For more than 3 decades now, Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity, PBKMS (Association of West Bengal Agricultural Farm Workers), has been working for the rights of the poorest of India’s poor, the farm workers. With a membership of 67,172 -- half of them women -- in 1010 villages in the state of West Bengal, ironically ruled by a party which claims to be of the Left but is nevertheless hostile to this independent trade union, PBKMS fights on several fronts.
PBKMS promotes the rights of agricultural workers to decent wages and that of guaranteed work enshrined in Indian law. It is part of the broad movement against forcible land seizures by the state of West Bengal to set up large industries while denying the livelihood of the small farmers and agricultural workers. It has resisted land grab for setting up nuclear plants.
The union organises on the right to food, demanding that it be made legally binding while campaigning against misuse and corruption in the public food distribution system. It campaigns for tea garden workers in Bengal, where hundreds of workers have died of starvation or killed themselves as the gardens have shut.
Conscious of the neglected status of women in the agricultural workforce, PBKMS has conscientised itself to the gender question and women have come up through the leadership ranks of the union. Shramajivee Mahila Samity (Working Women's Association), a fraternal organisation of PBKMS works particularly on women's issues, primarily that of trafficking and domestic violence. A natural corollary of poverty and lack of work in the countryside is the trafficking of both women and men. The women are trafficked for either the sex industry or as ill-paid domestic workers and the men are traded as virtually indentured labour in construction sites. Both PBKMS and SMS helps abandoned and enslaved migrant workers, men and women, through its national links and takes up their cause.
PBKMS has recently launched a programme to involve rural youth in constructive social work such as education, popularising science and spreading health awareness. It holds primary health and eye clinics in the villages. It has published affordable informative books and pamphlets and has undertaken several research projects. It is sustained by more than a thousand volunteers and 31 full-time activists, many of whom live in a collective, growing their own food, running creches and providing shelter for women who have had to escape domestic violence.
PBKMS is part of the pan-Indian alliance of agricultural worker and other unions. It is affiliated to the New Trade Union Initiative.
PBKMS's values are:
While demanding and defending workers' rights is our immediate goal the ultimate task of the samity is to change the class divided individualistic society into a classless democratic socialist one.
PBKMS is faced with the predictable wrath of the state. Its members have been imprisoned, false cases have been registered against them, and its donors pressured to withhold funding as a way of strangulating the union.
PBKMS is looking to deepen international links. We welcome trade unionists, civil rights activists, and anyone who shares the vision of 'another world is possible' to get in touch with us. PBKMS looks forward to sharing experiences, information, and skills with its compatriots abroad.
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PBKMS organizes all over the state of West Bengal. The organization's biggest membership comes from Nadia, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Medinipur, and Purulia. There are four committee levels: village level committees, anchal/block level committees, district level committees, and the state committee. The village level committees are the most numerous and consist of 50-100 members. 5 village level committees in the same anchal qualifies to make an anchal committee. Members from the village level committees elect members for their anchal committee. Anchal and village level committees meet as often as needed. 3-5 anchal committees in the same district qualifies to elect a committee for the district. District committees meet once a month. Like the anchal level committees, district committee members are elected from their respective anchal committees. Finally, there is a state committee which meets every 2-3 months and is made up of about 50 members. The graphic for PBKMS's membership structure, however, is circular because any committee member can attend, participate, and vote in any of the smaller circle committee meetings. This means that despite the state committee being made up of only about 50 people, state committee meetings often have 150-200 people in attendance and everyone in attendance, regardless of whether or not they are state committee members, participates and takes part in elections that happen during the meeting.