For the first time in one hundred and thirty five years the workers of the world will not be on the streets on May Day. Many have likened the present coronavirus crisis to a war even comparing it to the two world wars. But this is not a fight between humans, a fight for domination of one people over another, a fight for land and power. Nor is this like the global economic crises of 1929 or of 2008 caused by economic collapse. The pandemic is not the ‘source’ but the ‘cause’ of an economic crisis which we are now facing. This is a crisis we have not faced before, a crisis whose roots lie in the conflict between human society and nature.
Even the Pandemic does not affect the Rich and the Poor alike
Like everything the effect of the pandemic is also not equal. It affects the working class more than it affects others. The severity of the lockdown has been felt the most by the least advantaged of the working class: the migrant workers, daily wagers, home based workers and and the self-employed. There is little disputing that physical distancing is necessary to fight a communicable infection that has no cure yet but undoubtedly the nature and scale of the lockdown in India has been severe and turned into a brutal attack on the working class.
The lockdown was brought on by the Union Government, without any consultation and any advance planning. With the first infected person identified on 30th January, while state governments stepped up preventive measures, the Union Government waited till 22nd March for its ‘janta curfew’. The unilateral and arbitrary announcement of the complete shutdown from 24th March, came simultaneously with orders to shut down all public transport. This created confusion and panic among migrant workers, in the tens of million, desperate to return to their homes. Many walked a 1000 and more kilometres with their families, only to be sent back in some cases with brute police force to their cramped lodgings or interned in camps. The Union Government has gained effective power on the free movement of people.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is celebrating ‘social distancing’ ignoring the vast numbers of the country’s working population who live in tiny, often poorly ventilated, housing with less than adequate supply of water and sanitation facilities. Promoting ‘work from home’ or extending school and university education through e-learning also fails to recognise that the vast number of the country’s working population are manual workers with very limited digital access and skill.
Despite recognising that this scale of shutdown will not just cause a recession it will push millions of families who have come out of poverty over the last several decades back into poverty, the Union government has merely, for the most part, restated existing government social protection programmes including rations under the NFSA and employment under the NREGA as relief measures. While government issued orders directing employers to pay wages and not to fire workers during the lockdown, there is no mechanism for the government to implement this order and no intent to take action against defaulters. Consequently, the largest section of workers have not received their wages across the country. Alongside, government believes that it is being generous in allowing workers withdraw two-thirds of their own Provident Funds or be paid from the construction and other welfare boards. These monies are workers’ own money for good and bad times held in trust by government.
The Union government, above all, has completely lacked a medical strategy to deal with the pandemic. Doctors across the world has emphasised the need for large scale testing to prevent the spread but our. government has comprehensively failed in it. Six weeks after the lockdown, we are staring at a complete collapse of testing with failed attempts to import testing equipment through a private company. Throughout these three months there has been a constant shortage of personal protective equipment for medical workers while it has been almost unavailable to all other frontline workers, especially contract sanitation workers, and honorarium workers like ASHA, ANM and Anganwadi workers who are in direct contact with affected people. Government has declared that all frontline workers will receive a health insurance worth Rs. 50 lakh but these workers have no protection while they are alive. To make matters worse, these frontline workers, including the gig (delivery app) workers are being mandated to download the Aarogya Setu app which brings them under 24 hour surveillance.
While state governments are begging not just for more money but their unpaid share of the Goods and Services Tax and other central transfers due to them, the Union Government remains committed to its neo-liberal ideology that it must cut its spending. It has thus been prompt to effectively freeze the dearness allowance for all government employees, from the very top all the way down to clerical workers and all government manual workers. This will also be extended to state government employees all the way down to the public sector workers which in turn will drive down consumer demand in an already clamped down economy. Even as government orders speak differently, this is also a signal to the private sector to go ahead and slash wages wherever they can. Nothing signals more on whose side government is: in this period of crisis, the Reserve Bank of India issued a Rs. 50,000 crore lifeline to mutual funds when one of them folded up last week. It is for us to fight not just the inequality this wealth creates but the power behind it.
With this the Union Government has also signalled that it will go ahead with ‘labour law reform’ through ordinance if necessary while keeping parliament too under clampdown. 135 years ago workers struck work and marched peacefully to the Haymarket square in Chicago demanding an eight hour workday – the rest of it is history. This day continues to be celebrated as May Day. Gujarat, a state that celebrates its founding day on May Day, has already shown the way to a new ‘norm’ by extending the working day from 8 hours to 12 for all factories, with no provision for overtime pay or any time bar on the order. Let there be no doubt, this government has already decided who must bear the economic costs of the pandemic.
Despite all efforts to slash, scavenge and privatise the public sector over the years, especially by the present government to favour both private healthcare and private health insurance, the Union Government has turned to the public sector medical system for treatment of the coronavirus. This is a clear indication of how law and policy are twisted to advantage the for-profit sector. Defending, growing and advancing the public sector remains our goal as we strive to take control of the means of production and distribution.
Spreading Hatred in the time of Pandemic
Like every one of us, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) knows that the post corona world will be different and along with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is doing all it can to ensure that it stays relevant. The BJP-RSS and their ‘family’ have made enormous efforts to park the blame of ‘spreading’ the virus on to the Muslim community. Muslims, especially the youth, are being arrested for allegedly conducting the February-March pogrom in Delhi. Students and anti-CAA activists are still being targeted along with the Dalit community and the democratic rights movement. Gautam Navalakha and Anand Teltumbde, the two alleged Bhima-Koregaon conspirators who had not yet been arrested, have finally been arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Several Kashmiri journalists have been charged under the same law amended to include individuals some months ago even as Jammu and Kashmir continues under the 5 th August clampdown.
Journalists across the country are being falsely accused of misrepresentation when carrying authentic reports of workers’ misery caused by an insensitive and inept government. With all others arms of the state under clampdown, the Supreme Court has continued to subordinate itself to government undermining the fundamental right to freedom of expression and speech and stood by the centralising and anti-federal urges of the Union Government. Defending democracy must remain our cardinal defining principle: for without democracy, there will be no working class movement, no trade union and above all no fairness, equality and justice.
To isolate Pakistan in the region, the Indian Government tried to revive the SAARC by throwing tiny sums of cash at our neighbours. In the midst of this the Prime Minister allowed himself to be threatened by the US President into slavishly sending supplies of hydroxychloroquine to the US while simultaneously trying to bait and isolate China on investment and on the quality of its medical supplies and testing equipment. This is not a foreign policy that has brought us any gain in these past six years. International solidarity is built on mutual respect and mutual trust that lies at the heart of progress in the working class movement and recognising the ‘new normal’ will redefine a lot of our world in terms of work and wage in terms of social relations and in terms of political and economic freedoms.
Do we return to ‘business as usual’?
Do we want to remain a world that does not recognise frontline workers, denies them a living wage, healthcare, a safe and secure work place and a decent retired life? Do we return to the world of private hospitals and private health insurance which 95% of us cannot afford? Do we return to the world of highly polluted cities with more private transport and less and less public transport? Do we further redistribute the share of wages in relation to the share of profits? And do we want to allow bigotry and xenophobia to divide us. Or
Do we struggle and strive to build another world, a world that respects all necessary work, pays living wages and ensures decent lives guaranteeing justice, equality and democracy for all. Building another world requires us to look at the past and the future differently including our own very organisations past and our place in the future. It calls for unity of democratic, militant working class organisations. It calls for unity not just in platforms or agendas or in strike actions. This time calls for us to unite as one organisation committed to social and political change, of one working class marching forward in action seeking a new world. This must be our resolve this May Day.