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Long march for Kolkata activist towards workers’ rights

LIVES OF OTHERS: From the start, Naba Dutta was engaged with the lives of jute mill workers in Bengal and of other workers from closed and sick industries

Chandrima S. Bhattacharya | Published 01.11.21, 07:49 AM
Naba Dutta at Captain Bheri off the EM Bypass.

Naba Dutta at Captain Bheri off the EM Bypass.

Subhendu Chaki

The pandemic has restricted Naba Dutta a bit. A man of inexhaustible energy, the redoubtable workers’ rights activist, who in ordinary times travels restlessly across Bengal, or between meetings, is meeting us at the documentation centre of Nagarik Mancha. The social-action group founded by him with others three decades earlier in the city supports industry, labour and environment rights.

The centre, named after Sasipada Bandyopadhyay, labour welfare and women’s rights activist, and located at Chingrighata, is a small room divided into two. It houses a collection of research and books on labour, links to several of which are available on the Nagarik Mancha website. Dutta, 66, is reticent about himself and his large, various life. Instead in his impassioned but clear and precise tone he speaks about a long march of events that seem to sum up the last decades of Bengal history. One sees him, too, marching, doggedly, humbly, through the years, doing his bit to change the course of some events, working alongside others.


From the start, Dutta was engaged with the lives of jute mill workers in Bengal and of other workers from closed and sick industries. It was the result of growing up in Beliaghata in the city in the 60s.

Beleghata had been a vortex of political crosscurrents for long. The communal riots that had compelled Gandhiji to spend the first Independence Day here continued into the 60s. “Many Muslims lived in the large slum areas and Hindu refugees from across the border had settled here. The area was home to several factories — jute mills, engineering, leather, rubber and chemical factories lined the two sides of the canal,” says Dutta.

The locality became a hub of Left political parties. “The presence of the factory workers introduced the dimension of “class struggle”, helping Leftist ideology to flourish,” says Dutta. An entire line-up of Left leaders emerged from Beleghata. In the middle-class neighbourhood of Bangalpara, where Dutta lived, every second household was committed to Left parties. The air was charged. The politics was supported by a vibrant cultural environment: Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay, Anil Acharya, Sovan Som and Debabrata Mukhopadhyay lived there. Dutta felt the power of theatre as a medium of social change: his association with Bibhas Chakraborty has been long. Studying at Gurudas College in Beleghata, Dutta had also begun his own political education, reading extensively. “But I chose no political ideology,” he says. Certainly not a party.

Yet his work is nothing if not political. It is rooted in human rights.

From the 70s, factories were closing down. The two sides of the Beleghata canal were changing. The plight of the workers moved Dutta deeply: it would become his life’s work. When Nagarik Mancha, of which Dutta is general-secretary and with which his life is synonymous, was founded in 1989, it was introduced as a “support and solidarity group for closed and sick industry workers”. Only later in 1992 the platform took up environmental concerns.

For Dutta labour rights are not only about wages. “It is not only a matter for trade unions, but also of human rights,” he says, which includes workers’ health concerns, especially occupational diseases. He had worked with apolitical trade unions, too, but he felt the need to work from outside them, from a wider social perspective.

He worked with the human rights group APDR till the late 80s, strongly supporting its movement to free political prisoners, many of them Naxalites, though personally he did not support Naxalite ideology. Working with APDR, he came in touch with writer-activists Samar Sen and Mahasweta Devi. With the latter he would work closely for many years. APDR has published one of Dutta’s important works: A history of civil liberty movements in India, 1937-1987, edited by him.

Two other books written by him that Dutta mentions are Manusher Adikhar Chalaman Sangram, which explains 100 laws and rights to the layperson, and Shilpa Sramiker Itibritto, a history of enterprise and labour in Bengal.

From 1985 Dutta began to travel within Bengal, on a project to document the lives of workers. “I had visited all the industrial areas of Bengal by 1989,” he says. That was the year Nagarik Mancha was founded.

