UDR welcomes the release on bail of four workers of Reliance Energy/ Infrastructure Ltd. (REIL) and trade union activists implicated under numerous sections of the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for alleged Maoist links. The workers were released on 26 December 2018 on default bail after the 17 December order of the Bombay High Court setting aside the extension of time granted to ATS Mumbai to file the chargesheet in April 2018. Months before 6 June and 28 August, when 10 rights activists were arrested under UAPA on fabricated connections to the Bhima Koregaon violence, workers at RIEL were the first to be targeted for alleged ‘Maoist’ links at Elgaar Parishad.
Ever since their arrests in January 2018, the REIL workers have continued to languish behind bars, and their case is a clear example of the targeted persecution of trade union organizing as ‘terrorist’ or ‘unlawful’ activities.Although all arrested were entitled to default bail in April 2018 itself with the expiry of the ninety day period to file the chargesheet, the Sessions Court granted extension of time to May 2018 without affording an opportunity to the accused to be heard, which was immediately challenged by the workers. Their struggle for release was dealt a second blow when their lawyer, Arun Ferreira, was also arrested on fabricated UAPA charges under the same case on 28 August 2018. The belated intervention by the High Court to ensure their release on bail after 11 months in custody is reflective of the absence of even a prima facie case against the accused to sustain this prosecution.
The workers, all migrant labour from Telengana, were among six raided and arrested on 12 January 2018 (one other had been arrested on 11 January, and one on 25 January), and the order of the Bombay High Court entitles them to mandatory bail after being in custody for more than 11 months. Of the eight arrested, five, namely Satyanarayan Rajayya Karrela, Babu Shankar Buchayya Vanguri, Shankarayya Lingayya Gunde, Ravi Rajanna Maarampalli and Saidul Narsimha Singapanga are the active members of the Mumbai Electric Employees Union (MEEU), which has been struggling to ensure decent wages, an end to contractual labour, safety equipment and health coverage in multiple cases of injuries at the REIL plants.
The present UAPA case comes on the heels of multiple other motivated cases filed by REIL management against workers and union members over the years. In December 2017, management of REIL had refused to issue ESI card to an injured workman to facilitate his transfer to Sion hospital for proper medical treatment, as a result of which he died the next day. The workers went on an impromptu strike for a few hours on 19 December 2017, pursuant to which the management was compelled to issue the statutorily mandated ESI cards to all. However, REIL filed FIRs against four workers for organizing the strike. In 2007, 6 workers were arrested under the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) for allegedly disrupting the supply of essential services of electricity distribution, which was later scrapped on the admission of the State Government in court that there was no evidence to substantiate the charges. Nevertheless, most of them remain terminated from their employment and have not been reinstated since.
After the arrests in January 2018, family members of some workers have been evicted from their rented premises, and all continue to face routine harassment from the police. Other workers were also interrogated and harassed for many days. One person interrogated by the ATS in relation to the case committed suicide. This created such terror among the workers and union members. As a result, the struggle for ensuring safety, permanent jobs and better wages of Reliance workers has taken a dark turn. There has further been a concerted campaign in the media to portray them as associates of the banned Maoist party, piggybacking on the nation-wide paranoia orchestrated by the ruling dispensation against so-called ‘Urban Naxals’ apparently raising funds for, and undertaking recruitment, for a banned organization.
With the acquisition of REIL by Bombay Suburban Electric Supply to Adani Transmission, Reliance has sought to wash its hands off its statutory obligations towards workers, claiming them to be employed by the contractor and not them, even though cases pending against the workers have been filed by Reliance themselves. In fact, in one of the statements submitted as part of the chargesheet Reliance management claims that the workers had ‘Maoist’ links. The nexus between the management and the state administration has ensured that those demanding an end to contractual labour, low wages, unsafe and perilous working conditions are ensnared in the endless trials and tribulations of UAPA.
Deepika Tandon, Shahana Bhattacharya
27 Dec 2018