By Lal Khan
(With special reporting by Vinod Malik in Faridabad, India)
India is propagated by the international corporate media and known to the capitalist world as the ‘largest democracy’ and the second most populous country on the planet. More importantly it’s the new great hope of western capitalism and imperialism to halt the march of Chinese capitalism and imperialism for world domination. The so-called ‘incredible India’ with serene landscape, green hills, vast deserts, towering snow clad mountains and planes of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. It’s beaches, waterfalls, historical sights and artifacts, temples, mosques, architectural wonders, exotic palace hotels and exquisite desert lakes are such big tourist attractions. India is also known as the land of Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi and Narendra Modi. India has many wonders of the world with diverse languages and cultures sprawling the vast subcontinent. It’s the India of the Bollywood glamour, the Ambanis and Tata’s riches and their philanthropy. India is the legendary land of ancient religions, civilisations and traditions.
Yet there is another India. Beneath the façade of the “shining India,” it is a tragic country drenched in pit darkness of poverty, misery and deprivation for the vast majority of its inhabitants. More than one fifth of the human race is forced to reside in the suffering of spiraling urban slums spanning moles and miles, filthy and congested shantytowns and dusty impoverished villages where life seems to have stuck in the medieval ages. These are the homes and hearths of the marginalised millions pushed out of the economic cycle by India’s brutal capitalism. It’s in reality the India of the workers, youth, landless peasants, oppressed castes, coerced and scared women and the impoverished millions struggling to survive for a living in this ‘largest democracy’.
In reality is a democracy of the rich, by the rich and for the rich presiding over the largest concentration of poverty in the world. Dominated with a political elite who are characteristically deceptive and hypocrites, pretending to be modest by cladding in lowly attire, while plundering billions from the labour of the India’s toiling masses. It’s the India of peasant struggles, a cage of the oppressed nationalities striving for liberation and the youth inflicted by the curse of unemployment and a pessimistic future. However the Indian proletariat has brilliant traditions of struggles and sacrifices. The youth and workers could not achieve victory in the last seven decades mainly due to the betrayals of the traditional leaderships and the lack of a revolutionary alternative on the political horizon.
The latest general strike of 2nd September this year was another manifestation of that tradition of struggle against the system and the will of the oppressed classes to change society. Tens of millions of public sector workers went on a daylong strike across India, apparently against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic policies, particularly his plans to push for greater privatisation and restructuring of labour. Seething with discontent at the economic brutality being inflicted by this arch neo-capitalist regime, garbed in colors of Hindutva, but thrusting callously the vile interests of imperialist and Indian corporate capital. Aljazeera reported that about 180 million workers, including state bank employees, nurses, schoolteachers, postal workers, miners and construction workers participated in the strike. This huge mass of the workers on strike was almost the size of the total population of Pakistan. This general strike was even bigger than the one staged by Indian trade unions and workers last year on 2nd September 2015 in which according to the British Guardian over 140 million had participated. In fact this was the fourth general strike to take place in India since 2009. Following the dictates of Modi government, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh that is an affiliate of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh did its best to undermine strike by sabotage manoeuvres.
Inspite of media’s semi blackout ploys it was a success. “This strike is against the central government, this strike is for the cause of the working people… our strike will be 100 percent successful… we will prove that this strike is the world’s largest ever.” Ramen Pandey, of the Indian National Trade Union Congress told the BBC. Workers were demanding that the government scrap plans to close unproductive factories. CITU, AITUC, INTUC, the HMS and six other larger trade union organisations, with the simmering pressure of the workers from below, called the strike. Earlier talks with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley broke down, with union leaders rejecting his offer to raise the minimum wage for unskilled workers from 6,396 rupees ($96) a month to 9,100 rupees ($136).
According to media reports, workers were demanding the government to scrap plans of closing unproductive factories; raise foreign investment caps in some industries and sell off stakes in state-run companies – over fears that creeping privatisation will jeopardise jobs. The unions said the government should guarantee both social security and healthcare for all, and should double the minimum wage to keep up with inflation.
