“Why are our children condemned to be labourers too?”
“When we join the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) as labourers, it is understood that our children will do the same because no educational facilities are provided for them. We eat dust, burn in the sun, brave the rain and sleet; don’t we deserve any development?” demanded to know Tumge Ete, General Secretary BRO Labourers Union from West Siang district in Arunachal Pradesh.
(Tumge Ete, General Secretary, BRO-LU)
The importance of the BRO labourers can hardly be underestimated both from the point of view of regional social and economic connectivity, as well as security. And neither can the extremely challenging conditions of work in the oxygen-starved heights of the mighty Himalayas. At least 12 labourers die due to accidents every year while building roads in dangerous territories.
“When roads are good we are not remembered, but when they are bad we are held responsible, yet no importance is given to the hard nature of our job?” Ete continues.
(Dorjee Khantu Sengey, working for 21 years with BRO)
Think avalanches, landslides, snow blocked roads, and you will see BRO labourers toiling away to clear the clogged ways. There are about 2, 00, 000 (2 lakh) BRO labourers employed across the country with a whopping 50,000 from the Northeast alone, and half of them are women, who are given no maternity benefits, with many of them re-joining work within 15 days of delivery! Another aspect the Union has been seeking speedy and efficient redressal for is the disposal of their dead, who are often not treated with dignity, being casually disposed of as unclaimed.
BRO labourers are employed on a six-monthly basis and then given a day’s break to avoid regularisation of services! This leaves them with the status of casual labourers and since 1960 when the BRO was established there has been no advancement towards regularisation of their jobs, benefits or social security. One holiday after six days of full labour is granted with just 3 national holidays recognised in a year. Additionally, their services can be terminated any time! Another grouse they have is of their retirement age fixed at 50 years. “Why?” they ask, “If we can work till 58 – 60 years like in most others sectors.”
Having registered their Union in 2012, they have been running from pillar to post trying to get their demands heard on deaf ears so far. Finally, more than 100 of them have descended on Delhi to observe a 48-hour hunger strike in a bid to secure attention - of the Prime Minister himself since he is the Chairman of the BRO Board with the Minister of Defence being Deputy Chairman. The BRO was brought under the Defence Ministry rather than the Roads & Highways given its work in security sensitive areas.
Ete emphasises, “We are not for or against any political party, they are all the same for us, none of them have done anything for us since 1960. We just request for our rights and respect that is due to us.”
Any political affiliation in Arunachal Pradesh in any case would be confusing considering the Chief Minister of the state, Pema Khandu, has already changed his party support twice since assuming office in 2016 - from the Congress to the Peoples Party of Arunachal to the BJP!