CLASS STRUGGLES IN TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY INDIA
‘The chief executive officer of a Greater Noida-based gear manufacturing company [Graziano Transmissioni India Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of an Italian TNC] was lynched to death inside factory premises on Monday, allegedly by a group of dismissed workers.’
‘“Around 125 dismissed workers armed with iron rods barged into the factory and went on rampage. They broke computers and machinery and smashed windowpanes. When Lalit tried to pacify them, they assaulted him with rods,” board of director Ramesh Jain told Hindustan Times.’ See report here
‘Companies in the area are known to employ contract labour in large numbers, though the law clearly states that such workers can be used only for non-core functions and not on the shop floor.’ says another report.
They’d never had it so good. Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, the party had gone on. Unrestrained. Unrestrained in its vulgarity and its opulence. Like vultures on a feast, they had descended in hordes. All the land was theirs – whichever and wherever they wanted. They paid no taxes. Initially, they evaded taxes. But then wiser counsels prevailed and governments themselves exempted them. They were to be given tax-holidays and incentives to keep them with us. They looted the money of nationalized banks. Labour was gagged, tied hand and foot and thrown at their feet – to serve them like the slaves of yore. The cities were ‘cleaned up’ for them and their cars. Flyover, expressways, glitzy malls and car parks took over city spaces. For them and their consumers. The poor had no right to be in the city. Thus arrived the new era. The Judge, the Bureaucrat, the Politician – all marched in a procession, announcing its arrival.
The party began. Like the din of the dance floors of New Delhi’s upstarts, the noise levels kept on rising. Louder and louder. Shriller and shriller. Anybody who raised any question was a ‘party-pooper’. They knew it. They knew they were partying and they knew that decibel levels inside the dance houses had to be kept up to levels where nothing else could endure. Nothing but mindless gyrations to the trumpet and brass-band of Capital would be allowed. You could enter. Anybody could, but only on that condition. Mindlessness.
And so the neo-classical hacks and mediots, cheer-leaders of capital (see for instance, the Indian Express lead today), got into the act, dancing to the jingle of money, as the neon signs of global hypermodernity gradually lit up the night skyline of Indian cities. They told us how indispensable capital was ‘for us’. Without it, we would be condemned to the dust-heap of history. The state had to stop interfering with ‘the economy’: capital should be allowed to hire and fire workers at will; it should be allowed the best conditions to make profit, else it will ‘leave us’ – bereft and Fatherless – and ‘go away’. We would have ‘no jobs’. No industry. No highways. No Malls. No glittering Neon Signs. Truly the End of History (at least, the end of ‘our’ history). Pages of newspapers and ‘screens’ (and the air around!) of televisions all filled up with mindlessness. Entire newspapers and channels became ‘Page 3’. Book reviews vanished. Literary and other sections of Sunday newspapers disappeared – all in the service of cultivating mediotic mindlessness. (The appearance of art in the media in more recent days, is another phenomenon, yet to be studied. It is geared to a large emerging corporate market, not to ‘art’ as such, but more on that some other time).
And so the cheer-leaders told us, we must give them special concessions: Give them Special Economic Zones, where they can live in peace, till such time as all of India becomes an SEZ. Give them cheaply acquired land; free them of the bondage of Indian laws of trade and commerce; let them make their own airports inside these Zones and then, the party will really take-off into the high skies. (Not for one moment do champions of free-market even see the irony of this blatant call for all round state intervention – but that is not our point today). So much has this idea of capital’s ‘indispensability’ become common sense, that governments are expected to throw in tax-payers’ money to bail-out bad businesses. Industrialists have begun to see such intervention as ‘natural’. Thus, one of the reports on the NOIDA affair cites a horrified entrepreneur: “If a private business is not doing well, the government does not foot the bill or take care of the losses. Who will support industry during a bad cycle?” said Sarbjit Singh, chairman and managing director, Noble group, which manufactures consumer electronics at Noida.’
And why not? Hasn’t the crumbling US Empire recently been bailing out bankrupt mega investment banks with the tax payers’ money? That is the model after all.
So, the government must intervene to ensure the best terms for capital, else it will run away. But if it intervenes to fix wages, ensure implementation of labour laws (almost always violated by capital), then this is ‘unwarranted ‘state intervention’, ‘socialism’ and what have you. This is a logic that has been accepted by all including the successive governments and there are, in fact, rare exceptions like Oscar Fernandes who would at least take this opportunity to remind the NOIDA industrialists that the recent unfortunate incident in Graziano Transmissioni should be taken as a warning. Understandably, there was a furore over Fernandes’ statement – among ‘India Inc’ and its cheer-leaders. Poor Fernandes had to apologise.
So let us put in the word that Oscar Fernandes had very mildly tried to. We can even extend the warning beyond what he intended to. The writing on the wall is there for everybody to see. The Party might well-nigh be over. There are threads here that connect Singur, Nandigram, Jagatsinghpur, Kalinganagar and such other land related issues to the struggles that have of late been breaking out in urban industrial areas in recent times. We will return to these presently, but for the present let us just look at what the writing on the wall says.
