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Outrage in Karnataka as govt uses workers’ fund to buy Covid vaccines from pvt hospitals

Labour organisations say it isn’t govt’s money, but minister Shivaram Hebbar says ‘what’s wrong in wanting to ensure the health, life and livelihood of our labourers?’

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Bengaluru: The Karnataka government has dipped into a welfare fund meant for construction workers to buy vaccines for them from private hospitals, sparking a furore from labour organisations. Representatives of these organisations have questioned why they should have to pay for vaccines when the central government is offering them free to all citizens above the age of 18, starting in June this year.

ThePrint has accessed a work order dated 27 August 2021 from the Karnataka Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board to the Private Hospitals and Nursing Home Association (PHANA), placing an order for two lakh doses of Covishield at a cost of Rs 15.60 crore (Rs 780 per dose).

“In the high powered committee meeting held on 20 July 2021 to discuss Covid-19 vaccination progress in the state, it was suggested to use funds from the construction workers welfare fund to vaccinate labourers. Chief secretary issued directives to additional chief secretary of the labour department to use those funds to buy vaccines allotted to private hospitals in the state and inoculate construction workers,” the order states.

However, labour organisations contend that the government is misusing funds that are meant for welfare schemes like pensions, loans and scholarships for construction workers and their families.

“This isn’t the government’s money. The welfare fund comes from the cess collected from builders, and it is meant for insurance, compensation, tool kits and pensions for labourers,” alleged P.P. Appanna, president of Pragatipara Kattada Karmikara Sangha (association of progressive construction workers) and a member of All India Central Council of Trade Unions.

“Instead of ensuring that extremely poor labourers get free vaccines, the Karnataka government is siphoning off their hard-earned money and pumping it into cash-rich private hospitals with the excuse of vaccinations.”

Speaking to ThePrint, Karnataka Labour Minister Arabail Shivaram Hebbar justified the expenditure, and said all opposition to it was political in nature.

“It is not just Rs 15.60 crore; we have allotted Rs 25 crore to buy vaccines for construction workers. What is wrong in wanting to ensure the health, life and livelihood of our labourers?” he asked.


Also read: 1 in 6 people in Karnataka had Covid antibodies before second wave struck, sero survey shows


What’s the workers’ welfare fund meant for?

About 29 lakh construction workers are members of the welfare board. The welfare fund is collected through a one per cent cess levied on buildings whose construction cost is above Rs 10 lakh. The Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Cess Act makes it mandatory for builders to contribute to the fund, which is then used by the board to roll out welfare schemes.

The board in Karnataka has listed 15 assured programmes, ranging from bus passes to scholarships, funeral and marriage assistance and pensions. There is, however, no mention of using the funds for miscellaneous expenses like purchasing vaccines from private hospitals.

Asked what constitutes ‘welfare’ according to the board, secretary and CEO Akram Pasha insisted that there was no hard-and fast definition.

Contradictory statements

Minister Hebbar said the decision to divert funds from the welfare board towards private hospitals was taken when there was a shortage of supply from the Government of India to Karnataka.

“Out of some 29 lakh registered construction workers, only 1.86 lakh had been inoculated. Since vaccines are lying unused in many private hospitals, we decided to buy them and inoculate our workers. Over the last week, vaccination supply has been good, so we don’t need to purchase any more,” Hebbar said, insisting that the work order would be withdrawn if necessary. But no such decision has been taken till the time of publication of this report.

However, board CEO Pasha, whose signature is on the work order, contradicted the minister’s comment.

“It was not the board’s decision to use the money. We only followed directions issued by the chief secretary. All money in the fund has to be spent on the welfare of workers. We have spent money on ration kits and tool kits for workers during the pandemic, but we haven’t spent a single rupee to buy vaccines,” Pasha said.

Meanwhile, PHANA, the association that was given the work order for two lakh doses of the vaccine, confirmed to ThePrint that 400 doses have already been administered to construction workers.

“Our understanding with the government is that it would pay the price of the vaccine immediately and service charge after vaccination certificates are produced. The total work order is for six lakh doses, of which PHANA has been given the responsibility of two lakh doses. The inaugural ceremony of the vaccination drive was held on 3 September, and we have vaccinated 400 workers,” said H.S. Prasanna, president of PHANA.

Prasanna added that the campaign was to begin on war footing from Monday, but PHANA had been asked to put the programme on hold. “We are yet to receive payments for the 400 doses that we have already administered,” he said.

RSS-backed body calls move ‘illegal’

Meanwhile, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated labour union Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh has called the Karnataka government’s work order “illegal”.

“There is a Supreme Court order that clearly states that money from the welfare fund cannot be diverted for other expenditure without the apex court’s permission. The government is illegally diverting the funds to purchase vaccines when every worker should be given free vaccines,” said Lokesh C.V., member of the BMS’s National Executive Committee.

(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)


Also read: Reliance, HUL, TCS, Infosys top list of vaccinating workers as India Inc aces vaccine race


 

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