The morning of December 9 came as a huge shock to Kolkata and the entire country. More than 90 lives – including old-age patients in various stages of treatment and recovery – were lost in a fatal disaster in the AMRI hospital in Dhakuria in south Kolkata on that fateful morning. The disaster was triggered by a major fire that broke out in the basement of the super-speciality hospital in the pre-dawn hours, but it was the toxic fume engulfing the multi-storey building which claimed most of the lives. Every report emanating from the site of the disaster since then has compounded that shock and turned it into utter shame and indignation. The disaster can only be called a huge corporate crime with the state being equally complicit.
Consider these facts. The fire broke out at around 3 AM, but it took the hospital authorities nearly two hours to inform the fire-brigade. The reason behind this inexplicable delay lies apparently in another case of fire which had broken out in the basement of the same building two months ago on October 8 – the security guard who had then promptly informed the fire-station had incurred the wrath of the hospital administration and was suspended for two weeks. So this time round the staff apparently tried to douse the fire themselves before informing the fire-brigade. Valuable time had already been lost and the fire-brigade found itself ill-equipped when it finally reached the spot after negotiating the narrow and overcrowded approach roads in this busy neighbourhood of the city.
The fire-alarm system of the hospital did not work as it was apparently disabled by smokers! It now also turns out that the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals and Healthcare Providers (NABH), the apex agency that grants accreditation for hospitals, had refused to renew the hospital's accreditation because the hospital did not conform to expected safety standards and fire-fighting norms. The basement of the hospital had been turned into a veritable dumping place for all kinds of inflammable materials and radiotherapy instruments. Reports have it that the hospital had been warned by the fire-fighting department during an inspection in the month of July and the hospital authorities had promised to clear the basement in two months. There was never a follow-up to check if the 'promise' had been kept. According to the NABH CEO, the hospital also did not have the required safety certification from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board for two new machines it had recently procured for its radiology unit.
Having systematically violated all relevant rules and standards, the AMRI management also exhibited a flagrant disregard for basic human values even in the face of the macabre dance of death. The local people who were the first to rush to the spot and extend a helping hand risking their own lives were not allowed in. Family members of patients who desperately tried to rescue their dear ones were stopped and asked to first clear all dues! While some members of the AMRI staff also died in the tragedy, most top members of the AMRI management were conspicuously absent from the scene, issuing empty condolence statements and trying to silence the angry people by announcing some token compensation for the dead.
How did an irresponsible entity like AMRI that had Advanced Medical Research as a part of its name (probably with a view to claiming more benefits and concessions from the state) but epitomized nothing but corporate greed and arrogance come to be treated as a 'premier super-speciality healthcare provider'? Indeed, the rise and expansion of AMRI since the middle of 1990s symbolized the changing complexion of the healthcare 'industry' in the era of neo-liberalism – where healthcare became an expensive consumer product traded in a thoroughly corporatized and commercialized environment. The site where AMRI made super-profit by fleecing patients earlier housed a state-run polyclinic where the common people could expect quality medicare at affordable rates. In the 1990s, the state-run polyclinic gave way to AMRI – a public-private partnership project in which the state government initially held 51% share.
Over the years, the share of the state came down progressively to less than 2%. Meanwhile the head of one of the private groups owning and controlling the hospital, Mr. Shravan Todi grew very close to the CPI(M) leadership and the Left Front government, even becoming a formal member of the CPI(M), and AMRI grew into a hospital chain with the state government providing heavily subsidized plots in prime locations. The AMRI is also co-owned by the Emami group of the Goenkas – also known to be close to the (CPIM). The bonhomie between the likes of Shravan Todi and the CPI(M) was of course nothing exceptional – it was of a piece with the kind of cosy ties that had evolved between the CPI(M) leadership and business establishments in different sectors, be it the jute and hosiery barons, private players in the power sector like the Goenkas or tycoons like the Tatas, Ambanis or the infamous Salim group of Indonesia.
