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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 24, New Delhi, May 30, 2020

Modi government ill-treats the labourers, creators of modern India

Saturday 30 May 2020


by Arun Srivastava

May Day, the day which symbolises the unity of the workers and their political and economic empowerment has been buried under the debris of the labour reforms carried out by Modi’s saffron government on the plea of fighting coronavirus.

This year’s May Day has been most excruciating occasion for workers. While this year they could not celebrate this day, Modi and his cohorts used the pandemic to vilify them and moved a step forward in the direction of furthering their political agenda of polarisation and serving the interest of the capitalists and middle class.

What has been most shocking is this is for the first time in the independent India any government has brazenly insulted and subjugated the workers to the worst kind of treatment. How Modi responding to the desires of rich and middle class has imposed the lockdown has been a known affair. While doing so on March 24 he did not bother to look at the poor and labourer. Since he claims to be the son of a tea seller he ought to have perceived the plight a poor would face due to his arbitrary decision.

The nature and quantum of miseries the poor workers has to suffer is now encrypted in the pages of the history of modern India. The RSS and BJP or even the prime minister cannot tear off the pages and obliterate the historical facts. His supporters and those see India’s destiny tied to him may spit on it or prefer to ignore the realities, but the common people of India will find it hard to erase it from his mind.

If Modi had given even a day’s time and arranged for their transportation the ill-fated labourers would not have faced this nature of starvation. The migration of the labourers has been worse than the migration at the time of partition in 1947. However it would not be proper to compare the 2020 migration with the 1947 exodus. What is shameful is the cabinet colleagues of Modi have been trying to pass the blame for the migrant crisis onto the state governments. Millions of workers were forced to go back to their native places trekking nearly 1500 to 2000 kms.

Workers have lost hard-won rights, despite labour being the biggest contributor to the Indian growth story. Modi and his capitalist cohorts like Ambanis and Adanis who were aspiring to control the world economy once India attained the status of global leader, simply treated these people, the creators of modern India, as serfs and bonded labourers. Their hatred towards them was so acute that they refused them the much needed help in this hour of crisis. Nearly for a month after the imposition of lockdown they spent their days on the footpaths and the alms they received from some good meaning people.

These BJP leaders are morally cowards and in fact slaves of the rich people and corporates and big industries is also clearly manifest in arbitrarily changing the labour laws taking advantage of the pandemic when the labourers could not hit the streets and raise their voice.

It is really a matter of shame that the left leaders join the BJP’s chorus in condemning the Mamata government even for small errors, but they preferred to maintain a passive silence when the BJP government snatched the rights of the labourers and completely changed the labour laws to suit the industrial houses who are willing or contemplating to set up their shops in India. The five states had legitimised an increase in working hours from eight to 12. Modi government also introduced a bill that makes hiring and firing easier. May Day found the workers stripped not just of their jobs but also of some of the rights they had earned through decades of struggle.

Lockdown has converted a major section of lower middle class people into homeless, jobless and beggars. For exploiters pandemic is the right time to erase human rights, brutally annihilate the Indian Constitution so that the poor and labourers are denied their fundamental rights. Already attempts are on to dilute the spirit of the preamble. The Constitution is being made ineffective is manifest in denial of protecting the rights of the crores of the poor. The recent developments send a loud message that Constitution is for the rich, well offs and middle class.

Unlike those who lost their jobs in USA and have been demanding economic sustenance, the Indian labourers are not seeking any financial help from the government. What they have been demanding is the government should arrange for their safe return to their villages. But shamefully this has also is not been being provided to them. Modi and his government simply treats them as labour provider and not as the sons and daughters of India.

Some chief ministers during their video interaction with Modi on Monday had pointed out that they were not consulted before the lockdown was announced but now they were being made to bear the fallout of the unplanned move — particularly the crisis faced by the migrant workers — with very little help from the Centre. And at the same time Modi is not willing to provide some kind of financial support to the states to face the challenges.

Corona pandemic has badly exposed the myth so far being propounded and reiterated by the political institution of India of workers, the labourers, being the major stake holder in the development and prosperity of the country.

This was purely an illusion created by the capitalists, the rich and the corporate for exploiting them and using them for the promotion and strengthening of their vested interest. The element of economism practiced by the trade unions simply helped the class of the exploiters and capitalists. Vladimir Lenin, was involved in a political fight with a tendency in the movement that came to be called ‘economism’. Lenin dealt very harshly with the ‘economists’. They wished, he wrote, “to obscure the class character of the struggle of the working class, weaken this struggle by a meaningless ‘recognition of society’ and reduce revolutionary Marxism to a trivial reformist trend”.

