“When big corporations have been given free rein to loot, and the government itself is standing on the backs of these corporations, what can the people do? They have no other path but that of struggle.”
This was one out of the nearly 100,000 voices that rose in the Indian capital of Delhi on April 5 as workers, farmers, and daily wage agricultural workers from across the country came together for the landmark Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Rally (Workers-Farmers Rally).
The demonstration was organized by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), All India Agricultural Workers Union (AIAWU), and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) in rejection of the neoliberal assault on the lives and livelihoods of the Indian working class, overseen by a ruling party which they accuse of fueling sectarian and caste-based violence, while stamping out all forms of dissent.
While workers and farmers have been organizing around specific demands, including historic struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic, their unity in recent years marks a significant development:.
“Every movement has consolidated, and within the sectoral struggles– such as protests by scheme workers, the farmers’ struggle, struggles against privatization– the consciousness level has increased to a level that workers understand that it is no more an isolated struggle,” CITU National Secretary AR Sindhu told Peoples Dispatch.
“The oppressed are coming together as the oppressed around issues of material deprivation.” said Professor Prabhat Patnaik, an eminent economist and academic, ahead of the rally.
Speaking ahead of the first Mazdoor Kisan Rally organized by the AIKS, AIAWU, and CITU in September 2018, he had explained how the agrarian crisis was driving peasants to migrate to cities in search of jobs, only to find there weren’t any: “They join this enormous mass of the unemployed, under-employed, intermittently or casually employed which actually brings down the wages and hours of those who are already employed.”
“The distress of the peasants spills over into the distress of the working class…their economic fates get linked.”
Sudden job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic—in the absence of social safety nets—saw migrant workers in cities die on railway tracks and roads while trying to reach their villages in a severely distressed countryside—where over 100,000 farmers are believed to have died by suicide in the past eight years.
‘The future lies in struggle’
Financial distress, particularly high levels of indebtedness, has been a leading cause of farmer suicides in India. A survey conducted by the National Statistical Office found that over half of the country’s agricultural households were in debt in 2018.
Despite the scale of this crisis, the Indian government ignored calls for a complete loan waiver, a demand that was reiterated at the April 5 rally. On the other hand, it has granted major concessions to the corporate sector, including writing off around Rs. 10.7 lakh crores (approximately US$130 billion) in loans in the past seven years, according to the unions.
Meanwhile, farmers’ financial distress has worsened due to produce price crashes and crop failures despite high costs of cultivation.
After the historic farmers’ protests in 2020-21, while the Modi government was ultimately forced to withdraw the three farm laws that would have opened up the agricultural sector to greater interference by corporations, as well as deregulation and contractualization, other major demands, namely a Minimum Support Price (the rate at which the government procures food grains from farmers) mandated by law, remain unfulfilled.
Speaking to Newsclick, a farmer from the state of Andhra Pradesh stressed the necessity for adequate MSP: “This year I invested Rs. 50,000 (US$ 610) in my crops and in return, got only Rs. 20,000 [or US$ 244, a mere 40% of the cost incurred].” The MSP guarantee is essential not just for farmers, but for the food security of the country as a whole.
At a time when agricultural households are drowning in debt, with little hope for finding employment in urban areas, the Modi government has limited the scope of a key lifeline—the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
Not only has the scheme’s funding been slashed and people denied work, the government has also imposed exclusionary mandatory digitization measures that have led to workers losing out on already meager wages.
Among the demands at the April 5 rally were the expansion of the scheme to include 200 work days as opposed to the existing 100, minimum daily wage to be increased to Rs. 600 (US$7.3), all pending wages (which as per union estimates amount to a shocking Rs. 1,498 crores in the past months) be paid, and job guarantees for all. AIKS, CITU, and AIAWU have also demanded pensions for all poor and middle peasants and agricultural workers over the age of 60.
Not only has employment growth slowed down dramatically, existing jobs are being hollowed out by the government through four labor codes that were forced through parliament in 2020.
While they are yet to come into effect, these codes have been widely condemned for trampling on workers’ rights, including those related to unionization and strikes, while making it easier for employers to cut wages and hire and fire workers at will. The codes also exclude informal workers from coverage under the minimum wage legislation as well as social security benefits. The April 5 rally once again raised a call for the scrapping of these codes.
Women have been at the forefront of many of these struggles, including women working as Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) and or in Anganwadis (rural child-care centers). Despite being critical to the implementation of government schemes for maternal and child care, community health, nutrition, and the pandemic response, the labor of these women is still not recognized as work, which means that they have been denied even a living wage.
While real wages have remained stagnant over the past eight years, the prices of food have risen significantly. Data from March shows that inflation rates for milk and cereal touched 9.3% and 15.2%, respectively. AIKS, CITU, and AIAWU have demanded a monthly minimum wage of Rs. 26,000 (US$317) and a pension of Rs. 10,000 (US$122) for all workers, including scheme workers.
They also amplified the growing demand for universalization of the Public Distribution System (PDS), through which the government provides subsidized rations, and for its extension to include 14 essential items. While 75% of rural and 50% of urban population must be covered under PDS, the use of outdated census data from 2011 to determine eligibility has meant that many food insecure households have been excluded.
“Rights including the right to food and right to education have been made statutorily binding in the neoliberal period itself. However, when it comes to actually implementing these rights, through the rationing system for food for instance, there have been drastic cuts in budgets and Aadhaar-linking, all of which have worked to exclude people from these entitlements,” Sindhu said.
Other demands being jointly raised by CITU and others include the provision of universal and quality healthcare, education, and housing.
Meanwhile, workers have also fiercely resisted the handing over of resources and key parts of the public sector to private corporations. Describing the ‘slow killing of public sector undertakings’, a member of the BSNL (a publicly-owned telecommunications company) Employees Union said, “The Modi government ousted 80,000 employees from our company. It did not allocate any 4G and 5G spectrum to us, we got killed in the competition.”
“There is now a new threat to us in the form of the National Monetisation Pipeline. They want to sell out our towers, optic fiber network and properties. We will not let that happen.”
Rejecting the ‘Corporate Sectarian Nexus’
“Neoliberal policies have created a conjuncture, a situation where sectarian, authoritarian forces have been on the rise,” Patnaik had said in 2018. “There have been lynch mobs going around the country with impunity, terrorizing people belonging to minority groups…[Meanwhile] until recently large scale arrests have not taken place, but even that restraint is now gone.”
He was speaking a day after leading civil rights activists, journalists, and professors from different parts of the country were arrested in what is known as the Bhima Koregaon or Elgar Parishad case. In the years since, these activists have lived, and died, under inhumane conditions in prison, without a chargesheet being filed or a trial being held.
Student leaders have been imprisoned under draconian charges, while Hindu extremist ‘cow vigilantes’ have mass public gatherings held in their honor as their names mysteriously disappear from police reports.
With another general election scheduled for 2024, platforms such as CITU, AIKS, and AIAWU are consciously organizing farmers and workers to mount a united struggle—“There is a sectarian-corporate nexus,” Sindhu said. “These struggles to save the constitution or to ‘save democracy’ cannot be separated from the struggle against neoliberalism. They have to be fought together.”
With the campaign season looming, farmers and workers’ organizations are gearing up for major grassroots mobilizations. The Sankyukt Kisan Morcha, which led the 2020-21 farmers protest, is organizing events in the months of May and June. In the days leading up to August 8, which marks ‘Quit India Day’ (a commemoration of a major phase of the Indian anti-colonial struggle), the AIAWU will be organizing agitations and other collective efforts.
Meanwhile, the country’s central trade unions are also set to hold a three-day strike between August 9 and 11.