Killing Of Two Truck Drivers In Police Firing In Odisha: A Report
03 July, 2013
A preliminary report by PUCL on Jurabaga Police firing in Jharsuguda District, Odisha
The incident of a police firing upon the striking truck drivers, at the campsite of ‘RCP’ near Jurabaga village in Lakhanpur Block of Jharsuguda district, in which two people were killed and several others were seriously injured, was reported in local media. The incident took place on June 8, 2013. It was also reported that the drivers had been asked to leave the campsite and section 144 was inposed in the area. After the incident, some local activists approached the People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) and requested to visit the area for a fact finding. Accordingly, a team of PUCL members visited the area on 11th June. The team visited the campsite of the coal transport agencies where the firing took place, spoke to the employees present there, visited the nearby village and met some drivers, spoke to the CGM of the Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd., visited the Belpahad police station and met the district Superintendent of Police, Jharsuguda. The following is a preliminary report on the team’s findings.
In the mining areas of Jharsuguda thousands of people are employed in various categories of mining activities. Transporting coals from the mining areas to various points for onward transportaion by rail or to various plant sites is one such activity in which thousands of drivers and helpers are being employed. However, a large number of these wokers are not organised into unions. This gives an undue advantage to the employers to deny the workers their legitimate rights such as minimum wage and other benefits that the labour laws of the country require. In the instant case, the truck drivers employed by four coal transport agencies were demanding enhanced minimum wage rates, as fixed by the Coal India, a public sector undertaking. Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd. (MCL) is an unit of Coal India operating in Odisha which has given the coal transport contracts to those transport agencies. The drivers were also demanding for an eight hours work-day instead of a twelve hours one, as, reportedly, was the practice.
About the transport agencies – the employers of the striking drivers
The campsite where the firing took place is located near village Jurabaga. The local media – both vernacular and the Engish newspapers – had reported that the striking drivers were working for one Renuka Coal Carriers Private Ltd. (RCP). However, after reaching the campsite and talking to the employees present there the fact-finding team came to know that no agency by the name of RCP exists anymore. The interestingly, the only signboard at the campsite is that of a three letter word i.e. ‘RCP’ inscribed on a cement pillar at the gate. The team was told that the campsite belonged to four agencies i.e., Mohan coal transport agencies, Cyrus coal transport agencies, Khusi transport agencies and Satish coal transport agencies. About 30 employees were present at the camp but none of them was a driver. The drivers had been asked to leave the campsite and go back to their repective villages and return to work only after a week. The team wanted to know the names and addresses of the owners/managers of the transport agencies but not a single name was disclosed to the team. The team wanted to know who was in charge of the camp but nobody seemed to be identified as ‘in charge’. Finally, one R.S.Wahal, who said he was a field supervisor, agreed to talk to the team but he also said that he was not present on the day of the firing incident so he wouldn’t say anything about the firing. Regarding some general information that the team wanted to know, he said that the all information is there in the office but he won’t be able to give as the officials were not present. Regarding the two people killed in the firing he at first denied that they were employees of the transport agencies. “They might be outsiders”, he said. When asked, why would outsiders join the striking drivers, he said, “there were many onlookers”. But later, he contradicted and said that the agencies have arranged for the bodies of these two persons to be sent to their villages. While he was denying that the two were their employees, some of the employees standing by said that one of the two was employed by the ‘Khusi’ agency, the other they were not sure. When asked how many drivers were employed by each of these agencies, he was evasive and said that “the numbers would be less than 400 as each agencies employs fewer than 100 drivers”. When asked from which areas the drivers came from he said that about 75% of them are from Odisha and the rest would be from Jharkhand. This was later contradicted by the drivers whom the team met outside the campsite.