Modi in one single stroke has horizontally split the Indian community and society into two; those who are above the line, the rulers, makers of the destiny of the country and those below the line, the oppressed and exploited, billions of the people who sale their labour and contribute in making the modern India. What is most worrisome these labourers in the present scenario do not have any right on their own labour power which has been the only weapon in their hands to fight the capitalist exploitation. Now the Modi government is moving ahead to amend the so called stringent labour laws to suit the corporate and capitalists.

For long the need to reform the labour law was being felt. But the present move of Modi and his government is certainly not a move to reform but to snatch away the labourers’ right from them. Labour reform hasn’t taken off because the debate has been framed in terms of empowering the management while curbing the rights of labour. Two of the BJP ruled states, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have taken the lead for reforms. These are the states which have been zealously against the poor and labourers.

The utter contempt of the Modi government towards the labourers is also manifest in its sanctioning relief to the distressed labourers. It has been claiming to provide monetary help. But it is a false claim. The labourers are not getting proper food, forget about the cash relief. Workers, labourers and street vendors had been pinning their hopes on a cash dole to bail them out of the economic crisis wrought by a raging pandemic but it is yet to come. But so far it has not reached to them.

What is being offered is simply a façade of assistance; five kg of rice or wheat and 1kg of chana. Just imagine for how many days the labourer would beable to survive on this? The cost of this largesse is Rs 3,500 crore. This is a cruel joke that the government is playing with the migrant workers. It has even underestimated their number at just 8 crore. The 2011 census had estimated the number of migrant workers in the country at 11 crore. More than half of them are inter-state migrants.

MGNREGA has helped build rural infrastructure through approximately 10 crore families. But because of the superimposed resource constraints, many could not access the entitled 100 days of work. Migrant workers coming back home will swell the already desperate demand for work.

RSS labour wing, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, is planning to hold protest against the changes introduced in labour laws by BJP-ruled MP and UP governments. The BMS said these changes to the labour laws are violation of the international labour law conventions and it will create a situation where there is no rule of law.

“It will be a bigger pandemic than coronavirus. The BMS will hold an emergency meeting and protest against these moves,” said BMS president Saji Narayanan. He is correct “We can’t allow jungle raj and put labourers in the hands of corporates. States are creating such a situation that there is no rule of law”. It was indeed surprising to notice that the trade union wing of the RSS the BMS has been most vocal against the treatment being meted out to the labourers by the Union as well some state governments. In the normal course one should have expected the left to rise and protest against this action of the Modi government.

But it appears they are irrelevant for the left and Marxist forces. Had they been having any relevance for the left forces in that case they would not have adopted this nature of passive approach towards them and allowed them to suffer. The left forces are simply providing lip service to them.

Recently CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury, CPI General Secretary D. Raja, CPI (ML) General Secretary Dipankar Bhattarcharya, All India Forward Bloc General Secretary Debabrata Biswas, Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) General Secretary Manoj Bhattacharya, RJD MP Manoj Jha, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal president Katchi Thol. Thirumavalavan and Loktantrik Janata Dal leader Sharad Yadav called on the President. But no tangible action plan has been announced so far by them

No doubt this is the period of corona and safe physical distancing is essential for escaping being the victim. But nowhere it is mandated that you cannot raise the voice for their welfare or prepare them for a future struggle. It is an open secret that the left forces did not protest against their sufferings with conviction.

The labourers who are the natural allies of the left and Marxist forces have been feeling neglected. Except for Rahul Gandhi who moved out to meet a group of labourers on their way home no left leader has dared to come out and talk to them. This is the manifestation of the leftist duality. Besides issuing stray statements the left leaders have not done anything specific. The least they could have done is providing food and water to the labourers who are on their way back home.

Modi government’s design to fool and exploit the labourers got exposed when it refused to give Supreme Court a break-up of the share of rail fares it has shared along with the state governments for the stranded migrants travelling home by train. Since the government and its ministers were claiming to the public that it was paying 85 per cent it was expected that the government should have placed this fact before the court.
Strange enough while submitting to the court the Solicitor general said that he had no instructions to reveal the details. It is intriguing why the Modi government did not permit him to place this fact before the court? Modi government had stated that while the railways were bearing 85 per cent of the subsidy for the migrants, the states were to account for the remaining 15 per cent.

