Bharat Bandh: The issues that need to be focused
S Madhusudhana Rao
Many years ago, strikes, protests and bandhs were synonymous with leftists. Their red flags fluttering in the hands of protesters walking streets or shouting slogans rhythmically in front of factory gates were common sights when India, that is Bharat, was socialist. Capitalism was taboo and capitalists were blood suckers of workers. Thanks to the great proletariat revolutions in Russia and China, our leadership too was inspired by socialist ideals and believed our socio-economic salvation centred around collective work and equality.
While the pioneers of socialism/communism have corrected their policies and started treading new nation-building paths, many of our people’s leaders still cling to the long forgotten and outdated ideas and remind us and the government of their existence through strikes and protests, once in a while.
The Wednesday’s Bharat Bandh, called by almost all the trade unions, was the latest attempt to focus people’s and government’s attention on their grievances put in a charter of demands. Ordinary people did take note of the strike as buses went off the road; banks and post-offices were closed; blue-collared workers and white-collared employees stayed out of work; many commercial establishments downed their shutters in solidarity with the striking workers. The government too must have felt the pinch as the total loss to economic activity would have run into thousands of crores. According to the Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the direct and indirect loss could exceed Rs 25,000 crores.
But the 10 central trade unions which had called the bandh were happy for two reasons. One, it was the biggest in recent years at all India level; second, the strike was the collective voice of nearly 300 million working population against the “anti-worker economic policies of the government.” It was also the first major challenge to the BJP government from the working class.
The Modi government has proposed several labour reforms to boost the economy and make manufacturing more productive and globally competitive. At the same time, it has planned to increase the minimum wages and make them mandatory throughout the country. It’s a different issue how high labour wages would turn our products competitive in world markets. But the trade unions want amendments to labour laws withdrawn. In other words, they want status quo maintained.
Other demands in the charter include: No privatization of railways and no foreign investment in them; keeping private investors off insurance and defence sectors; ban on speculation in commodities trade; improving job opportunities; public distribution system for all; a policy to tackle price rise; bonus ceiling increase; Provident Fund and health insurance to unorganized labour force and a substantial increase in the minimum wage of skilled and unskilled workers.
It’s worth recalling that the government had assured the trade unions that it had been working on most of their demands related to minimum wages and welfare benefits. However, it has not committed anything on privatization or foreign investments in sectors like defence, railways and insurance.
While the government is prepared to consider the demands deemed fit for implementation, it does not want to concede those that are policy matters. But the unions want the government to ‘accept’, not ‘consider’, their demands. So, the Bharat Bandh was the culmination or fallout of nearly three months of talks between the trade unions and the government.
None disputes the fact that employees have a right to protest against their exploitation by employers and demand compatible w0rk-wage parity. But if they start demanding review and revocation of government policy decisions, the unions are not representing the interests of workers but working for political parties whose job is to raise such issues in parliament.
Moreover, in what way the workers are affected if private investment is allowed into some of the key sectors that are badly in need of foreign and domestic funds for modernization and expansion? In fact, the more the investment is the more the employment opportunities are. Look at the IT and IT-enabled sectors. They have been expanding at breakneck speed and employing lakhs of skilled and unskilled people. And, the IT industry is only in the hands of Indian and foreign corporations and their wages are relatively high. Then why do the unions object to foreign funds coming into some service and manufacturing sectors? Is it an unfound fear of losing jobs?
The fear is born out of insecurity. In contrast, public sector offers a secure employment, whether one works or not. Low productivity and inefficiency are the bane of many public sector undertakings. While some of them went bust, some are tottering and walking on the stilts provided by the tax payer. In this respect, there is no better example other than Air India. There are, of course, some exceptions and railways is one of them. No government could afford to run establishments with huge manpower for the sake of providing jobs. To make them run profitably is the task of employees and the onus rests on their unions.
The least the trade unions could do is to study the best labour practices in other countries and frame their own systems and seek their implementation by the management and the government. Labour laws need periodical review and revision to keep pace with changing socio-economic trends and the country’s future needs. Neither the government of the day nor trade unions should carry the baggage of the past on their shoulders and fight shadow battles. Such attempts are unproductive and benefit neither the unions nor workers.