Working Class: Promises Betrayed

Swapan Mukherji

W ithin less than one month of its rule, the Congress-led UPA government has, through various steps, declarations and appointments, started sending “positive” messages to those who ‘felt good’ under Vajpayee rule. A section of Left leaders, supporting the government from “outside”, have started feeling like “outsiders”. A left columnist had to write that the central government must send at least some positive message to the poor immediately, by taking some concrete steps.


Memorandum to the Labour Minister (Excerpts)
th May, 2004)

The Central Trade Unions representing an overwhelming majority of the workers of the country viz. AICCTU, AITUC, CITU, HMS, TUCC, UTUC and UTUC-LS, greet the Hon’ble Labour Minister. We look forward to your proactive intervention in addressing the concerns of the working class of the country.

During the past few years, all the central trade unions and independent unions and federations in the country, had jointly formulated the following eight-point demands:

— Halt to privatisation of profit making and potentially viable public sector undertakings

— No Change in the labour laws in favour of the employers and against the interest of the workers

— Immediate enactment of comprehensive legislation for agricultural workers

— No to policies leading to severe aggravation of joblessness and unemployment

— Widen comprehensive social security schemes for all, including workers in unorganised sector

— Restoration of quantitative restrictions on imports

— Amendment of Payment of Bonus Act by removing all ceilings

— Restoration of 12% interest rate on P F Deposits.

Besides the above, the entire spectrum of the trade union movement in the country denounced the Supreme Court pronouncement against the right to strike and demanded that the central government take appropriate steps to negate the pernicious impact of the said judgement of the Supreme Court.

On Labour Rights:

— First and foremost, clear the impasse created by the Supreme Court verdict on the right to strike by taking effective steps to negate the pernicious impact thereof.

— Initiate steps to ratify the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation on the right to association and right to collective bargaining (ILO Conventions 87 and 98), as also the ILO Conventions 151 and 154, which specifically relate to the rights of those employed in public services.

— Include the May Day as an additional national holiday.

On policy issues

-- Carry out expeditious land reform programmes, which will lead to swift economic growth and create vast employment potential.

-- Strengthen the public distribution system with adequate quantity and regularity of supply with effective monitoring system to ensure that the gains reach the deprived and needy section; reduce the price of kerosene, augment its supply through public distribution system; price of diesel, petrol, and cooking gas not to be raised any further.

-- Review the Electricity Act, 2003 and rescind the deadline of 10 th June, 2004 for unbundling of SEBs; withdraw the bills pending in Parliament for the privatisation of banks, coal mining etc.

-- Take immediate steps to enact the Workers Participation in Management Bill,l which has been kept lingering for over a decade.

In reality the appointment of Manmohan Singh, initiator of neo-liberal policies in the country, as the Prime Minister was itself the first step to woo the multinational corporate lobby. The appointment of Mr. Chidambaram as the Finance Minister in the background of “Black Monday” followed – the FM rushed to Mumbai to reassure the FIIs not to panic, reminding that during the UF days he had come up with a “Dream Budget”. The presidential address clarified further, which did not mention about CMP’s commitment to food for work programme or comprehensive legislation for agricultural labourers. Rather, to dispel any doubt from the minds of corporate houses and foreign bosses, it linked the CMP implementation with availability of resources. To round off things Mr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, a close comrade-in-arms of Manmohan Singh during his tenure as Finance Minister, was made Vice Chairman of the Planning Commission. Montek is notoriously known for his prescription of doing away with permanent jobs and their contractisation and casualisation in order to eradicate unemployment. Lastly, the government decided to raise prices of diesel, petrol, coal and LPG. The step conveyed the government’s intention of refraining from subsidizing the poor people’s need, and it was taken in NDA style – announcing hikes just before Parliament’s budget session.

All this goes against the spirit and essence of Verdict-2004. Workers of sick and closed industries, government employees, starving agricultural labourers and landless peasants, farmers pushed to commit suicide and hopeless unemployed youth workers – all played a key role in voting out the NDA. It was a verdict against neo-liberal policies. But the presidential address interpreted it only in terms of establishing the rule of law and repairing secular fabric.

