Skip to main content

Those producing wealth of India rendered 'meaningless' as they have no work

By Sudarshan Iyengar*
The Chicago convention in 1884 of the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions resolved that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1, 1886.” Exactly 134 years later, a labourer assisting a mason in construction work in Mumbai walked about 1,500 km to his native village Mathkanwain Shravasti district in Uttar Pradesh, where he died in a quarantine facility.
Ironically, his parents had named him Insaaf Ali. Ali is no more, but his case highlight the suffering and trauma of millions of daily wage labourers who have survived in tormenting conditions and seek ‘insaaf’ from society and the government. The question that stares us today, when another May Day has come and gone is this: Where is a labourer in India today? What and where is the dignity of bread labour?
Trade and labour unions flourished all over the world after the 1884 resolution in America. India has its own chequered history of trade and labour unions. We know that barely 20 per cent of our labour force works in the organised sector. As much as 80 per cent is in sectors and areas where often wages are not fair, security is non-existent, safety standards are poor and labour laws are violated routinely.
There is also plethora of material that makes the case for mobilising the unorganised labour and the self-employed to enable them have their voice heard as a collective. There have been many noteworthy attempts in organising them with initiatives like Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), Gramin Bank and many others. But all said and done, in our country, a body lender is just a mazdoor, with no other identity. And who cares for this mazdoor?
The well-known Hindi poet, the late Dushyant Kumar, wrote in one of his gazals: “Yah jism bhoj se jhukkar duhara hua hoga, main sajade mein nahi tha,aap ko dhoka hua hogaa” (this body was bent over due to weight heaped on it, you must have got deceived, I was not in prayer).
We can reflect that 2020 was a rather unusually cruel time to celebrate the May Day. Millions of hands that were silently engaged in building our cities and towns and producing for the population, and driving our lives and prosperity and, allowing us to take pride in GDP growth, are languishing on some open street or in some ramshackle unused sheds and buildings.
They are found queuing up twice a day, several hours each time from morning seen and in the evening from four, in the scorching heat to wait for food packets that arrive sometime after twelve noon and seven in the evening, and without guarantee that they will finally have food for the day. Their hands that produce the wealth of India are rendered meaningless because they have no work, and no one to rely on and nothing to fall back on. 
Where are the toilets and the baths? Where is water for frequent hand wash? It is some kind of a cruel joke played upon this species called mazdoor. In desperation, many of them made a desperate bid to make it their villages walking with their small baggage and some leftover money with women and small children. 
The pedal rickshaw drivers from Delhi started cycling to their villages hundreds of km away in Bihar. Samaritans were there on the way, but how many could they reach? What could we do for Insaaf?
The Home Ministry’s advisory guided the State governments to make arrangements to take the mazdoors back in buses to their native villages after May 3. What stopped the all mighty Centre with a popular and strong leader to allow this to happen before the lockdown was announced? The image of the quick and firm decision maker has to remain intact. Collateral damages are to borne. But by whom?
Where are toilets and baths? Where is water for frequent hand wash? It is a kind of cruel joke played upon this species called mazdoor 
The leader announced that people should not rush to markets and hoard, that everything would be available. This was to address whom if not the rich and the middle class with ample purchasing power. The mazdoors and kisans were left to fend for themselves. Promises were made that money would be transferred to Jan Dhan accounts, but how much and how long would that meagre amount sustain the poor?
It is now clear that there was no immediate urgency to impose the sudden lockdown with an advance notice of barely four hours – announced at 8 pm; enforced at midnight! The rate of infection was known. 
Early action was desirable but that action, when planned, discussed and announced in advance calms nerves, smoothens the process and allows people not to be caught off guard and stranded, virtually, on the roads. Yet, it is the shock treatment that is required to build the image of a decisive leader.
We know that many of those who wanted to go back to their villages could have made it with the help of extra trains and buses. States would have responded. Money could have been transferred; supply chains and infrastructure could have been put in place. But it would have lacked the drama and the shock.
Given the situation we are in now, economic recovery is the hot topic. Wise babus, economists and intellectuals are talking about the bottom-up approach! Yet there seems to be no learning from the irreversible externalities and the maddening self-ruinous run in favour of GDP growth delivered through extreme industrialisation and urbanisation.
The Prime Minister is credited with having launched a Swachh Bharat abhiyans as part of celebrations to mark the 150 years of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi. But this safai should be as much about cleanliness in our thinking process and not staying prisoner to economic models that we can see have delivered exploitation of nature and of the downtrodden.
We can look for light in Gandhi’s way. Could we not pay a deserving tribute to make a move to Gandhi’s idea of ‘gram swaraj’ with ‘swadeshi’ and ‘svavalamban’ as the pillars? We have science and technology with us to make the right kind of innovation and scale down (rather than scale up) production to a level that a village or clusters can manage such enterprises.
Land, water and forests could be restored and regenerated to improve productivity and support the labour force in the villages. Modern amenities can be provided; indeed, a condition would be that the demand will have to be brought down. Prof Pulin Nayak of the Delhi School of Economics, renowned teacher, argues this case! COVID-19 provides an opportunity to redesign our polity and economy.
This is an opportunity if we can begin to look in a direction that we have shunned so far. Let our gram sabhas have the political power and control over natural and other economic resources. The kisans’ and the mazdoor’s dignity would have to be restored. Wouldn’t this have been a wonderful gift to them on the May Day?
---
*Former vice-chancellor, Gujarat Vidyapeeth, Ahmedabad

