat Court. They were no doubt encouraged by the 1992 ruling of the Shariat Court against the 1972 land reforms and expected a similar reactionary decision for themselves. Their appeal to the Shariat Court remained buried for 17 years and during this entire period the bhatta owners continued to extract bonded labour from the bhatta mazdoors under the false pretext that they had obtained a “stay order” against the decision of the Supreme Court from the Federal Shariat Court. Secondly, the bhatta owners began to dedicate enormous resources to the creation of a lobby within the law enforcement agencies that would prevent the implementation of any laws. This strategy included various aspects, ranging from bribes in the form of bricks for the thanas (police stations) to buying out bailiffs of the High Court who would inform the bhatta owners in advance about any chhapa (raid) ordered by the courts. Finally, physical disincentives, including a good beating, were never far behind in ensuring compliance with the now illegal system of the bhatta owners.

I had the opportunity of personally viewing the character of physical intimidation that goes into maintaining this bhatta system. Largely out of idealistic reasons, a group of our friends decided to play our part in the implementation of minimum wage laws with respect to bhatta workers (the Minimum Wages Board has recently ruled that a minimum of Rs. 290 per thousand bricks is to be paid to bhatta workers). We printed an innocuous leaflet explaining what the law states about minimum wages for bhatta workers and began distributing it along Raiwind Road, where there is a small concentration of bhattas. One fine day, as we were visiting the vicinity of a bhatta, we were accosted by a burly man with an accompanying armed guard. Without so much as batting an eye he threatened our group of activists with dire consequences unless we stopped our campaign. Thankfully there were about eight of us otherwise I am sure he would have carried out part of his threat there and then. Anyway, with no appetite either for his death threats or for showing off our machismo muscle power, we ignored him entirely. But later that very day the bhatta maalik (owner) and six of his cronies picked up the bhatta workers, brought them to his “office”, interrogated them and roundly thrashed those who were in any way connected with this minimum wage campaign. I would mention these bhatta maaliks by name but I do not want to further endanger those bhatta workers who have already been beaten up. The name though is largely irrelevant because this is a very common practice in nearly all the bhattas of Pakistan.

Similarly, I had occasion to visit another bhatta close to Kot Radha Kishan. This time my hosts were the bhatta maaliks themselves and one of our guides proudly told us the punishment meted out to a bhatta worker who was trying to flee the bhatta. He was beaten, made to walk barefoot on the boiling bhatta, and then his face was blackened with soot and he was paraded around the entire area so that others would know the consequences of attempting to flee. I tried to locate this bhatta worker whose name was Mukhtar, but I could not find him. His relatives however confirmed the entire incident. The bhatta maaliks attempted to justify their action by painting a clearly distorted picture of the bhatta workers. The maaliks argued that “these people are lazy”, “they make contracts that they do not keep”, “they spend all their money on buying battery cells for tape recorders and watching movies on VCD”, and that “they are immoral”. When I asked about the buying and selling of bhatta workers, the bhatta maaliks confirmed the general impression. They told me that once the maaliks buy up the “debt” of the bhatta worker’s family from another maalik, sometimes also making an additional loan to the worker, the bhatta worker’s family is then transported to the next bhatta.

I further discovered from these bhatta maaliks (who I assume have accurate information about their own business) that the demand for bricks has been rising over the last decade and new bhattas have been popping up rapidly, especially around big cities like Lahore. Given that the technology of brick manufacture has hardly changed for thousands of years, it would be fair to say that the number of bhatta mazdoors, which is already estimated in hundreds of thousands, is probably increasing. On my way back from Kasur via a smaller, less travelled route, I counted 17 bhattas on the visible horizon at one time. On the entire journey I must have easily come across more than 100 on the main road (including one with a tiled colourful chimney). Even a superficial glance showed that the brick industry was thriving but unfortunately the same could not be said for the bhatta mazdoors. I could not help but feel that the setting up of new bhattas with the same slave conditions was a crime and the negligence of the government was only compounding the problem.


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World Social Forum Karachi : A left critique

Posted by Taimur Rahman on March 17, 2006

Published in The Post 17/03/2006

Taimur Rahman

The World Social Forum (WSF) scheduled to be held in Karachi on March 24-29, despite all its not so insignificant shortcomings, will provide liberals and the left a chance to meet organizations and individuals of their own inclination. The experience of the Pakistan Social Forum (PSF) held in Lahore in January showed that such meetings give the left and liberals the opportunity to rail at the policies of the current government to a significant audience of activists.

However, a significant criticism with respect to the entire process of the WSF in Pakistan is that the forum remains completely tied in with the NGO community. But this could equally be justified by pointing out that the NGO community has only filled the gaping vacuum created by the absence of an organized left. Though some critics have tended to dismiss the WSF in Pakistan as largely “donor driven”, a more significant critique would look at how the WSF came into being and the direction it is travelling internationally.

The WSF first met in 2001 in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, as a challenge to the World Economic Forum (WEF) and claimed to organize an alternative to capitalist neo-liberal globalisation. The main ideas of the WSF were represented by the central slogan: ‘Another World is Possible’, and under this banner all those seeking a change from the existing status quo were very loosely grouped together. Four annual meetings of the WSF have been held, the last one in Mumbai, attracting international attention, particularly from young people influenced by the growing anti-capitalist anti-globalization and anti-war movements around the world. The WSF claims to provide an “open space” for all shades of dissent. A brief look at the Charter of Principles quickly reveals much in the way of the concept that the builders of the WSF have about a new world.

