Striking workers in India Striking workers in India. Photo: Pixabay, Pixabay license, license linked at bottom of article

As 16 million workers down tools in a nationwide general strike, Susan Ram explores the issues and possibilities

On November 26, workers across India are set to join a one-day general strike against the far-right Bharatiya Janata Dal (BJP) government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The action has been called by ten trade union centres or confederations, representing the vast majority of workers in India’s organised sector. It also has the support of employees’ unions in insurance, banking, railways and government institutions. Those toiling in India’s vast unorganised sector, from auto-rickshaw drivers to garment workers, have also pledged to join the strike.   

An estimated 16 million workers will down tools for the day and take to the streets.

Simultaneously, millions of peasants and small farmers will be staging a two-day national agitation, culminating in a march on Delhi, the national capital, on November 27.

Combating Modi’s anti-labour offensive   

The Indian trade union movement began mobilising for this strike in early October, following the imposition of three new labour codes by the Modi regime. On September 22, the government exploited a boycott of Parliament by opposition parties to ram through legislation.

Reminiscent of the labour ‘reforms’ enacted by other neo-liberal governments, including that of Emmanuel Macron in France, the new codes purport to ‘rationalise’ pre-existing labour laws (44 in India) in the name of reducing ‘complexity’. In reality, the aim is to weaken workers’ rights across the board, whether in respect of industrial relations, social security provision or working conditions and occupational health and safety.

The attack on workers’ rights extends further. The Modi government has given the finger to the Rupees 18,000 (£183) monthly minimum wage recommended by India’s 7th Pay Commission. Instead it has opted for the miserly Rupees 7,500 (£76) figure conjured out of the air by its own panel of ‘experts’.

The government has also introduced fixed term employment, making permanency of employment a thing of the past. In September, it changed the base year for the Consumer Price Index for Industrial Workers from 2001 to 2016, in effect lowering the compensation to industrial workers for rising prices of food and other consumables.

Covid-19: Opportunity Knocks for Modi and his cronies

All these reversals have been thrust on workers in the context of India’s mind-numbing engagement with the covid pandemic: more than 9 million cases thus far (the second highest total in the world, after Brazil) and 135,000 deaths.

The political and financial possibilities opened up by a highly contagious disease cutting through a population large sections of which are highly impoverished have not been lost on by Modi and his backers in India’s corporate sector.

The past few months have been Opportunity Knocks in India. Billionaires like Modi’s best chum Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries, have seen their wealth surge: in Ambani’s case by a staggering 73%, taking his net worth to nearly £67 billion (making him the only Asian tycoon to rank among the world’s top richest people, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index).

Privatisation bonanza

The Modi regime has also used the out-of-the ordinary conditions imposed by the pandemic to ramp up its privatisation drive. Profit-making public sector entities such as Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd and the Shipping Corporation of India are being sold off, along with public sector banks and financial institutions, parts of India’s immense railway sector, ordnance factories, coal mines, and airports.

“We will sell whatever can be sold and sell even that which cannot be sold”, one minister is on record as declaring.  

In the case of Bharat Petroleum, formed in 1976 following the nationalisation of Burmah Shell and with current assets estimated at £91 billion, a sweet-heart deal under consideration envisages Mukesh Ambani snapping it up for a song.  

Another ominous development for millions of workers and their families, along with the small and middling peasants who constitute the bedrock of Indian agriculture, are new laws governing the marketing of food grain and other agricultural produce.

Rushed through parliament in September, the three inter-connected pieces of legislation are widely seen as a ruse to enable corporate entry into trade in agricultural commodities. Posing a direct threat to the food security and affordability of basic commodities for millions of Indians, the new laws will give private capital, including global agri-business, the right to enter into agreements with farmers without any government supervision or control.

As Indian journalist V. Sridhar puts it:

“The new laws pave the way for the unfettered foray of private capital into agricultural commodities trade… Most worrisome is the resulting abandonment of price stabilisation and food security as responsibilities of the state.”

Since the passage of the bills, India has been rocked by agitations staged by millions of furious peasant farmers, particularly in the granary state of Punjab, petri dish of the 1960s Green Revolution. 

Strikers’ demands

This is the context in which millions of Indian workers and peasants are taking to the streets.

The build-up to the November 26 national one-day strike has included rallies, painting slogans on  walls and roads, burning effigies of Modi and cronies, and lively activity across social media designed to raise the profile of the strike and publicise its demands. 

Topping the list is the demand for the scrapping of the government’s new labour laws, along with the legislation ‘liberalising’ agricultural marketing.

Next, strikers are calling for the government to pay Rupees 7,500 (£76) into the account of each non-tax paying Indian family (that is, those below the tax threshold — the poorest families suffering grievously under covid).

Thirdly, to help people cope with the ongoing pandemic, trade unions are demanding the government supply every needy family with a monthly allowance of 10 kg of food grain.

Following on from this is the demand for a major expansion of the existing rural public works programme, including higher wages and a guaranteed 200 work days per annum for each landless labourer/rural worker.

Finally, strikers are demanding an end to privatisation in sectors such as ports, railways, defence, power, mining and finance, and the restoration of the pension schemes the Modi government has sought to weaken and destroy.

A great deal hinges on the ability of the Indian working class to rise to the current challenge: that of mobilising people in their millions — during a pandemic — to inflict enduring blows on a far-right regime, and lay out a different road ahead.

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Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.

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