9 Years, 9 Blows: Unveiling the Central Government's Attack on the Working Class
The fascist project of the BJP which constitutes a concerted effort to undermine democratic institutions and to promote Hindutva nationalism on the one hand, also engages in overt class warfare of the ruling class against the working class as one of its defining features. This phase of fascism has emerged in a context of global neoliberalism where capital is on the offensive - snatching back whatever gains were made by workers’ movements and grabbing whatever resources remain in the public domain through massive campaigns of privatization, land grab and environmental destruction. Alongside neoliberal economic policies that spell doom for the working class, there are nine lynchpins of the nine years of Modi’s regime.
The Modi government has unabashedly declared its allegiance to the capital class and displayed its contempt for the working class. Bowing to the dictates of the Adanis and the Ambanis, Modi is determined to reduce the working class to slaves under the ominous sounding slogan of ‘ease of doing business’. 9 years after Modi claimed his government ”cares for the poor”, this regime has established itself as indisputably India’s most pro-corporate and and anti-people government.
Through words and deeds, Modi’s endeavour is to reconfigure the relationship between the employers and the workers into one that is premised on servility and gratitude. In the 2019 election victory speech, Modi famously declared that there are only two castes living in the country – the poor and those trying to pull the poor out of poverty. In his 2019 Independence Day speech, he called out to the people of the country to recognise and honour “wealth creators” and to stop seeing them “with suspicion”. Rejecting the basic fact that wealth is produced by the labour power of workers, Modi instead continues to display his devotion to the capitalist class. In fact, a recent Oxfam reports show that by reducing corporate tax slabs and granting concessions to companies, the government lost revenue of 1.03 lakh crore in 2020-21, which is more than the total allocation for the entire MNREGA scheme for the year.
The popular description of crony capitalism as Adani-Ambani Company Raj aptly summarises the true character of the Modi government as the government of the super-rich, by the super-rich, for the super-rich.
The Modi government's economic and labor policies have resulted in alarming levels of social and economic inequality in India. The implementation of globalization, liberalization and privatisation policies over the past three decades has contributed to the growth of gross inequality, but the last nine years have witnessed a pronounced escalation in this disparity. As a result, India now ranks among the countries with the highest levels of inequality.
The concentration of wealth has witnessed an alarming increase. The Oxfam Report - India’s “Survival of the Richest: The India Supplement" finds that the top 30% own more than 90% of the total wealth, while the bottom 50% of the population has around 3% of total wealth. With reduction in direct and corporate taxes, and increase in indirect taxes, it finds that the bottom 50% of the population at an All-India level pays six times more on indirect taxation as a percentage of income compared to top 10%. Wealth inequality has stripped 70% of Indians from as basic a necessity as food, with India being one of the hungriest countries in the world, ranking 107 among 121 countries in terms of the Global Hunger Index in 2022!
3. Attack on Social Justice: Solidifying Caste-feudal and patriarchal structures
The prevailing labor and economic policies of the Union Government sustain and perpetuate caste, feudal and patriarchal structures, further entrenching their dominance within society.
For instance, the new Labour Codes allow for the continuance of the contract labour system in occupations that are caste ordained like sanitation work, housekeeping work. Consequently, Dalit workers are trapped within a cycle of insecurity forced to work without job security or social security.
Similar is the condition with women workers. Oxfam’s India Discrimination Report has found that India’s female labour force participation rate has fallen from 42.7% in 2004-05 to 25% in 2021 and attributes it largely due to gender discrimination in wages and opportunities. 97% of women workers are unorganzied and work as contract workers, scheme workers, etc. without job or social security benefits. A large number of women workers – ASHA workers, mid-day meal, Anganwadi workers – are denied even the recognition of workers. This has been further exacerbated by the coming in of the Labour Codes, which directly attacks gender equality, eroding even the right to equal remuneration and service conditions.
Unemployment is at a 45 year high and the unemployment crisis is pushing entire sections of workers, particularly those from marginalised and oppressed sections, into poverty, debt-traps, hunger and further marginalisation. The promise of 2 crore jobs made by Modi in 2014 has been forgotten. The Union government’s economic and labour policies is not even attempting to create jobs, but is in fact aimed at removing even existing jobs or informalizing the formal sector, thereby aggravating unemployment and pushing workers into insecure working conditions. Even the army is not being left out of contractualization, with the Agnipath scheme being brought in.
Today a vast unorganized sector that comprise of 93 percent of total workforce and contributes 65 percent of the GDP are forced to work without any job security, wage security or social security. It is no coincidence that these workers, forced into precarious working conditions, predominantly hail from historically oppressed and marginalized communities. The magnitude of the erosion of rights can be seen by the fact that daily wage earners constitute the largest category of individuals who have been forced to commit suicide between 2019 and 2021.
5. Surgical strikes on the working class - Demonetisation (8th November 2016), GST (1st July 2017) and the Covid lockdowns (March 2020)
The impact of these three policies on the working class has been devastating. Demonetisation hugely shattered the informal economy of the country. Millions of jobs were lost. According to the CMIE-CPHS data demonetization resulted in about 1.5 million jobs being lost, during the first four months of 2017. Within months of demonetisation, GST was implemented, which further worsened the situation.
The Covid lockdown that came as a jolt and further heightened this crisis. The 4-hour notice for imposing the Covid lockdown announced on 24th March resulted in workers and their families forced to face impoverishment, starvation and destitution.