Clause 6 of the Charter of Principles states: “Participants in the forum will not be called upon to take decisions as a body, whether by vote or by acclamation, on declarations or proposals for action that would commit all, or the majority, of them and that propose to be taken as establishing positions of the Forum as a body.” Owing to the fact that the WSF does not expect participants to make any future commitment beyond their immediate participation, many contradictory voices, within certain limits, can continue to co-exist within this Forum. On the one hand, Clause 6 allows for a significant degree of latitude and flexibility, but on the other hand this clause relegates the Forum to little more than a glorified ‘discussion group’.

The anti-left orientation of certain leading elements within the WSF is encoded, albeit not in clear unequivocal terms, in the Charter of Principles. For example, Clause 10 of the Charter of Principles states: “The WSF is opposed to all totalitarian and reductionist views of economy, development and history and to the use of violence as a means of social control by the State.”

The organizers of the WSF consider the views of Communist Parties to be both reductionist and totalitarian and have explicitly stated in the Charter that they are “opposed” to such views and as a consequence all organizations that hold such views. It would have been far more straightforward had the organizers simply written: ‘The WSF is opposed to Communist Parties because the latter have a reductionist view of history and wish to create a totalitarian society.’ But such overt and open anti-communism would have no doubt repelled many elements that are ideologically bordering between communism and other ‘left-wing’ alternatives (Social-Democracy, NGOs, New Left, etc.). Abstruse terminology is more suitable to the WSF leadership’s objectives of winning over these bordering elements.

Second, the statement makes the rather strange statement that the WSF is opposed “to the use of violence as a means of social control by the State.” The fact, as any social scientist would know, is that all states, without exception, are built for social control through violence. One does not have to be a Marxist to appreciate that states exist for no other reason than ‘social control’ through a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. The statement is an absurdity for if one is opposed to ‘social control’ through ‘violence’, then one should be opposed to the very concept and existence of the state (as the anarchists or libertarians are). And if one is merely opposed to the ‘use’ of violence by the state, as opposed to the use of the ‘threat of violence’ by the state, then one would have to ask the purpose of spending billions to maintain a coercive apparatus that will not be used. The real reason why this semi-pacifist sentiment is inserted in the middle of the statement about reductionism and totalitarianism is the old and familiar, but utterly reactionary, prejudice that equates fascism with communism.

This pacifism continues in Clause 11, which states: “The meetings of the WSF are always open to all those who wish to take part in them, except organizations that seek to take people’s lives as a method of political action.”

Firstly, one has been bombarded with so many lies from the imperialist media about the “terrorism” and “barbarism” of resistance organizations and discovered so very often that the media image of resistance organizations is entirely contradictory to reality, that one is inclined to take all such talk of opposition to organizations that use violence with a high degree of scepticism.

Secondly, and more importantly, resistance organizations (for example, national liberation movements) are compelled by force of circumstance to wage wars of liberation. Given that such wars of liberation are largely a phenomenon of the Third World, the exclusion of such organizations under the pretext of the above pacifist assumptions will inevitably fall prey to social-chauvinism. In the more radical days of the 60s and 70s, a line of demarcation was always drawn between the ‘violence of the oppressor’ and the ‘violence of the oppressed’. Such a line of demarcation is conspicuous by its absence in the Charter of the WSF.

It was on this pretext that while the WSF organizational committee gladly invited government ministers from France, Belgium and Portugal, the committee decided to deny participation to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and also to the Basque nationalists in 2002.

Clause 9 states: “Neither party representatives nor military organizations shall participate in the Forum. Government leaders and members of legislatures who accept the commitments of this charter may be invited to participate in a personal capacity.”

The ban on political parties in the WSF is an extremely serious issue. Whereas on the one hand the WSF raises the ambitious but inspiring slogan of “another world”, on the other hand it takes the rather timid position of excluding political parties, leaving one with the impression that this ‘brave new world’ will either apparently exist without political parties or at the very least be built without political parties. A political party by definition exists for the purpose of gaining state power. The exclusion therefore of political parties is simultaneously the exclusion of the quest for state power, including the quest of the oppressed for state power. Naturally such a course of action sits very well with post-modernists, liberals, libertarians, anarchists, critical theorists and all the various hues and stripes of the “new left”, but the rest of us are left with the rather quixotic view of the possibility of “another world” that will be achieved without politics and without state power. The real purpose of the WSF therefore becomes clearer. “Another world is possible”, but it must be built without political parties, national liberation movements, and communists. Who then will build this new world? The answer is provided in the Charter of Principles itself.

The WSF provides “an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulations of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society…” The WSF is not for everyone, nor even for everyone on the left: it is for civil society alone.

What then is civil society? Briefly, civil society in the 17th and 18th century was used as a tool by bourgeois theoreticians in their attack on political forms that prevented the free accumulation of private property. In the last two decades, civil society has come to mean the multiple and various reform organizations of the global capitalist class. In both these periods the concept of civil society has served the same purpose: opposition to all political forms that prevent the free accumulation of private property. Is it a wonder then that the WSF, which is meant as a meeting ground for members of civil society (and not the ‘left’, as some would have us believe), would exclude political parties, national liberation movements, and communists? It is no secret that the free accumulation of private property was challenged mainly by political parties of national liberation and communism.

Is it not clear then that the WSF is built to ensure the further consolidation of civil society over movements of workers and peasants? If this nexus between such movements and civil society is arguably the best defence of an ailing system (i.e. capitalism) to prevent the formation and development of “another world”, then the WSF, far from ensuring the possibility of another world, ensures that another world remains as remote a prospect as possible. The entire plethora of plans to “democratize” the WTO, IMF, WB and MNCs, to “help, advise and pressure governments to change WTO policies” are merely pious wishes if they are not understood as part of a process for the working class to take state power. Workers power expressed through the historically transitional instrument of a workers state is the prerequisite for a world free from war, militarization, exploitation and oppression.

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