Right wing channels tried to minimise the impacts with top headline news that transport and essential services such as power and water supplies were not affected in major cities like New Delhi and Mumbai. But in Delhi there was the biggest strike of nurses in the recent history of the city with more than twenty thousand participating in the protest rally from the Safdar Jang hospital. Although private banks were operating and schools and colleges were open. But such was the intensity and widespread span of the strike that in the midst of the bloody conflict between a brutal state repression and the youth in revolt in the Jammu and Kashmir a strike was observed and comrade Yousaf Tarigami the J&K president of CITU and CPI (M) member of legislative assembly, led a mass demonstration in the centre of Jammu city. According to Aljazeera, thousands of state-run banks, government offices and factories were closed on Friday, and public transport disrupted.The strike had its greatest impact in the southern states of Karnataka and Kerala. Daily life was also paralysed in the eastern state of Bihar, where shops and business establishments were shut and union activists brought the train and road services to a halt.
The Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a landslide victory in May 2014 general elections, promising business-friendly reforms, read counter reforms against the workers rights, to ‘boost’ the economy. According to the latest budget, the government aims to extract about $8.3bn through privatisation in 2016-17 and shut down several state-run firms. However this bigoted and belligerent regime spent a massive $43 billion on military expenses that is planned to rise astronomically in the next years, matching China’s military expenses. But this militarism has been the trend of all the bourgeois parties that have been in power since the bloody partition of 1947. On the other hand masses have continued to suffer. The impoverishment of society and disparity of incomes rose sharply since the Congress government of Narasima Rao opened up the Indian economy to imperialist corporate monopolies.
Today India is the second most ‘unequal’ nation in the world where millionaires, or those with net assets of $1 million or more, control 54 percent of its total wealth, according to a report by wealth research firm New World Wealth. Poverty on the other hand rose from 770 million living in dire deprivation to 836 millions in from 1999 to 2010. This situation is worsening rapidly with the advent of the Modi’s aggressive neoliberal regime in power. Since 2007, India set its official threshold at Rs. 26 a day ($0.43) in rural areas and about Rs. 32 per day ($0.53) in urban areas. These amounts are even lower than the World Bank’s $1.25 per day income-based definition.
This is not the income of a population just in dire poverty but it confirms a huge section of the human race living in semi starvation conditions. India spends only 1% of its GDP on health. The worsening of conditions of the masses is evident from the figures after the introduction of the neoliberal economic model. The decline in poverty went from 60% to 35% between the 1950s and the early 1980s; the liberalization and trickle down economic policies reversed this trend since the 1990s.Now this is about 80% of the population.
The official figures give a deceptive and “corrupt” poverty line measurement method. The World Bank’s controversial and deceptive poverty line has its origins in the Indian model! It is simply what some call a “starvation line”, a line that accounts for the feeling of satiety: measured in calories. One may not have access to clean water, sewage and toilet facilities, no health or education provisions but the poverty line ‘setters’ never take that into consideration.Perhaps some idea of the living conditions of the ordinary Indians could be gauged from the UNESCO figures. 50% of Indians don’t have proper shelter, 70% don’t have access to decent toilets (which inspires a multitude of bacteria to host their own disease party), 65% of households don’t have a nearby water source and 85% of villages don’t have a secondary school. Over 40% of the villages don’t have proper roads connecting them.
India is among the 10 richest countries in the world with a total individual wealth of $5,600 billion, but the average Indian is suffering in stark poverty. As India’s 70th year since Independence begins, there are 833 million Indians (70%) that are consuming fewer nutrients than are required to stay healthy, according to a National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau survey.On average, compared to 1975-’79, a rural Indian now consumes 550 fewer calories. Children below the age of three are consuming, on average, 80 ml of milk per day instead of the 300 ml they require. Forty six percent of Indian children are suffering from a stunted mental and physical growth. Vast majority of pregnant women are undernourished and suffer from anaemia resulting in ever-rising deaths of women during childbirth. The National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau survey also revealed that over 40 years, the proportion of landless people in rural areas grew from 30% to 40%, and the proportion of people who were owners and cultivators decreased by almost half. Meanwhile, food inflation in India increased at a faster rate than overall inflation (10% versus 6.7%). This has a direct impact on the poor that spend more that 80 percent of their household incomes on food intake. With ‘highest’ growth rate of the economy, for the ordinary souls, economic woes and want have worsened rather that diminishing. There have been inverse effects of the higher economic growth rates on the alleviation of poverty due to the organic crisis of today capitalism, in countries such as India.