Bengal To Delhi: Land rows singe industry, read the front-page headlines of a leading daily some days ago. Its main point:
‘First it was Nandigram, then Singur. Then the emotive issue of aquisition of agricultural land for industry land triggered unrest in Gurgaon and Noida. Now, protests have caught up with the capital. ‘
‘Hundreds of farmers from five villages of the north-west district have taken up cudgels against the acquisition of 1,450 acres of agricultural land — a face-off that may just end up haunting the state government ahead of the Assembly elections later this year. ‘
The report went on to say that ‘on Friday, the farmers blocked the entry and exit points of the deputy commissioner’s office for the second consecutive day during office hours and declared that they would continue doing so until the government gave them compensation for their land at market price.’
The intense struggles around the land question are of course, widely acknowledged by now. What is not so clearly visible is the situation in the cities, in urban industrial areas. Three years ago, we did see the violent struggle of and police repression against the workers of Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India Pvt Ltd. Just to refresh our memories, it was precisely when the workers started raising issues of ill-treatment and workload and eventually formed and registered a union – the Honda Motor Cycles and Scooter India Employees Union (Reg. No: 1811) affiliated to All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) – that the company declared an illegal lockout. The Honda incident (see details here) had revealed only the tip of the ice-berg.
Now, in similar, highly exploitative conditions, we are witness to another unfortunate violent incident. The workers of Graziano allege resort to devious and illegal methods on the part of the management. Says a Business Standard report:
‘On their part, a number of Graziano workers expressed their ire at being replaced by contract workers. As such workers are not on their rolls, companies make substantial savings on their wage bills. Some of these men said that the Graziano plant was being run by 400 contract workers in two shifts for the past three months.’
Incase, we thought this was a one-off incident instigated by some mad trade unionists, let us also cite the following from today’s Indian Express report:
“Accidents” like that on Monday are not new to the industrial hub, say NOIDA indutrialists. ‘Vinod Kumar Vajpayee, president of the Noida Phase-II Industries Association, said: “There are many other companies that have seen violence over the last few years.” ‘
* Workers of Jaypee Greens in Greater Noida attacked the company’s office in 2004 and killed one person.
* Similarly, employees at Daewoo attacked the office of the company after it went bankrupt. Some 125 workers and 10 policemen were injured in the clashes.
* Hindon Rubber, another company that was based in Noida, wound up operations after similar protests by employees earlier this year.
‘Most clashes in the past, industrialists say, have been because of expelled or suspended [read retrenched or laid-off] employees.’
We can go on multiplying examples but for the present let us stop with these indicative instances. Let me underline that these indicents suggest a more widespread mood that is spreading rapidly across the country. It might merely be the beginning of a wider phenomenon. Just as the story of struggles against land acquisitions did not begin with Nandigram and were in fact preceded by innumerable struggles and an accumulation of struggle-effects, so these instances might simply presage the coming of another, industrial Nandigram.
Seriously mistaken are those cheer leaders who belive that Graziano-NOIDA is the outcome of ‘militant trade unionism’. On the contrary, what both Honda and Graziano like incidents reveal is the utter inefficacy of trade unions whose only job has been to channelize workers discontent into legal and legally acceptable forms of struggle. They reveal the powerlessness of the mass of workers who, in situations of despair, initially seek out the trade unions to help them but eventually cannot be contained within their sterile and ritualistic methods. These incidents reveal that workers discontent, hitherto hostage to the formal or informal compact between the managements and trade unions, is struggling to break free of this stifling control. That said, whatever our criticisms of trade unions, we must also underline that their ineffectivity (at last of some of them, since not all are ‘sold’ to managements) is at least partly a consequence of the new order that was instituted in the beginning of the 1990s. In that order, as I said above, no avenues of airing grievance were left open. In that new order, the powers that be rode roughshod over popular sentiments and grievances with supreme arrogance – ably backed by the Judiciary. Recall how the decade long peaceful struggle of the Narmada Bachao Andolan was reduced to ineffectivity.
Ineffectivity therefore, is not simply the result of faulty trade union strategies. It is also the index of the fact that all avenues of communication are now closed – that power has become a one-way traffic that simply flows top down. It is an elementary fact that any student of power will point out, that it is precisely in this moment of power’s becoming-opaque, that it begins to expose itself to maximum threats – from without and within. For power’s opacity is first and foremost, opacity to itself. It ceases to be able to see itself and the new threats that it poses to its own being.
Now, the important question that links Nandigram to Graziano: Who are these workers? Who are those who flock into the cities in search of jobs and end up as workers in Grazianos or such other companies? They are those uprooted from their habitat, from their land and livelihood and ‘hurled upon the urban labour market’ (Marx). Some become workers, soem eke out a living as hawkers and vendors and many remain unmeployed and get sucked into networks of crime. Those uprooted in the long winter that set in in the beginning of the 1990s, people our cities.
It is this Capital and Industry that will apparently deliver us from joblessness. It is for them that the CPM-brand Left wants SEZs in West Bengal and Kerala – in the fond hope that they will provide jobs to the youth of their states. Those who live on agriculture – may be at subsistence levels – will now be thrown to the wolves, where they neither have decent wages nor any job security. But that is Progress – according to pundits of the Left bourgeoisie as well as the cheer leaders.