Jobless and hungry and tired of this situation, thousands of migrant workers walked back home only to be met with draconian action. In Surat the police resorted to tear gas and lathi charge, and arrests! Uttar Pradesh government collected Rs 21 lakh from thousands of cycles confiscated from laborers going towards their homes in lockdown. Once back home the workers had to protest even for work and food!
Lakhs of jobs lost in the first phase never appeared again. Those who were re-employed, found themselves in precarious working conditions. The Report on the State of Working India by Azim Premji University found that workers came back into more precarious and informal employment, with nearly, half of formal salaried workers moved into informal work, either as self-employed, casual wage or informal salaried workers between 2019 - 2020. The second wave of COVID-19 only worsened the situation.
The Government did absolutely nothing to safeguard workers, instead taking this opportunity to bring in anti-worker laws. Over the Covid pandemic, the BJP government indulged in, what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine” i.e. the brutal tactic of using the public’s disorientation following a collective shock – wars, coups or natural disasters – to push through pro-corporate measures. Laws relating to labour, agriculture, land ownership, acquisition of lands for industries were all amended by the BJP government. The Labour Ministry of the Union government even issued a communication dated 05.05.2020 to all the State Governments stating that in order to address the “… challenges emerged due to COVID-19 pandemic, it is requested to undertake labour reforms on priority basis”, namely enabling self-certification, reduced inspection system, and amending laws to push workers outside the protection of the law.
6. Dismantling the existing labour law protections:
The repeal of 44 labour laws and the bringing in of the 4 Labour Codes was nothing short of a declaration of a war on the working class. The fact that it was brought in during a raging pandemic only showed the absolute callousness of the Government.
Aimed to deny workers their hard-earned rights, the Labour Code give legal sanction to the neo-liberal regime of increased privatisation, contractualization and informalisation. From attacking the basic rights of workers to the 8-hour work day, they heavily penalize and outlaw any form of working class action like strikes. They place lakhs of workers outside the protection of the law, dismantle existing social security systems, attack workers’ rights to organise, withdraw several protections to women workers, institutionalised contract labour and institutionalized caste and gender oppressions in the workplace.
The Labour Codes are also an attack on workers rights as envisaged in the Constitution. While the Constitution envisages “living wages”, the Codes institutionalise “starvation wages”; while the Constitution mandates state policy towards participation of workers in management of industries, the Codes institutionalise the dictatorship of the private employer.
7. Attack on Rural Labour:
The erosion of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) by the Union government is exacerbating the agrarian crisis in India. In 2015, one year after he assumed office, Modi mocked the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) calling it a “living memorial” to the Congress’ failures, and has thereafter made a concerted effort to undermine the same.
Despite an increase in demand under the scheme, the budgetary allocation has only reduced, with MGNREGA funds being cut by 33% in 2023.
The government's attack on the MGNREGA is evident in three distinct ways, as highlighted by Jean Dreze - First, the introduction of a mandatory digital app to mark attendance which adversely impacts the workers due to digital illiteracy and connectivity issues. Second, by linking wage payment to Aadhaar and Third, the stagnant wages under the MGNREGA. The introduction of the Aadhaar-Based Payment System (ABPS) would result in MGNREGA workers whose bank accounts are not ABPS-compliant not receiving wage payments. As per official statistics only 43% of the workers are enrolled for the payment system.
The systematic privatisation and outright sale of public sector establishments in India, under the banners of initiatives like 'Make in India' and the 'National Monetisation Pipeline,' have opened up the entire economy to foreign capital.
This transfer of public assets to corporate hands apart from resulting in the concentration of wealth in the hands of corporates, will have dire consequences for workers including job losses and the abandonment of reservation policies meant to protect the rights and opportunities of Dalits and Adivasis.
While on the one hand, the Union government is privatising PSUs and other state assets, on the other hand, it refuses to fill vacancies. According to the Centre’s Department of Expenditure, Pay Research Unit, around 9.83 lakh central government posts were lying vacant, which is 24.29% of total sanctioned posts.
Over the last 9 years, the Modi government has actively pursued a policy to criminalize the working class and their struggles.
The migrant workers in Surat, who during the Covid lockdown, protested demanding that they be allowed to return to their homes, were tear gassed, lathi charged and then arrested. Contract workers working at Reliance Energy Ltd., Mumbai and members of the Mumbai Electric Employees Union, fighting against the precarious working conditions and for the basic rights of workers were implicated in false cases and charged under UAPA for their Union activities.
The neoliberal state has systematically forced workers into highly precarious working conditions, promoting the rise of contract work and informalization, which breeds job insecurity. Any attempt by workers to organize for better working conditions are met with staunch resistance. The corporate sector treats the state apparatus, including the police force, as its own "private militia" to suppress such organizing efforts. The thwarting of liberty of the working class has also been codified in the Labour Codes. The Industrial Relations Code, effectively outlaws the right to strike, increasing the punishment for the same.
9 Years of the Fight Back
In the face of the relentless assault by the Modi regime, over the last 9 years the working class has demonstrated tremendous resilience and unity in their fightback. A powerful example of this was seen when thousands of garment workers in Bengaluru spontaneously went on strike in 2016 to protest the Union government's amendment to the provident fund rules, compelling the government to withdraw the amendments.
The staunch resistance to the Labour Codes, with the Joint Trade Union All India strikes every year, has resulted in the Government not being able to bring the Codes into effect. The spirited struggles of ASHA workers, sanitation workers, and Anganwadi workers have successfully exerted pressure to the Government and secure workers improved conditions.
It is crucial for the working class to continue their struggle and act as a potent force to fight fascism and create a more just and equitable society.