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Migrant workers' saga: Farmers protesting, why Indian labour is 'unable' raise its voice?

By Aviral Anand*

It is heartening to see that farmers in several states have risen up against some of the new farming changes being proposed by the government. Almost surreptitiously and slyly, the government had introduced various changes by means of these farm bills. Most of the proposed changes have to do with some form of an increased stake of private players in the farm sector.
Not that there are many areas of Indian agriculture unaffected by some form of corporate intervention. One of the key points the farmers are raising currently is regarding the composition of mandis and the entry of private players in it. However, the farm bills also included provisions for further easing the terms of “contract farming.”
The jury is still out on the success of the contract farming model in India, with the feeling that it generally favours the corporations more than the farmers. There has not been much discussion and debate in the country over the implications of these measures. It does not seem that the big farmer’s organizations have had much say in these matters.
All along the period there have been various farmers’ protests but they have gone unnoticed. It is now that we are finally seeing some sort of a momentum building up, what with the parliament also in session.
But what is a little disconcerting is the quiescence of the progressive labour movements in India. All through the massive distress caused to the migrant workers on account of the lockdowns and the secretive attempts to alter labour laws during the pandemics (related to working hours etc), one failed to see an adequate response from the Indian labour forces.
They did not take to the streets, they did not come in support of the migrant workers' plight and take the issue up with the government when the issue was live. They continued to exist in some sort of slumber.
Now the government has had the gall to deny any data on migrant workers' deaths whereas even ordinary citizens know that the workers lost their lives each day as they headed back home, on highways, through jungles, along railway tracks. All that unnecessary -- but forced -- death, as if in vain.
What an ultimate disrespect to the toiling, self-respecting Indian working class, a large proportion of them dalits and adivasis by denying a record of their deaths, even if they are just numbers.
All along, we have not seen any large-scale mobilization by India’s more settled, organized working classes. This is a strange and unexplained silence and even a left-leaning article on the site "Sanhati" had to observe that, “Alongside civil society organisations and NGOs, many trade unions have been transformed into purveyors of charity…” 
Indian working class is looking at prolonged distress. Will labour movement to wake up and stem the rot before it is too late?
When, in the thick of the pandemic, one witnessed ordinary people around the world -- in the US, in Hong Kong, in Thailand, in Belarus, in Russia -- take on very powerful and deeply entrenched forces, why were the Indian labour movements not able to organize and raise their voices in protest against the repeated assault on the working classes?
The cruel irony to the migrant workers’ saga is that so many of them are returning to their former places of work since their home bases offer no opportunities. Yet, they are returning to the previous circumstances -- there has been no attempt by the various administrations at changing the way they interface with the migrants or thinking of provisioning them with the basics of social security.
When for years, government after government has sat on various social measures for the well-being of migrant labour (as documented by people like Prof Ravi Srivastava, KR Shyam Sundar and others), how can we hope anything will change?
It is against this backdrop that mass movements are necessary to change the status quo and force the government to treat the working class with the dignity it deserves. The Indian progressive labour movements with a variety of trade unions boast of large numbers and abilities of mobilization. Many of them are affiliated with left-wing parties and are often found participating in various kinds of agitations.
Why they have been unable to come together and lend their voice to the plight of the issues of the working class, especially as impacted by the pandemic and lockdown, remains an unfortunate phenomenon. Meanwhile, encouraged by this silence of such a large chunk of the nation’s working population, the government has gone ahead with its anti-worker economic-policies.
With a sharp fall in the GDP, a contraction in the economy, and relief packages that have proved too measly, it is obvious that India’s working class is looking at prolonged distress. This seems to be the most urgent moment for India’s labour movements to wake up and stem the rot before it is too late.
--
*Writer based in Delhi

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