Comments

TRENDING

Bill Gates as funder, author, editor, adviser? Data imperialism: manipulating the metrics

By Dr Amitav Banerjee, MD*  When Mahatma Gandhi on invitation from Buckingham Palace was invited to have tea with King George V, he was asked, “Mr Gandhi, do you think you are properly dressed to meet the King?” Gandhi retorted, “Do not worry about my clothes. The King has enough clothes on for both of us.”

Displaced from Bangladesh, Buddhist, Hindu groups without citizenship in Arunachal

By Sharma Lohit  Buddhist Chakma and Hindu Hajongs were settled in the 1960s in parts of Changlang and Papum Pare district of Arunachal Pradesh after they had fled Chittagong Hill Tracts of present Bangladesh following an ethnic clash and a dam disaster. Their original population was around 5,000, but at present, it is said to be close to one lakh.

What's Bill Gates up to? Have 'irregularities' found in funding HPV vaccine trials faded?

By Colin Gonsalves*  After having read the 72nd report of the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on alleged irregularities in the conduct of studies using HPV vaccines by PATH in India, it was startling to see Bill Gates bobbing his head up and down and smiling ingratiatingly on prime time television while the Prime Minister lectured him in Hindi on his plans for the country. 

Anti-Rupala Rajputs 'have no support' of numerically strong Kshatriya communities

By Rajiv Shah  Personally, I have no love lost for Purshottam Rupala, though I have known him ever since I was posted as the Times of India representative in Gandhinagar in 1997, from where I was supposed to do political reporting. In news after he made the statement that 'maharajas' succumbed to foreign rulers, including the British, and even married off their daughters them, there have been large Rajput rallies against him for “insulting” the community.

Magnetic, stunning, Protima Bedi 'exposed' malice of sexual repression in society

By Harsh Thakor*  Protima Bedi was born to a baniya businessman and a Bengali mother as Protima Gupta in Delhi in 1949. Her father was a small-time trader, who was thrown out of his family for marrying a dark Bengali women. The theme of her early life was to rebel against traditional bondage. It was extraordinary how Protima underwent a metamorphosis from a conventional convent-educated girl into a freak. On October 12th was her 75th birthday; earlier this year, on August 18th it was her 25th death anniversary.

A Hindu alternative to Valentine's Day? 'Shiv-Parvati was first love marriage in Universe'

By Rajiv Shah*   The other day, I was searching on Google a quote on Maha Shivratri which I wanted to send to someone, a confirmed Shiv Bhakt, quite close to me -- with an underlying message to act positively instead of being negative. On top of the search, I chanced upon an article in, imagine!, a Nashik Corporation site which offered me something very unusual. 

Youth as game changers in Lok Sabha polls? Young voter registration 'is so very low'

By Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava*  Young voters will be the game changers in 2024. Do they realise this? Does it matter to them? If it does, what they should/must vote for? India’s population of nearly 1.3 billion has about one-fifth 19.1% as youth. With 66% of its population (808 million) below the age of 35, India has the world's largest youth population. Among them, less than 40% of those who turned 18 or 19 have registered themselves for 2024 election. According to the Election Commission of India (ECI), just above 1.8 crore new voters (18-and 19-year-olds) are on the electoral rolls/registration out of the total projected 4.9 crore new voters in this age group.

Stagnating wages since 2014-15: Economists explain Modi legacy for informal workers

By Our Representative  Real wages have barely risen in India since 2014-15, despite rapid GDP growth. The country’s social security system has also stagnated in this period. The lives of informal workers remain extremely precarious, especially in states like Jharkhand where casual employment is the main source of livelihood for millions. These are some of the findings presented by economists Jean Drèze and Reetika Khera at a press conference convened by the Loktantra Bachao 2024 campaign. 

Mark Lee: A spiritual leader who thought conventional religions are barrier to liberation

  By Harsh Thakor*  The Krishnamurti Foundation of America (KFA) lost Roger Edwin Mark Lee, who was a devoted disciple of Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of the greatest and most self realised spiritual philosophers of our time. Mark passed away due to pneumonia complications on April 6, 2024, at he Ventura Community Memorial Hospital in California. His exit was an irreparable loss to the spiritual world.

Fossil fuel projects: NGOs ask investors to cut TotalEnergies’ main sources of finance

By Antoine Bouhey, Lara Cuvelier, Helen Burley*  Reclaim Finance has joined 58 NGOs from around the world, including Banktrack, in signing an open letter calling on banks and investors to stop participating in bonds (loans granted by investors and facilitated by banks) issued by TotalEnergies. The 58 NGO signatories include 350.org , Amazon Watch, BankTrack, Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR, Papua New Guinea), Justiça Ambiental (Mozambique) and Friday for Future (Uganda), Oil Change International and Urgewald (Germany).