Issues raised by the Drivers:
Since most of the drivers had left the campsite after the incident, the team could locate only a few drivers who were residing in a nearby village. The drivers were afraid of being seen talking to anyone as they feared that if the agencies came to know of this they would lose their jobs. Nevertheless, they did talk to the team about their general conditions and the incident of firing. The following is the summary of what they had to say:
The four coal transport agencies employ about 1500 drivers. About 75% of these drivers come from Jharkhand, about 15% from Bihar and Bengal and only about 10% are from Odisha. They work in 12 hours shifts – one shift is from 6 AM to 6 PM and the other shift is from 6 PM to 6 AM, with breaks for breakfast, tea, lunch and dinner. In February/March 2013 the drivers came to know that the MCL (the principal employer) had enhanced the minimum wage rates from January’ 13. Since then they have been asking for the enhanced wage rates but the transport agencies continued to pay at the old rates. Every time the drivers would ask for the new enhanced rates, the agencies would assure them that it would be given the next time. And it continued like this. So it was in June that the drivers resorted to striking work and organised gate demonstrations.
On the day of the incident, the drivers had taken out a rally covering two other campsites of the same agencies, namely, ITPL and Samleswari. Then they sat on a dharna in front of the gate. Their demand was to get the enhanced wage rate as notified by the MCL. The dharna was peaceful and an understanding was reached between the agencies and the drivers by evening. After the negotiation was over, two of the striking drivers, who had got drunk, were shouting using filthy language against the transport agencies. At this, the police present there, took the two drivers away to somewhere inside the camp. There are reports that they were being beaten up. Seeing this, the protesting drivers demanded that the two drivers be released immediately. The police and the transport agencies people didn’t listen to them. When the police took away the two drunken drivers, one of the supervisory level employees of the transport agencies, named Shri S.K.Mandal was present. The drivers allege that in the past some of the drivers had some problems with him and both sides had grudges against each other. And seeing Shri Mandal with the police who took away the two drivers, infuriated the protesters and they insisted that the two drivers be released forthwith. When the police and the authorities didn’t respond, this further provoked the protesting drivers, and some of them threatened that if they don’t return the two drivers they would drive the trucks inside the camp. The police reportedly took the two drivers to an adjacent room and locked themselves in alongwith the drivers. And without any announcement or warning or blank firing, started firing at the protesting drivers through the window of the room. Two drivers died on the spot and ten suffered serious bullet injuries.
On the day after the firing incident, the agencies and the district administration asked the drivers to leave the campsite and go back to their respective villages and return to work after a week. But the drivers protested again as they were not given their salary and they didn’t have money with them to travel. They also demanded compensation for the two drivers killed by the police. At this, the administration asked the agencies to give Rs.3000/- each to the drivers and section 144 was imposed in the area. After this the drivers left the campsite and went back home. The drivers who spoke to the team feared that many of the drivers might not come back to work as there are cases filed against them and if they come back the agencies would get them arrested.
The fact finding team also learnt from the drivers that apart from the enhanced wage rates, the drivers are not covered under Employees Provident Fund, which is also a part of the agreement between the MCL and the coal transport agencies.
Role of the police:
At the campsite the team observed that one platoon of police force was posted. But the policemen present there told that none of them was present when the firing incident took place. They said that all of them had been posted there after the incident. The team visited the police station at Belpahad. The IIC was not available there but the team learnt that two cases have been registered against the striking drivers and 10 of them have been arrested. One case is registered against 500 drivers under section 147/148/294/223/427 and 149 of the IPC. The other case is registered under section 147/148/294/323/353/332/424/427/442/307 and 149 against the 10 drivers who have been arrested. The team met with the SP of Jharsuguda but he too refused to comment on the incident saying that he was on leave on the day of the incident and the SP Sambalpur was in charge. He said that the SP Sambalpur and the District Collector of Jharsuguda had made an inquiry and submitted their report to the government but he himself had not seen the report yet.
Although the SP Jharsuguda refused to speak on the incident, he admitted that the demonstration by the truck drivers was peaceful which is why there were only 7/8 policemen and they were not anticipating any mob behavior. But what led to ‘mob behavior’ that prompted the police to fire at people, he refused to comment.
Role of the Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd.