India has the largest population of youth in the world with about 66% of the population under the age of 35. Leaving aside the fudged and engineered statistics of the state and the NGO’s the unemployment in India is increasingly a destabilising and traumatic phenomena for the youth. Apart from financial impact, unemployment has many social impacts like theft, violence, drug taking, crime, health as well as it leads to psychological issues. Just one example is sufficed to get a picture of the conditions of unemployment in India including the educated and skilled youth. In September 2015, the unemployment reached a mark that 23-lakh people applied for 368 posts of peon in the state secretariat in Uttar Pradesh. Among the applicants, 255 candidates with a PhD degree and more than two lakh held B-Tech, BSc, M.com and MSc degrees. There are over 1m Indians who join the labour market every month. Most will either end up as unemployed or in the informal sector with wages less than a tenth of those in the formal sector! What’s more tax-dodging in the informal sector is rampant. According to the Economist India has a just 49million income-tax payers out of a population of 1.2 billion. India’s so called ‘national bourgeois’ is so criminal that they have stacked away almost a trillion dollars of plundered money in Swiss and other Offshore banks.
But even those employed in Industry and services sectors are faced by the brutal cuts in employment benefits by the introduction of the ‘restructuring’ policy of this neoliberal economic doctrine. There is a spree of adaptation of ‘contract labour’ by the corporate capital and even small-scale businesses. Then there are millions of workers that are tied to the chains of bonded labour. Added to that are millions of children under the age of 14 that are fettered in the horrors of child labour.Out of a workforce of 400 million in India over 94 percent work in unincorporated, unorganised enterprises ranging from pushcart vendors to home-based diamond and gem polishing operations. In July 2102 a senior bureaucrat Ravi Mathur, additional secretary in the labour ministry had warned the government, “There are many social security benefits that are not reaching workers… especially with the contractualisation of the workforce…In every industry, you will find a larger number of workers on contract than the regular workers… This has resulted in labour disputes and violence.” Apart from being paid less than regular employees on corporate payrolls doing similar tasks, contract workers have virtually no job security and are usually denied benefits such as pensions, gratuity, provident fund and health insurance.
The organised sector includes workers employed by the government, state-owned enterprises and private sector enterprises. In 2008, the organised sector employed 27.5 million workers, of which 17.3 million worked for government or government owned entities. The truth is less than 4% of workers in India come under labour protection, and even those protections have become are eroding fast. Modi government has been targeting the poor rather than targeting poverty. The sword of privatisation now hangs over the heads of these workers whose jobs and benefits are threatened by Modi’s anti- labour policies (‘reforms’) that he had promised to the corporate bosses who poured billions into his campaign. However the imperialist strategists and the Indian bosses are not happy with his regime. These ‘reforms’ were slowed down due to the various struggles of the workers and the threat Modi felt from last year’s general strike. The main demands of the general strike this year were also for ending these policies of restructuring and privatisations. Modi’s implementation of his pro-corporate agenda will be further delayed by the resilience and the massive turnout of the workers in this general strike.
Due to the seething pressure from below the trade unions had refused to call off the general strike despite the government agreeing at the last minute to some of their demands including raising the minimum wage. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had offered the minimum wage for semi-skilled non-agricultural workers to be increased from Rs. 246 to Rs. 350. But Jaitley had blatantly refused even to consider any new rules on imperialist corporate investments. Union leaders rejected the offer. Tapan Sen of CITU or the Centre of Indian Trade Unions said, “The announcement on daily wages means only status quo…No major demand has been accepted, there is no question of calling off the strike.” A day earlier Prime Minister Narendra Modi held an emergency meeting with Mr Jaitley, Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya and Power Minister Piyush Goyal to forge a strategy of what could be offered to unions to persuade them to cancel Friday’s shutdown, which meant the closure of banks, government offices and factories across the country. The Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), a major union linked to the ruling BJP’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, that had opposed last Friday’s strike, now must be facing the denigration and wrath of at least the advanced workers.