One can only expect from the capitalist class an ambiguous document like the CMP, which can be interpreted the way one wishes. On the crucible of concrete policies and actions, however, its real essence is betrayed. CMP pledges to provide a “corruption free, transparent and accountable” regime; and at the same time, Laloo Yadav becomes the Railway Minister. CMP says that profit making PSUs will not be privatised generally, but it allows selling shares to private and foreign hands. Sick industries are no doubt to be privatised, of course on throwaway prices. Electricity generation and particularly distribution is to be privatized. Reform (read part-by-part privatization) will continue. FDI will be courted in infrastructure, nationalised banks will be allowed to enter capital market to raise resources. Mr Praful Patel, Civil Aviation Minister took the CMP as a green signal to privatise airports in Mumbai and Delhi, which earn 70% of the profit for Airport Authority of India. As a result the AAI became a loss-making PSU. This opened the way to its privatisaon. Mr. Amit Mishra, General Secretary of FICCI interpreted it as a formula: Total privatization of all loss-making PSUs, 74% disinvestment (privatization) of the profit making PSUs; and 49% disinvestment in strategic profit making PSUs. And this is incidentally being called similar to the “left” position.

CMP says there would be no automatic hiring and firing of labour. However, in the same vein it commits to end “Inspector Raj” in labour relations and need for some changes in the labour laws. The whole concept of labour laws is based on government supervising its implementation and punishing the violators. The NDA government had made all the tripartite committees and government intervention irrelevant. Similarly this government wants the market to be totally “free” to take its own course. Doesn’t it mean giving free hand to the employer in labour disputes? The government likes only to be responsible for maintaining “law and order” and “industrial peace”.

As far as the comprehensive bill for agricultural labour is concerned, consecutive central governments invariably came out with the excuse that state governments do not agree with the propositions and as agriculture is in the concurrent list. Surprisingly, heading the list of opposition are the governments of West Bengal and Bihar, led by parties part of the Central government or supporting it. In West Bengal, agricultural labour unions are denied registration. Construction Labour Act, which is implemented in many states, is conspicuous by its absence in West Bengal.

Unwilling to send any wrong message to the moneybags, the government has not put the rural poor are not in the priority list. Land reform has not been even mentioned in the CMP. It promises 100 days work to only one member of a family, whereas the minimum demand of guarantee of employment for livelihood sake is 180 days. Moreover, the promise has not been linked to any concrete scheme like food for work. Thus it remains a hollow promise. In the backdrop of reduction in jobs in public and private sectors, ban on recruitment in government sector, growing mechanisation in the countryside and closure of small scale industries, the government must come out with a blueprint of creating large-scale job opportunities in a time-bound manner.

The CMP, however, has no ambiguity on foreign investment. All sorts of deregulation and incentives are being presented so as to double or triple the present inflow of FDI and FII. The government is, however, unwilling to raise import duty on coal to 96-98 level.

The World Bank country director praised the CMP for promising massive investment in the rural areas. He said that the World Bank is inspired by the quality of the CMP and the continuation of reforms with focus on rural areas, and increased its aid to India from $ 1.7 billion to $ 3 billion in the fiscal year 2005-06.

Some of the economic demands like lowering the interest rate of small savings and provision of EPF were major demands during the movement against NDA government. Restoration of 12% interest on EPF has been turned down by the UPA government too, because lower interest rate on EPF will drive the flow of money to stock market and ensure very low rate of interest against the loan taken by the capitalist class. This issue has come up as a major issue before the working class.

The CMP may contain some popular slogans and clichés, it is nothing but continuation of neo-liberal reforms in another form. Its essence is withdrawal of state, whereas the need of the hour is the intervention of the state. The state must institute a law to exercise control over the entry and exit of capital in stock markets, so a miniscule minority of investors and their foreign bosses cannot play havoc with the nation. Tax net must be tightened around the rich, who engage in vulgar display of wealth in social functions. Rural rich must be brought under taxation. Corruption and black-marketing must be checked and money hidden in the coffers unearthed. The resources should be used for generating large-scale employment for the rural and urban poor.

Unlike the UF era, when the Sponsoring Committee was put on hold, this time the Sponsoring Committee of Trade Unions met immediately after the formation of the new government and prepared a detailed memorandum, and submitted it to the new Union Labour Minister Shish Ram Ola. Unlike NDA, the UPA has agreed to hold pre-budget consultation with trade unions. The experience of one month tells us that whereas the CMP has failed to reflect genuine aspirations of Indian toilers, such superficial exercises have started creating illusions among a section of labour leaders. Working class however demands all anti-worker, anti-people measures to be reversed. The need of the hour is to discard illusion, defeatist and pessimistic ideas and prepare for the next round of battle.