Forgotten role

Published : May 23, 2008 00:00 IST

Braving the heavy police presence, workers in Mayapuri Industrial Area in Delhi come out of a factory to join the strike on April 24 in protest against the worsening labour conditions.-SUDHANVA DESHPANDE

Braving the heavy police presence, workers in Mayapuri Industrial Area in Delhi come out of a factory to join the strike on April 24 in protest against the worsening labour conditions.-SUDHANVA DESHPANDE

The media seem to have abdicated the essential role of pointing out reality and forcing society and the government to respond.

IT has been some time since most of our news media moved from trying to report reality to the less taxing and more voyeuristic provision of infotainment. This has led to a situation in which the not-so-private lives of film stars and the antics of cricketers hog not only news headlines but also news analysis and even editorial space. What is blatantly true of the television news channels is now true of the print media as well, to the point that we are simply fed a lot of entertaining pap instead of real news and so as citizens are barely aware of what is actually happening around us.

When reality is allowed to intervene, it is usually only the reality that relates to the conditions of living of the middle classes, the intended audience of the media, rather than the majority of the population. So inflation is discussed when it affects middle-class household budgets; changes in roads and traffic controls make headlines when they affect the commuting time of middle-class workers. It is not only the rural masses who are excluded from systematic coverage, but the working class in general, including in urban areas.

This point came home very clearly in the last week of April in New Delhi. This is the metropolis that perhaps has been the most affected by the rapid economic growth of the past decade, in sheer physical transformation with huge changes in infrastructure and proliferating new construction as well as in the explosion of newly prosperous groups with dramatically increased purchasing power. This city also encapsulates the contradictory nature of the recent economic growth, which has relied on the productive contribution of workers but has progressively reduced their income shares and made their material existence much more precarious.

In this megalopolis of gleaming new flyovers and malls and rapidly rising average incomes, the condition of the working class is appalling. Official data indicate that real wages have barely risen since 2000 and have fallen in many categories, especially in the unorganised sector and in informal employment even in the organised sector. Paid jobs for both men and women workers have become scarce, even when these jobs are non-permanent and irregular.

The resulting competition for employment among potential workers forces them to accept poor conditions of work and very low wages and has led to a massive expansion of uncertain and low productivity self-employment in progressively worsening conditions. And we have the highest ever rates of open unemployment, especially among the youth.

It is well known that the forces of globalisation have reduced the bargaining power of the working classes in general. But the actual extent to which workers have been forced to accept poor conditions and have not been able to benefit from the aggregate growth is still appalling. The official minimum wages in Delhi do not reflect the increases in the cost of living in the past few years, especially of such essentials as house rent and basic utilities, not to mention food. So the official minimum wages actually involve real declines in income compared with the past 10 years. Even so, in the industrial areas of Delhi, in general, the wages received in both small and large factories are well below the official minimum wages.

Competitive pressure and the prolonged attack on trade union activity have made workplace oppression more pronounced, according to many reports. What is more shocking is that many workers have been working for a very long period on a daily wage basis and without any muster rolls to confirm their work. In some factories, workers do not sign in when they enter; they only sign when they leave as proof that they have worked so that they can receive their meagre wage. This can have ominous implications: for instance, in one factory where an industrial accident caused the death in a fire of several workers, the exact number and identity of those who died is still not known because there is no record of who entered.

Conditions of informal sector work appear to have deteriorated. Self-employed workers such as rickshaw pullers and street vendors have swelled in ranks and caused real returns from such work to decline. Home-based workers, especially women, are increasingly forced to endure shockingly low piece-rate wages (often as low as Rs.5 to Rs.10 a day) and erratic payment schedules because of the absence of other income opportunities and the need to find additional money income just to meet the basic needs of their families.

What is more, despite the rapid gross domestic product growth and all the government promises about providing some relief and social protection for unorganised workers, nothing has been done. There is absolutely nothing in the form of minimum provisions for health care, insurance, pension, and so on, for these millions of workers labouring in these wretched conditions.

Such worsening conditions predictably find little or no coverage in the media. But even when a major strike was organised in the industrial areas of greater Delhi over April 24-25 to protest against the worsening labour conditions, there was still hardly any mention of it in the newspapers and absolutely none on the major local or national TV channels.

The strike involved several thousands of workers in the industrial areas of Mayapuri, Mongolpuri, Wazirpur, Okhla, Ghaziabad and some parts of Noida. In each of these areas, there were processions and picketing by large numbers of workers: in Mongolpuri between 15,000 and 20,000 workers gathered around the pickets on both days; in Badali, there was a complete strike and a procession by more than 5,000 workers; in Okhla, 1,000 workers marching in a procession were attacked and dispersed by the police; there was a complete strike in the Site 4 industrial areas of Ghaziabad; in Noida, the police lathi-charged several thousand workers at Labour Chowk in Phase II; and in Karol Bagh several hundred rickshaw pullers and vendors took out a procession and Sabzi Mandi was closed down for a day.

It would seem that these are sufficiently major events to warrant at least some mention in the media. But the main newspapers covered nothing. Instead, a small demonstration by fewer than a hundred medical students protesting against Other Backward Class (OBC) quotas was given a lot of publicity, with photographs, in almost all the newspapers. The news channels even the ones that claim to cover city and local news did not provide any coverage of this strike and the various protests and processions of many thousands of people or of the dreadful conditions that led the workers to protest in the first place.

It is difficult to estimate how much worse things must get for workers before there is some public outcry. But it may not be difficult to guess how much anger and resentment all this must be creating among the workers themselves. It is, of course, common among the working class to blame the government, employers, and so on, for the bad conditions of work, and it is obvious that they are indeed responsible for these.

But the media are generally perceived as playing a more positive role: the essential role in a democracy of pointing out reality and forcing society, the government and employers to respond. Instead, our media seem to have abdicated this role and have themselves become corporate-driven and insensitive to the condition of the majority.

The disconnect between the elite (including the media) and people at large continues to grow and is one that will ultimately be the most dangerous for the elite.

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