However with the success of the strike it doesn’t mean that the workers demands would be met. The media suddenly blacked out the news about the strike in the evening similar to what they did last year. Life returned to normal painful existence in the next few days. But its not the same story as last year. Large sections of the advanced and young workers want to continue the struggle and put an end to the routine of annual general strike and not much action in the interregnum. Some aspects of the aspirations and demands of the workers are evident now with new formations of class resistance being pushed up.
According to the ‘Hindu’, “Fourteen workers’ organisations and federations from different parts of the country have come together to form an alternative to the CTUOs (Central Trade Union Organisations). They have formed a new platform, christened Mazdoor Adhikar Sangharsh Abhiyan, (MASA).” Amitava Bhattacharya, co-ordinator, MASA said at the workers moot, “In the 25 years of liberalisation, the CTUOs have proven themselves incapable of building a strong labour movement to protect worker interests…We had an All India strike on September 2 last year as well, and in the years before that. Has there been any progress on any of the labour issues since then? The CTUOs have diluted worker interests time and again, and made compromises with a pro-corporate state. Hence this initiative is taken to create an alternative.”MASA however, joined the all India strike on Friday with the statement; “We need to campaign for workers’ rights round the year, not just one day in a year. Nevertheless, we will join the September 2 strike in full force and use this day to kick-start our year-long campaign.”
World capitalism and imperialism would like to see Modi complete the unfinished opening up and deregulation of the Indian economy ushered in in the early 1990’s under the leadership of Narasimha Rao and his finance minister Manmohan Singh in particular reforms in the areas of acquisition of rural land, labour laws and capital flows. All hopes that Modi’s attempts of privatisation might return the commanding heights of India’s economy, nationalised in the 1960s, to private hands have dimmed. Inspite of a vile and hostile media, a repressive and frantically pro capitalist BJP regime and a certain lull in society the Indian workers and youth have come out in struggles and revolts in this daunting period of economic onslaught and corporate despotism.
These struggles not only expose the falsity of Modi’s popularity and authority but also expose his weaknesses and incapacity in front of challenges of the proletariat in carrying out his aggressive pro capitalist and anti-workers policies. These struggles are now in resurgence for the world to see. This is the other real India, the India of its people, the toiling classes that are reawakening. The imposters are being exposed and a new epoch of class struggle begins in India. These movements in the industrial and social sectors would have impacts onto the political arena, sooner rather than later. The renewed class-consciousness exhibited in this strike will put enormous pressure particularly on the Communist and the left parties’ leaderships.
It proves once again that the fundamental contradiction in India is not that of secularism and religiosity, but between the oppressed and the oppressors, labour and capital. Capitalism has failed to unite India into a unified modern industrial nation, build a decent social and physical infrastructure and a secular sovereign state that can break the strangle hold of religious obscurantism and imperialist domination. The BJP, Congress and all other bourgeoisnational and regional parties, whether these are religious, secular or liberal are entrenched in this capitalist system that is historically obsolete and socio economically redundant. After seventy years this system has created a caricature of democracy and cunningly exploited it to carryout the atrocities of capitalist exploitation, plunder and coercion. Without its overthrow, not even a genuine parliamentary democracy can be achieved.
The renewed stirrings of class awareness, the epoch that is dawning and the movements beginning to erupt are out there in the last analysis to change their lives and the system that has been exploiting them for generations. To break the shackles of this vicious social and economic system and salvage their oppressed lives they a looking for a revolutionary alternative. A political force based on the ideas of Marxism with the programme of revolutionary socialism can only come up to the tasks posed by this epoch that is opening up. This massive general strike has once again brought the challenge of history to the doorsteps of the leaders of the communist parties of India. Failing to fulfill to this challenge, they will have to face the retribution of history. These left leaders have only the chains of parliamentary cretinism and compromises with capitalist system to break loose but more than a billion Indian masses will have a world to win.