The managers of the ruling TMC dispensation and the dominant media in West Bengal today are pointing fingers at the CPI(M) leadership for the growth of the greedy corporate culture epitomized by the AMRI. But we remember it very well that before Singur and Nandigram, the same media had been busy lauding the CPI(M) rulers for their pro-business attitude, marketing 'brand Buddha' as the most wonderful communist model in India! Also, the TMC-led Kolkata Corporation and fire service too can hardly wash their hands off their share of responsibility for the tragedy. And we are also acutely aware of the fact that under neo-liberalism all shades of governments in India have been busy promoting corporatization and commercialization in every sector of the economy and public service. The AMRIs are the norm in this policy environment. It is another matter that when things go horribly wrong, the rulers desperately seek to disown such erstwhile 'success stories' and treat them as villainous aberrations!
For the people of Kolkata and the whole of India, the lessons of the AMRI disaster are pretty straightforward. If we want to avoid a second disaster, we must free healthcare services from the killer fumes of corporate greed. The right to health and education must be upheld as fundamental rights of the people and the business-politics nexus must not be allowed to play with these rights.
Convention at Trivandrum Demanding Moratorium on Death Penalty
A one-day convention was organized by a group of human rights activists at Trivandrum on 28th November 2011 to demand moratorium on judicial executions. It was an unequivocal condemnation by progressive voices against continuation of capital punishment. The convention was preceded by a demonstration and a rally to the state secretariat.
The convention was inaugurated by distinguished writer P Zachariah while participants were welcomed by Gireesh Kumar on behalf of the organizing committee. The convention was addressed by long list of speakers including BRP Bhaskar, a veteran journalist, Dr N A Karim , former Vice Chancellor of Kerala University, Dileepraj an activist writer, Dr K K Rajaram of Kerala Government Medical Officers Association (KGMOA), R P Amudan, documentary film maker, Dr K K Chandran, Advocate P A Pauran, President, PUCL, Kerala , K K Shahina, journalist, K Ramachandran, a noted environmental activist, H S Suraj of Students Against Death Penalty and C Vasukkuttan of Dalit Social Forum.
Comrade Venugopalan, State Leading Team member of CPI(ML) also addressed the gathering along with other Left party leaders MN Ravunni of 'Porattam' and P N Provint, State Secretary of CPI(ML) (KNR Group).
Com. Venugopalan expressed solidarity with the cause and demanded immediate repeal of death sentences against the three persons under death row in the Rajiv Gandhi Assassination case and in cases like that of Afsal Guru where death sentences are being awarded even without sufficient evidence to prove the guilt.
'Thudarum Neethikkolaigal '(The Continuing Judicial Executions), a latest documentary film was also screened.
Seminar at Trivandrum on
"Lessons of October Revolution to the Indian Working Class"
Purogamana Charcha Vedi (Progressive Debating Forum), a small platform of activists committed to debating the issues of class struggle and taking forward progressive ideas to the people, organized a seminar on November 7th at Trivandrum marking the 94th anniversary of the October revolution.
The topic of discussion, "Lessons of October Revolution to the Indian Working Class" was initiated by Dr NA Karim, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Kerala. Comrades Shaji of Purogamana Charcha Vedi, Susheelan P and Prof M K Shiva Prasad also addressed the gathering along with many others.
Dr Karim pointed out that the present crisis of global capitalism is not only much bigger than that of the great depression, it has also acquired features of cronyism and has transformed into some sort of casino capitalism that has expanded to a global scale.
KM Venugopalan of the CPI(ML) Kerala State Leading Team emphasized on the role of working class in the struggle against opportunism in the Left movement as a major lesson. He also elaborated on the opportunist slogan of 'defend the fatherland' in the context of Second World War that led the opportunist Left to rally behind the bourgeoisie. He contrasted it with Lenin's revolutionary vision that was vindicated by the victory of Bolsheviks in October revolution, which skillfully utilized the imperialist crisis in the interests of the working class. He also called upon all oppressed people across the globe to unite to fight globalization, liberalisation and corporatization in the present context.
Women's March and AIPWA NC Meet in Siwan
The National Council of AIPWA met at Siwan for a 2-day meeting on December 10-11. Prior to the meeting, women held a march through Siwan town, raising slogans against violence on women and demanding women's equality, dignity, and freedom. The procession, led by the national council leaders from various states, marched through the busy main streets of the town, almost bringing traffic to a standstill, and distributed leaflets among the public. Women raised slogans against the UPA Government at the Centre for betraying its commitment to passing the 33% reservation Bill. They also raised slogans against Nitish Kumar's false claims of 'empowering' women in Bihar – which were belied by the increasing incidence of barbaric feudal and communal violence, and state repression on women in the NDA-ruled state.
