Fearing loss of livelihood, labour union workers in Hanumangarh district of Rajasthan have been demanding that the government reverse its decision to rent out warehouses to a private company
Hanumangarh: “This is just the beginning. Gradually, the government will give away all the godowns to private companies. Where will the farmers go then? What will happen to the workers? When a worker dies, the union ensures that his son or any other dependent is employed in his place. But if a private company takes over the entire warehouse, these workers will be fired.”
These were some concerns raised by Rameshwar Verma, state vice-president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), in response to the recent leasing of government warehouses to an Indian multinational conglomerate in Rajasthan's Hanumangarh district. Verma also pointed out that these warehouses, meant for storing agricultural commodities like fertilisers, seeds, and the like, have been providing employment to union workers for decades.
The story so far
The Central Warehousing Corporation (CWC) in Hanumangarh has two warehouses, with nine godowns each. Problems arose when the CWC leased two godowns to the private company in Warehouse 2 for five years. Apprehensive about the future of their employment, angered workers began an indefinite protest in front of the warehouse on October 20, 2021. They even staged a demonstration in front of the district collectorate office.
After a meeting of the Central Warehouse Mazdoor Union, union representatives submitted a memorandum to warehouse officials demanding the withdrawal of the lease, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. To further drive home the point, CITU organised protests at district headquarters across Rajasthan on December 15, 2021.
CITU state president Ravindra Shukla, who attended the workers’ meeting in Hanumangarh, told 101Reporters that the union protested against warehouses being given to the private company in 31 out of 33 district headquarters of Rajasthan and submitted a memorandum to the administration appealing against the decision.
“This is a big issue for us. Today, the employment of labourers in Hanumangarh is being threatened, and in the near future, they can do this across Rajasthan," he said. "If all the godowns are given to the private company, where will the farmers store their wheat, and who will buy their crop in the upcoming season? Where will small traders store their commodities now? We will continue our agitation [till our demands are met].”
Surplus wheat, but godowns empty
Located near the Punjab border, Hanumangarh district produces a surplus of wheat during harvest season, and a large quantity of this is not procured. In the 2020 financial year, around 110 lakh metric tons (LMT) of wheat was produced in Rajasthan, whereas the total procurement for 2020-21 — according to the Food Corporation of India (FCI) website — was 16.29 LMT through the FCI and 5.96 LMT through the state agency. A grand total of only 22.25 LMT. The warehouses remain empty as the government has not procured paddy in the past few years.
The widespread fear among the workers is based on mistrust of the administration and the government’s decision to lease out warehouse spaces to private companies instead of procuring and storing large quantities of wheat in Hanumangarh. As a result, workers are nervous about losing their source of livelihood permanently.
“I have been working here for 12 years, and I earn Rs 400 to Rs 500 a day. This is how my wife, children and parents survive. If the private company takes over the entire warehouse, I and rest of the workers will become unemployed,” said warehouse worker Aamir Khan.
Speaking to 101Reporters, Central Warehouse Labour Union President Shiv Kumar Mandal shared that two regional CWC officials from Jaipur last reached out to union leaders on February 22, 2022.
“They assured us that leasing out the warehouse would not impact the procurement of food grains as storage for surplus produce was available. They also assured us that labourers would not lose their livelihood and urged the protestors to end the agitation,” Mandal said.
CITU state president Ravindra Shukla addressing agitating labourers in Hanumangarh (Photo Credits - Midha Studio)
However, it will take more than just assurances to placate the workers, who continue to work at the warehouses while simultaneously protesting.
“We had clearly stated at the meeting that the protest would continue until the warehouse is acquired back from the private company," Mandal added. "The officials from Jaipur suggested further talks in the presence of the district collector, but no date has been specified for the dialogue yet. The regional CWC officers had reached out to us twice earlier, but no fruitful results came out of those conversations either.”
The flip side
In the past, as well, FCI warehouses have been leased out to private players to increase revenue. Moreover, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman recently announced the Centre’s National Monetisation Policy, which aims to monetise unused urban warehouse assets through private e-commerce players.
Furthermore, the CWC said that the directive to lease warehouses to private firms is sent directly from its headquarters in New Delhi, and that they are merely carrying out orders at the state level. The CWC added that the warehouses are allotted on the basis of bids by private players.
“The order came to us, and we handed over the godown to the representative of the private company. These warehouses are not meant only for agricultural commodities or agricultural inputs. Except for items covered under the Explosives Act and the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, they can be used to store anything — from needles and yarn to spare parts. Also, if a godown is vacant, it can be rented by anyone, including private companies,” explained AK Ambesta, a CWC manager.
On the contrary, labour leaders allege that the CWC does not have enough godowns and is renting private warehouses all over the country, whereas in Hanumangarh, it is leasing out its godowns.
“In Hanumangarh, around 15 lakh bags of wheat purchased by the FCI last year were stored in rented godowns. Why were these bags not kept in the empty godowns that were leased to the private company?” questioned Sher Singh Shakya, local president of the CITU.
Since wheat meant for the public distribution system is also stored in these godowns, there is growing concern that the poor will suffer as a result.
Meanwhile, the nearly five-month-long stalemate continues, with the protesting workers blocking the goods of the private company from being transported out of the godowns and the CWC not arriving at a concrete solution.
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