The MCL is a public sector undertaking operating in Jharsuguda district. It outsources a number of its operations in the mining areas through private contractors. Through public tenders the MCL gives contracts to a number of private agencies. The fact finding team met the CGM of MCL Shri B.N.Jha at its Belpahad office. According to Shri Jha the MCL while issuing tenders for various contracts ensures that the provisions of existing labour laws are incorporated and any violation of these laws are treated seriously. Thus, the contractors are legally bound to provide minimum wages and other entitlements as prescribed in the laws. When the team asked specifically about his comments on the issues of striking drivers and the non-payment of enhanced minimum wages and other benefits to the workers, he seemed completely indifferent, saying, “we have made the provisions and it is the agencies who are responsible for implementing it”. When asked, whether the MCL has a mechanism to ensure that the provisions in the contract regarding labour laws are actually being implemented Shri Jha said “yes, we have the mechanism. Our people supervise it at the worksites”. Then the team asked, “Why is that the drivers employed by the concerned four transport companies not getting the enhanced minimum wage and other benefits like the profident funds?”. His reply was, “We have notified the enhanced minimum wage fixed by the coal India. It is for the agencies to claim this enhanced rates from the MCL.” It was clear to the team that Shri Jha was not taking any responsibility for what was going on between the coal transport agencies and the drivers employed by them. In fact, the team observed that his main concern was to ensure that coal transport to the concerned power plants (which was disrupted because of the drivers strike, the police firing and subsequent decision of the agencies/administration to send the drivers back home for a week) was resumed as soon as possible. He showed no concern for the two drivers who had died in police firing. When the team asked if the MCL was going to pay any compensation for these drivers he said that the transport agencies would take care of it.
Role of the Labour Department:
The fact finding team could not meet the District labour officer to ascertain the department’s response to the specific case of the drivers’ issue employed by the four coal transport agencies under discussion as well as to the general concerns of the labourers in the mining areas of Jharsuguda. However, from the interactions the team had with some of the drivers, it appears that the labour department has not played any role in addressing the issues of the drivers. The team is of the opinion that had the department played any role in ensuring minimum wages and other entitlements to the drivers the situation wouldn’t have come to such stage where two people lost their lives. It is clear that in the absence of any intervention from the labour department the private agencies are taking advantage of the situation and exploiting the workers by denying them their due wages and other entitlements.
The police firing of 8th June upon the striking drivers is an indication of the general status of workers, largely un-organised, employed by private contractors who have been openly violating the existing labour laws. In the instant case, although the MCL had notified about the increased wage rate of coal India from January 2013, the coal transport agencies did not pay this enhanced wage to its workers till June. And no action was taken by any authorities – either by the MCL or the district labour office. Even after the incident of firing, neither the MCL authorities nor the labour department has shown any serious concern to address the wage and other issues raised by the drivers. And the irony is that it is the striking drivers, who have been denied of their dues, who got killed and injured, now have to face the police cases lodged against them. The implications of these cases against the 500 ‘unnamed’ drivers means if any driver raise his voice at any time against any injustice by his employer, he can be arrested and sent to jail. And finally, ‘the power of the gun’ seems to be the response to any genuine issue raised by the workers. Or else, what was the need for a police firing when the day long demonstration was peaceful and when an agreement was already reached between the drivers and the coal transport agencies?
1. An independent inquiry be conducted into the incident of police firing and the guilty be prosecuted.
2. The two drivers killed in the firing be adequately compensated and one person from each of the aggrieved families be given a job.
3. The drivers, who have left the area, must be brought back and employed in the respective agencies. Their dues must be paid and police cases against them be withdrawn.
4. The MCL needs to be made accountable for violation of labour laws by private contractors who get contracts from it.
5. The state government needs to take a serious look at the conditions of un-organised workers working under private agencies in the mining and industrial areas of Jharsuguda as well as in other districts in the state. The labour department must play its role in ensuring that workers’ interests are being protected and they are not subjected to exploitation by contractors.
(Fact finding team members: Pramodini Pradhan, Muktakantha Pradhan, Saroj Mohanty, Shambu Mishra, Ananta Panda and Basudev Bhoi – all PUCL Members)
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