The procession culminated at Comrade Chandrashekhar's statue, where the national leaders from various states offered floral tribute. A mass meeting was held at the spot, addressed by AIPWA General Secretary Meena Tiwari, Bihar State Secretary Shashi Yadav, National Secretary Kavita Krishnan, AIPWA leader from Andhra Pradesh, Nagamani, Bhadravati from Assam, and Indrani from Bengal. A large number of people gathered to listen to the meeting, and were especially enthusiastic about the speeches from women leaders from other states.
The National Council meeting condemned the UPA Government for its adamant refusal to scrap the notorious AFSPA in spite of the numerous acts of violence against women by armed forces, and saluted the ongoing hunger strike by Irom Sharmila against AFSPA, that has lasted 11 years. The meeting condemned the disappearance and suspected killing of nurse Bhanwari Devi of Rajasthan, in which senior state leaders of the Congress party including a former Minister are said to be implicated; the killing of a nun Valsa John at the behest of coal mafia in Jharkhand; the gang rape of a woman by joint forces in Bengal; and the custodial sexual violence inflicted by the Chhattisgarh police on an adivasi woman schoolteacher Soni Sori; the slapping of a woman teacher by a sarpanch and lathicharge on teachers protesting this incident in Punjab; and feudal assaults and increasing violence on women in Nitish's Bihar. The meeting demanded speedy punishment for the Gujarat police and government officials responsible for the custodial killing of Ishrat Jehan. The meeting also condemned the UPA Government's plans to introduce 51% FDI in retail, a move that will affect the livelihood of millions of small retailers, a large section of whom are women eking out survival by running a shop or street vending.
The meeting made detailed plans and preparations for the forthcoming 6th National Conference of AIPWA to be held at Vijaywada on 8-9 February. The Conference will be held with the central slogan - "We'll not tolerate violence, rape, insult – We'll fight and win freedom, employment, dignity!"
Women Domestic Workers' Union Conference at Khoda
The first conference of the Khoda (Ghaziabad) unit of the Gharelu Mahila Kamgar Union was held on 13 November at Delhi. A large number of women domestic workers enthusiastically participated in the conference. Most of these women are migrants from Bengal, who have settled for long in and around Delhi-NCR.
Addressing the conference, Sanwli Sarkar from Noida said that, "We are called 'kaamwali' but are still not recognized as workers. We are forced to pay bribes to the police or subjected to harassment."
Saroj Bala added, "We too want to educate our children, we want them to have jobs. But because we're migrants, we're denied ration cards and identity cards, and our children are denied admission in schools as a result."
Tanuja said, "We are demanding that we be recognized as human beings and equals. Our employers rarely pay us on time. Though many of us have been here for 20 years, we are not valued or respected because we are migrants. Middlemen cheat us, taking money in return for promises of getting us ration and id cards. We're badly hit by price rise, yet the Government tells us we're rich if we spend more than Rs 32 a day! Even our daily travel expenses by rickshaw cost up to Rs 40! We're called 'pardesi'(foreigners/outsiders), and considered vulnerable because we're migrants. We must unite if we're to become a force and win the respect and rights that are due to us. That's why we're determined to strengthen our union."
Meera said, "Our wages are often cut on the pretext that we have left jobs undone or taken leave. We are often asked to do work beyond the fixed work. Our wages do not match our labour. I feel we're weaker because we're migrants. We need a law to ensure that wages are fixed, regular and adequate."
Other women workers who spoke at the conference included Kamlesh, Lutfa Bibi, Pooja, and Chandmoni.
Avalokita, AISA activist from Jamia Millia Islamia, helped the women workers in conducting the conference. Kavita Krishnan, National Secretary of AIPWA, addressed the Conference, saying that domestic workers' struggle went beyond the everyday tussles with employers. It was a struggle with the Government to ensure their recognition as workers, and a guarantee of their rights. They not only faced the irregularities that other unorganized sector workers faced; they also faced sexual harassment at the workplace, and are often denied basic dignity. They clean the homes of the well-off – yet they are branded as 'dirty' and prevented from using toilets and lifts! She said that domestic workers needed to organize as workers and as women to struggle for their rights, and the union's first conference was an encouraging step in this direction.
