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

Arrest of Fr Stan Swamy: UN makes public letter seeking explanation from Govt of India

Counterview Desk In a letter to the Government of India (GoI), three senior United Nations (UN) officials – Elina Steinerte, vice-chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Mary Lawlor, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; and Fernand de Varennes, special rapporteur on minority issues – have said that the arrest of veteran activist Father Stan Swamy in October 2020 marks “the escalation of harassment the human rights defender has been subjected to since 2018.”

'These people shouldn't be in jail': UN official seeks release of 16 human rights defenders

By Our Representative A United Nations human rights official has called upon the Government of India (GoI) to “immediately release" 16 human rights defenders who have been imprisoned on charges of terrorism in the Bhima-Koregaon Case, insisting, “These people should not be in jail. They are our modern-day heroes and we should all be looking to them and supporting them and demanding their release.”  

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

Farm laws 'precursor' to free trade deal envisaged by US corporates to allow GMO

By Rajiv Shah Did the Government of India come up with the three farm laws, first rushed by promulgating ordinances in June 2020, to not just open the country’s agricultural sector to the corporate sector but also as a precursor to comply with the requirements of the United States for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), as envisaged by the outgoing US president Donald Trump?

Savarkar 'criminally betrayed' Netaji and his INA by siding with the British rulers

By Shamsul Islam* RSS-BJP rulers of India have been trying to show off as great fans of Netaji. But Indians must know what role ideological parents of today's RSS/BJP played against Netaji and Indian National Army (INA). The Hindu Mahasabha and RSS which always had prominent lawyers on their rolls made no attempt to defend the INA accused at Red Fort trials.

Differing from Ambedkar, Kancha Ilaiah holds a 'different' theory of caste system

By Banavath Aravind* I was introduced to Kancha Ilaiah’s work when I was about 20 years old. He was then in the midst of a controversy for a chapter in his book "Post-Hindu India: A Discourse in Dalit-Bahujan, Socio-Spiritual and Scientific Revolution", which termed the Baniya community as social smugglers. During many of his debates, I had come to notice his undeterred fighting spirit in trying to bring up certain fundamental social issues that were hitherto undiscussed. I eventually came across some of his works and started reading them silently. I’m deliberately stressing upon the word ‘silently’ here, as this was the kind of silence particularly associated with sensitive social issues like caste, religion, etc. But, as I write this essay, I feel silences on sensitive issues should be broken. Ilaiah opened up an entirely new debate that had the vigour and strength to counter the systemic Brahmanism. His methods of research were also novel in terms of going back to the roo

Fr Stan's arrest figures in UK Parliament: Govt says, Indian authorities were 'alerted'

London protest for release of Stan Swamy  By Rajiv Shah Will Father Stan Swamy’s arrest, especially the fact that he is a Christian and a priest, turn out to be major international embarrassment for the Government of India? It may well happen, if a recent debate on a resolution titled “India: Persecution of Minority Groups” in the United Kingdom (UK) Parliament is any indication. While Jesuits have protested Fr Stan's arrest in UK and US, the resolution, adopted in the Parliament, said, “This House has considered the matter of persecution of Muslims, Christians and minority groups in India”.

New trend? Riots 'expanded' to new rural areas post-2002 Gujarat carnage: Report

A VHP poster declaring a Gujarat village part of Hindu Rashtra  By Rajiv Shah  Buniyaad, a Gujarat-based civil society organization, engaged in monitoring of communal violence in the state, in a new report, “Peaceful Gujarat: An Illusion or Truth?” has said that a “new trend” has come about in communal violence in the state, where the parts of Gujarat which didn't see communal riots in 2002 are experiencing “regular bouts” of communal violence.

More than 5,200 Gujarat schools to be closed down, merged, says govt document

RTE Forum, Gujarat, releasing fact-sheet on education By Our Representative A Gujarat government document has revealed that it is planning to close down 5,223 schools in the name of school merger. The document, dated July 20, 201 was released by the Right to Education (RTE) Forum, Gujarat. It shows that the worst-affected districts because of this merger are those which are populated by marginalized communities – especially tribals, Dalits and minorities, said RTE Forum’s Gujarat convener Mujahid Nafees.

Consumption pattern, not economic shock behind 'poor' child health indicators

By Neeraj Kumar, Arup Mitra* The findings of the latest round of National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) conducted in 2019-20 covering 22 States/UTs under Phase-I  present a somewhat disappointing picture of children’s health in India. Majority of the experts, based on prima facie evidence, just highlighted the deteriorating sign of child health in terms of increase in proportion of stunted and underweight children in most of the phase-I states/UTs over last two rounds of NFHS (2015-16 to 2019-20).