Some three decades ago, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) started the struggle to rescue bonded labourers from different parts of rural Sindh, said the rights body’s honorary spokesperson IA Rehman at a news conference at the Karachi Press Club on Monday.
Rehman said the HRCP’s then head Justice (retd) Dorab Patel had demanded that the provincial government provide small portions of land to the rescued bonded labourers, who were in fact skilled agricultural land workers, so that they could not only earn a livelihood for their families but also contribute to the provincial economy.
Since then the rights body has been raising the issue, he said. But after a long time, a few months ago the Sindh High Court issued a landmark judgment ordering the government to amend the Sindh Tenancy Act 1950 and to take necessary measures including the transferring of all peasants’ cases to the judiciary, he added.
Unfortunately, instead of complying with the high court’s verdict aimed at protecting peasants’ rights in the feudal system, it has been heard that the provincial government is challenging the verdict in the apex court, said Rehman.
The HRCP held the news conference to share their observations after the two-day visit of the rights body’s delegation to Hyderabad and Mithi.
Other delegation members present on the occasion included council members and office-bearers Hina Jilani, Asad Iqbal Butt and Uzma Noorani, Director Farah Zia and General Secretary Harris Khalique.
During their visit, the HRCP delegation attended a Hari and Mazdoor Convention in Hyderabad as well as met with human rights defenders and professionals in Mithi.
“After the recent visit, the HRCP is deeply concerned that vulnerable and marginalised groups are bearing the brunt of rising inflation and unemployment, without adequate social safety nets to mitigate this impact,” said Rehman.
He said the HRCP called on the federal and provincial governments to protect the rights of peasants, workers, women and religious minorities in the province.
During the mission, stakeholders across civil society conveyed their need for more local jobs in development projects, decent working conditions and better access to health services, an end to forced conversions among religious minorities, and the development of reliable sources of clean water, especially for remote communities in arid areas such as Thar, he added.
Both the public and private sectors must be held responsible for paying their workers — both men and women — at least the official minimum wage and, moreover, paying wages on time, said the HRCP leader.
Given that women and children remain among the most vulnerable groups across labour and religious minorities, the HRCP strongly urged the government to keep their needs at the forefront of all policy-making.
Rehman said that water supply operators at reverse-osmosis plants had not been paid for six months. Moreover, they received less than the minimum wage, he lamented.
“The minimum wage of Rs17,500 of labourers announced by the government is not being implemented. The contractors pay them only Rs10,920,” the HRCP leader pointed out.
He said the Thar coal and other development projects should provide more jobs to the locals, although this should be done while mitigating the long-term environmental impact of using coal.
“Many checkpoints have been established in the entire Thar desert to check citizens where security personnel regularly interrogate not even locals but tourists as well,” he added.
The HRCP delegation has shown its grave concerns over the rise in the number of deaths by suicide in the desert region — both by women and men.
“The matter of taking their lives by suicide needs more investigation and research to ascertain the exact reasons so that remedial measures are taken,” said Uzma, the HRCP’s co-chairperson. She said the police neither register the case nor conduct a post-mortem examination in the deaths by suicide cases, and just close the case.
Khalique said the HRCP will continue to voice and convey their concerns to decision-makers at federal and provincial levels. “We will also continue to conduct fact-finding missions on local issues identified by the communities.”