VKS Gautam, Delhi State President of AICCTU, also addressed the Conference, saying several lakhs of women domestic workers worked in the Delhi-NCR region, with no labour laws to protect them, and no social security or dignity of labour.
Aslam, State Committee member of CPI(ML), called upon the domestic workers to unite with other sections of the working class, to resist the anti-worker, anti-people policies of governments, be it the Mayawati Government in UP or the Congress Government at the Centre and in Delhi.
Sanjay Sharma, Delhi State Secretary of CPI(ML), reminded the women workers that the International Labour Conference of ILO at its 100th session, adopted a Convention and a Recommendation for domestic workers, defining International Labour Standards to domestic workers around the world for decent working conditions including duty hours, weekly rest for 24 hours, leaves, timely payment, right to associations and collective bargaining like other industrial workers. The government of India too voted for the Convention, though reluctantly. Now, the Government has no intention of abiding by its commitment to this international norm, but the domestic workers must intensify their struggle and compel the Government to do so. The Gharelu Mahila Kamgar Union must increase its strength in the Delhi-NCR region, confronting the governments headed by Mayawati, Shiela Dixit as well as Manmohan Singh.
The Conference elected a 15-member committee to lead the Khoda unit of the Union, with Sangeeta as Secretary and Tanuja as President, Meera as Vice President and Chandmoni as Treasurer. The Conference concluded with rousing slogans by the women workers.
Comrade R P Dimri
Comrade R P Dimri passed away on 4 December 2011, after a brief bout with cancer of the urinary bladder. He was around 66, and is survived by his wife and two sons.
Comrade Dimri was one of the few comrades in Delhi who joined the CPI(ML) early in its underground days. His home provided one of the main shelters for party activists and leaders in Delhi. Many comrades, including Comrades Vinod Mishra, Nagbhbushan Patnaik and Ram Naresh Ram, took shelter at his home when in Delhi for medical treatment. He took an active role in organizing party education in Delhi.
He was a delegate to four party state conferences of Delhi, and also remained a state committee member for some period. He was secretary of school teachers' party branch. Hard working and ever-smiling, Comrade R P Dimri, even in his last days, always felt very inspired by the spirit of the Naxalbari movement, and by news of mass militant struggles.
Red Salute, Comrade R P Dimri!
Comrade Lalan Kumar
Comrade Lalan Kumar of Begusarai passed away untimely on 9 November 2011 at the age of 50, due to kidney failure, after a life-and-death struggle for the past year.
Comrade Lalan joined the party in 1983 and took membership in 1984. He was active in IPF, and in cultural activism that attracted urban youth to the party. He also earned the respect of intellectuals with his bold and persuasive participation in debates.
Just before his illness, he had helped to organize newspaper hawkers and led a successful struggle of the hawkers against the local agent. The Hawkers' Association, Begusarai, is still active.
The party flag at the Begusarai flew at half mast in tribute to the departed comrade. Party leaders and activists as well as masses gathered to bid final farewell to Comrade Lalan.
Red Salute to Comrade Lalan Kumar!
Comrade Rameshwar Singh
The sudden demise of Comrade Rameshwar Singh, employees' leader of Bihar, on 7 December 2011 from a haemorrhage has come as a sudden shock for the entire party as well as his family.
Comrade Rameshwar Singh was born on 11 January 1954 in Bahera village of Kamur district (Kudra thana). Active in the CPIM, he joined the CPI(ML) in 1988 along with a group of activists.
He was the State Secretary of the Bihar State Non-Gazetted Employees' Federation (Gope faction), and the General Secretary of his departmental union, the Bihar Cooperative Extension Officers' Association. He was also honorary President of the Bihar ASHA Workers' Association, and played an invaluable role in organising the struggle of woman ASHA workers. At the recently held National Conference of the AICCTU in Bhilai, he was elected a National Council member. He was also a member of the Patna Town Committee of the party.
His loss is very hard to reconcile to, and his example with continue to inspire us in the days to come.
Red Salute to Comrade Rameshwar Singh!