The workers of Intas Pharmaceuticals in Bagheykhola, East Sikkim staged a dharna on April 11, outside the factory premises. They alleged that the management had misbehaved with the women employees, and had forced them to do manual work designated for men. The workers have also alleged that the management had deducted their wages for availing a paid-leave on May Day last year. The protest turned out to be short-lived, as the Rangpo police, along with some state BJP leaders, spoke with the workers and the management. However, this protest is certainly a matter of concern for workers’ rights in Sikkim.
According to the website of the Sikkim Commerce and Industries Department, there are 29 registered industries and companies in Sikkim. Out of these, 12 are pharmaceutical drug manufacturers. Out of these pharma companies, only two had set up manufacturing units in the state before 2007. This assumes significance, since in 2007, the North East Industrial and Investment Promotion Policy (NEIPP) came into effect. The policy gave the companies a period of tax-exemption of 10 years.
What is important, additionally, is that Sikkim has never had a history of labour unrest, and there’s a reason behind that. Let’s not go into the other possible reasons like social factors such as prevailing feudal mindset. The Labour Department of the Sikkim government has listed 18 laws that are applicable to Sikkim. The notable absence is of the Trade Unions Act, 1926. The first and foremost concept in labour legislation is the principle of collective bargaining. Secondly, the freedom to form associations, unions or cooperative societies is a Fundamental Right under Article 19(1)(c). However, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), in Sikkim, though trade unions are not banned, they are heavily regulated. To register, all the office bearers have to go through a police verification process. Permission from the Land Revenue Department needs to be acquired after that. The procedure is tedious. Therefore, something is not quite right in peaceful Sikkim.
There is a possibility that among the 29 mentioned industries and companies in Sikkim, the working conditions in most of them – other than possibly the PSUs – is not up to the mark. However, in the absence of a statutory backing to collective bargaining, workers may be unwilling to speak out against their conditions. The outburst at Bagheykhola could very likely be just the beginning of the labour movement in the state.
Now, the issue with Article 19(1)(c) is that Sikkim has a special provision in the Constitution under Article 371F. Under the clause (n) “the President may, by public notification, extend with such restrictions or modifications as he thinks fit to the State of Sikkim any enactment which is in force in a State in India at the date of the notification”. The problem is whether the denial of a Fundamental Right comes within the ambit of this clause.
On one hand, the issue of Article 371F and it’s ‘protections’ is an emotive political issue used by one party against another. The problem with this provision is that it is highly regressive. Clause (k) states that “all laws in force immediately before the appointed day in the territories comprised in the State of Sikkim or any part thereof shall continue to be in force therein until amended or repealed by a competent legislature or other competent authority”. This means that many of the old laws that maintained a semi-feudal order still remain. This, then, poses another question about the point of the ‘merger’. The first people, who spoke in favour of a merger with the Indian Union in 1949, were all influenced by Leftist ideologies. However, the order that has been established post-merger (since 1976) is far from what those ideologues had envisioned.