Guest post by ATUL SOOD
The lexicon of this election is very different. Some things are being said in coded language while for others, a new language is being invented. Hindutva is repackaged and reworded with suffixes like ‘constitutional boundaries’ and anti-women, anti-dalit, anti-tribal, anti-minority and anti-poor development agenda is being openly articulated as a model that works. The latest in this frenzy about newer ways of framing things is a coinage about policy decisions, especially policy decisions that have been made in the past by the elected governments of this country (See for instance, A game changing reform strategy, Arvind Panagriya’s, TOI special op-ed, April 5, 2014).
The two key policy decisions of the UPA namely, the Industrial Disputes Act and, the Land Ceiling Act, are viewed by Mr. Panagriya as a catastrophe fallen on the Indian people who are now “condemned to forever live with our past sins”. Why do only labour and land laws, which impact the vast majority of the working classes and the peasantry of this country, become ‘sinful’? Why living with primitive judicial system or uncivilized AFPSA or dark age 377, low tax rate laws and so many others are not equivalent to living with past sins? The irony of 2014 elections, it appears, is that there is no need to specify one’s vantage point. It is the point. The author’s confidence does not end here. His argument goes on further to say that if anyone disagrees i.e. if the provinces disagree with this definition of sins, then make them fall in line by redefining the federal structure.
Truly labour regulation, land acquisition and the centre-state relations are highly contested and there are clear vantage points to see the social and economic reality around us. Classifying some views as ‘sinful’ is a very clever way of building moral superiority of one’s view by calling (implicitly) others as supporting sin or becoming sinful while at the same time not having to defend the stated position.
Regulating Labour, Deregulating Capital
Evidence suggests that changes in the Industrial Disputes Act or the Contract Labour Act notwithstanding, the Indian State has enhanced its control over labour and given freedom to Capital. The calls for ‘hire and fire’ are given a tacit approval, via a mechanism which circumvents the mechanism for the protection of labour (through the informal norm building processes, arbitration mechanism and weak enforcement of laws) while weakening the bargaining power of labour (declining power of trade unions, declining wages, lack of social security coverage) on the other. The workers even in the ‘protected’ organized sector (which employs around 10 % of India’s workforce) face increased vulnerability with much lower levels of job security, reduced coverage of social security, declining wage shares in output as well as a stagnant real wage growth. The last fifteen to twenty years, have, in fact, witnessed numerous exemptions being granted to business from a number of regulatory exercises, positions taken up by arbitration mechanisms under the State that are against the interests of labour or pro-capital judicial reviews. The Indian State has been facilitating accumulation by disengaging from the popular discourse on labour reforms and instead has engaged in seemingly harmless norms of voluntary action and corporate social responsibility. The need of the hour, thus, is not to press for further relaxations, but to work towards securing and safeguarding the employment conditions of labour in the country.
Land Question and Acquisition
The land question has returned to the public gaze in India sharply in the last two decades. This has occurred through protest movements, legislative debates, court decisions and judgements, and reports brought to the public by the media. In the 1970s, political movements and mobilizations were around extreme inequality and deprivation in the remote parts of India, much of which were among the dalits and adivasis, and the source of this deprivation was identified as absence of access to productive assets including land. With the adoption of neoliberal economic policies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the source of growth has been rooted in the spread of construction, townships, urban development, IT parks, commercial centres and other service sector activities. To meet these new growth needs, forests and cultivatable land have been opened to mining, construction of new airports, roads, dams, IT parks, cantonments, townships and so on. The land question has now transformed into a question of “land acquisition”, where pricing, compensation, resettlement and rehabilitation instead of acquisition, redistribution and viability of cultivable land in the 1960s and 1970s, are the issues that are at the centre of politics today. The land question and land ceiling Act, therefore, does not have a single answer for the nation as a whole, as Prof. Panagriya suggests. The “economic value” of land and commons, of rivers and ponds could be very different for tribal people, marginalised owners, small farmers and land developers.
Centre’s Orientation about Development in the Provinces
It is being suggested that if the states amend their laws (on concurrent subjects like land and labour) which is in line with ‘centres’ thinking then it is fine. If they resist change and for states that do not toe the line, legislation on these subjects as modified by the centre’s should be applicable. It is remarkable that this is defined as ’empowerment of states’. Killing diversity is empowerment, allowing differing approaches to governance is being old fashioned, legislating on behalf of small land owners and against the land mafia tantamount to committing a sin! What kind of game plan is this? What is implied here is that if the states amend laws that further ‘economic reform’ then they should be given the freedom to be different from the centre or else they have to follow the prescriptions of the Central Government. The indirect mechanism of centralizing and homogenizing development that has been adopted for the last many years, is now being openly and explicitly articulated and projected as a futuristic plan and those who oppose it are ‘outdated’ and not worthy of consideration.
Elected governments have made policy decisions in the past. If they don’t work today, we need to have a balanced and transparent public debate on such issues of concern that recognizes the differentiated nature of social and economic reality of this country. Hopefully, 2104, will create such a possibility.
Atul Sood teaches at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India