He met leading economists from Bengal and labour leaders irrespective of political parties, to ask them for their opinion on his ideas. Work on labour rights, Dutta felt, should also take into account the dimensions of caste and gender. “At many factories workers would not eat together because of caste differences.” Nagarik Mancha has no factory-worker among its members, which points at the responsibility other sections of society have towards the problem of labour.

“One of the earliest demands of Nagarik Mancha was of financial assistance to workers in locked-out industries,” says Dutta. The monthly assistance that the Bengal government has been providing to workers of locked-out factories is a result of Nagarik Mancha’s work, he says. Now about 25,000 such workers get Rs 1,500 per month. In 1995, Nagarik Mancha wrote a letter to a Supreme Court Judge about pollution and occupational diseases, which was accepted as a writ petition. This was later referred to as the “Nagarik Mancha matter”. It created a pressure on the ESI (Employees State Insurance), which did not have the infrastructure to detect or treat occupational diseases at that time.

On a Supreme Court directive, Nagarik Mancha soon submitted a report on the status of occupational diseases in Bengal, identifying 11 kinds of diseases. One key finding was silicosis. Several workers had died of it at the stone crushing unit of Surendra Khanij at Chinchurgheria, near Jhargram in Midnapore. In November 1996, the Supreme Court passed ordered compensation of Rs 1 lakh to be paid to the next of kin of the deceased workers and suitable compensation to the diseased workers. The compensation was finally disbursed in April 2001.

This was a landmark. In 1997, a fact-finding commission on the condition of workers, headed by Justice Rajinder Sachar, was organised by Nagarik Mancha.

In the next decade, Nagarik Mancha highlighted the effects on the environment of sponge iron factories in and around Durgapur. The group’s fact-finding committee visited Haripur, near Contai in East Midnapore, where a nuclear power plant is proposed to be built. In 2007, Nagarik Mancha visited Gajoldoba in Jalpaiguri, where settlers were being threatened with eviction by the forest department.

In 2009, Nagarik Mancha, with support from Mahasweta Devi, initiated the setting up of Adivasi Banabasi Adhikaar Mancha to implement the forest rights act.

At this time Bengal was being shaken up by two of the biggest upheavals in its history: the Singur and the Nandigram movements against private industry. Nagarik Mancha remained firmly by the side of the dispossessed. The message from the times was quite clear: the battle for workers’ rights could not be fought without fighting for the environment or land rights.

Sabuj Mancha was launched in 2011 as a platform for environmentally aware individuals and organisations across Bengal. Nagarik Mancha, which had played a strong role in stopping the construction of a World Trade Centre in the East Calcutta Wetlands in the 90s, and had been addressing climate change at a time the phenomenon was still considered a rumour, is an active partner of Sabuj Mancha. Dutta has just participated in a news conference on behalf of Sabuj Mancha, appealing to citizens to effect a total ban on fireworks this Diwali.

He knows that his involvement with environment concerns now sometimes obscures his work as a labour rights activist. That is also because labour rights have been drowned in the last decades by the waves of late capitalism, he laughs. And environment is more visible in the media.

It has not been easy for Dutta, who now lives in Picnic Garden in south Kolkata. To survive, he took up odd jobs, including that of a supervisor of salesmen at a confectionery company. He worked here, never feeling the need to go abroad. Paid research and the books that he has written have helped a bit. It is not easy for Nagarik Mancha either, which does not depend on funding like an NGO. It runs on donations and money is scarce.

Dutta feels rewarded, though, especially because his work has brought him into contact with so many other lives. “Maybe I should have written about my life,” says Dutta. He talks about his bicycle trip in 1983 to Delhi as part of a group to ask for the repeal of punitive colonial acts. On the way, at a village they stayed at when approaching Delhi, he saw the men of the village were wide awake through the night. “They were keeping a watch, expecting Chambal dacoits to descend any moment,” says Dutta.

Our time is up. Dutta speaks about his recent concern about the jute mills. It is an invisible problem. Thousands of women work at the mills now, returning after the 70s, but as temporary workers. It has taken a lot to convince the mill owners, and the state, to acknowledge that the women even exist. The book that he is working on now is a hundred years’ history of women labour leaders of Bengal.

Last updated on 01.11.21, 07:49 AM

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