Reports appearing in the media expose how the government and particularly the Indian Railways have been badly treating and misbehaving with these hapless migrant labourers. The Rail minister Piyush Goel made a ridiculous claim of feeding these people and providing them with financial help.

Since Modi claims to care for the people he should have waived the condition of labours paying fares. The court also, instead of agreeing to accept Mehta’s argument should have directed the government to pay from its coffers. It should have helped the labourers who are facing starvation. In sharp contrast the government asked the labourers to pay for their travel.

Ever since the lockdown was imposed on 25 March, an estimated 2 crores labourers have been trapped in the cities across India, with no work or income. If the reports trickling in are to be relied nearly 400 poor daily wage labourers have already died. Of these the number of workers who died on roads while going back to their native places is around 120.

One thing that got exposed in the most brazen manner is these ill-fated poor are not the citizens of this country forget being the children of India. The manner in which they were neglected and their miseries was overlooked by the Modi government simply strengthens the belief that they are not more than a tool in the hands of the government to serve the interest of the rich and capitalists.

In sharp contrast the priority before the Modi government has been to protect the class interest of the rich and the middle class people. While these ill-fated people have been stuck up at various places and requesting the government to retrieve them and arrange to send them to their native places, the Modi government was busy organising flights to bring the rich and middle class people from foreign countries.

Some believe that the corona pandemic has come as Modi’s 1991 moment, a reference to Dr Manmohan Singh salvaging the economy and putting India on right growth track. Dr Singh has pushed structural reforms that set it on track for almost three decades of growth. But we ought to not forget that priorities of the two leaders are quite divergent in nature. While Dr Modi tried to salvage the situation and take out the country out of the morass. But it is not the case with Modi. He is pushing India towards Hindu Rashtra and obviously in his pursuit this economic salvation has no relevance. A country having capitalist polity and economy is more imperative for him.

Modi thrust on reforms is simply a rhetoric and an eye wash. He knows any kind of reforms would provide spill over benefit to the poor, which he dislikes. Ifat all he has really been sincere for reforms he should have listened to and acted as per the advices from the eminent economists. His government is aware that the global turmoil offered an opportunity to woo investment from global companies seeking to diversify their supply chains away from China, amid rising tensions between Beijing and Washington. But he is yet to workout a comprehensive strategy to woo the.

Evolving a strategy at a short notice is also not feasible. He should have foreseen the development long back and steered to meet the challenge. Simply goading the labourers is not sufficient to entice the investors and industrialists. They need a congenial political and harmonious communal ambience which Modi is unable to provide. He obviously would not like to keep his vigilantes under check. Nevertheless Modi is under the scanner of the global fraternity. Suspending or scrapping some labour laws is not the solution. These are merely piecemeal exercise.

The fundamental issue must not be ignored that the migrant labour crisis has arisen out of the refusal of businessmen to pay wages during lockdown. This is Indian capitalism’s hour of disgrace. Had the capitalists come to their help this situation certainly not had arisen. One survey in May found that almost 8 out of 10 migrant labourers had not been paid at all during the lockdown.

No wonder they’ve come to hate the cities and factories because of the way they’ve been treated by their employers. Migrant labourers have been telling in clear words that they won’t return to see such humiliation again.

On 29 March, the home ministry made it legally compulsory for the industries and business houses to pay the salaries and wages even during the lockdown period. But it has no impact on the capitalists. They ignored the order. Capitalist know that Modi government cannot survive without their patronage. The fact of the matter is the government is striving to scrap existing law under pressure from its capitalist friends.
The Uttar Pradesh government has through an ordinance suspended all labour laws (except just four) for a period of three years. The Madhya Pradesh government has made labour laws inapplicable to new units for a period of one thousand days. The Gujarat government has taken decisions along similar lines; and the Karnataka government is planning to follow suit. The Congress governments of Punjab and Rajasthan, though yet not going so far, have extended the working day from 8 to 12 hours.. Desperation of the UP government could understood from the simple fact that it tried to scrap 34 laws through an ordinance which were enacted by the assembly. Yogi Adityanath must know that an ordinance cannot take away the authority of assembly. The relative shift from wages to profits in the corporate sector which would be a fall-out of the abrogation of labour laws, will however reduce demand in the economy as a whole.

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