Protests in Delhi

Growing discontent

Print edition : September 28, 2018

T he Mazdoor Kisan SangHarsh rally in Parliament Street, New Delhi, on September 5. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

IT was a unique display of strength, resilience and determination. On September 5, nearly one and a half lakh workers, including agricultural workers and farmers, streamed into the capital from as many as 26 States. Their demands were a fixed national minimum wage; remunerative prices for agricultural produce; guaranteed procurement; and universal social security for those who they said were the real producers of the nation.

This was the first time that workers cutting across occupations, industrial, agricultural, and small farmers, had come together on a joint platform to articulate common interests. The “mazdoor [worker] kisan [farmer] sangharsh [struggle] rally” was led primarily by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) and the All India Agricultural Workers Union (AIAWU), all mass organisations of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

“The idea was to remind the Central government of its unfulfilled promises made to the people,” said Rayar, an AIKS leader from Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu. He said that nearly 7,000 protesters had come from Tamil Nadu itself. “The main demand of the farmers is that they should be given fair prices for their produce, as recommended by the Swaminathan Commission, that is, one and a half times the cost of production. Every agricultural worker who puts in eight hours of work should also get at least Rs.600 a day if not more across the country, which would make the monthly minimum wage Rs.18,000. This is our demand. In my State, a woman agricultural worker is only paid Rs.150, even though the men get Rs.500, after we struggled hard to get it raised. Every worker should also get a decent pension just like government employees do,” he said.

Somadasan, Swaminathan, Suresh and Shanti had come from Palakkad district, Kerala, and were part of an 18,000-strong delegation of workers, the majority of them affiliated to the CITU. They had stayed at the Ram Lila grounds, along with thousands of others. The main issues, they said, were guaranteeing a minimum wage of Rs.18,000 for all workers, a guaranteed pension of not less than Rs.3,000 a month and a separate law for agricultural workers.

The participants had to endure the vagaries of the weather in the capital. The tents put up at the Ramlila grounds got flooded, and the ground had to be made habitable repeatedly. Many of the protesters had to stay in railway stations and elsewhere as the camp could not accommodate the nearly two lakh rallyists. There were other hurdles as well, posed by politically hostile State governments. In Manipur, which is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the leaders of the AIKS were detained for two hours in a police station for issuing a press note asking peasants and agricultural workers to join the rally.

Hannan Mollah, general secretary of the AIKS, told Frontline that though the preparations for the rally had been going on for almost six months, it was only in June-July that they were stepped up.

The CITU, in its general council in March, announced that it would be joined by farmers and agricultural workers for a “March to Parliament”. A 15-point charter of demands was prepared, which called for the reversal of the neoliberal policy framework of the Central government. In August, two nationwide coordinated protests set the pace and momentum for the September 5 agitation. The first was a call for a “court arrest” at 600 places in 400 districts, issued by the AIKS on August 9, the anniversary of the Quit India movement,and supported by the CITU and the AIAWU. Nearly seven lakh people courted arrest. The other was a night-long “vigil protest” by the CITU on August 14.

Two crore signatures affirming support to the charter of demands were collected. “There wasn’t any space in the jails to accommodate those who courted arrest,” Hannan Mollah said. The majority of those courting arrest were in West Bengal, followed by Maharashtra. “The reason we went for a joint protest was that both the worker and the peasant belonged to the ‘producer class’, distinguishing them from the consumer class. Besides, collective protests would be more effective,” explained Mollah.

“The people who came for the rally supported our efforts by contributing to the cost of travel and stay. Their commitment to the collective cause was remarkable, and such was the anger against the Central government for ignoring the voices of the real producers of this country that we were able to mobilise such numbers,” said Mollah.

The large presence of Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) workers and helpers, workers of the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) scheme and Mid Day Meal scheme was indicative of the deep resentment felt across the board. “We are like slaves. The government gives us all kinds of work with no regular salary. We should be given the ‘D’ group government employee status,” said Sunanda, a midday meal worker from Udupi district, Karnataka.

Nearly 200 ASHA workers had arrived from Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh. “All 2,500 ASHA workers are with the CITU,” said Taruna Singh, who led the delegation. She said that the incentive-based system of payment was not enough to feed their families. “For 12 years, I have been an ASHA worker, working 24 hours and doing all that the Central government asked us to do for maternal and child health. Yet, we don’t have a monthly salary, nor any pension. This has to change. We can’t attend even to our own children or ourselves,” she said.

The issues are not new. For the past several years, scheme-based workers have consistently demanded an increase in their emoluments and their right to be recognised as government employees, considering all the work they do relating to the implementation of government schemes and programmes.

No government, neither the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance nor the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, has even bothered to consider their demands despite agreements reached at tripartite bodies such as the Indian Labour Conference. It was not a coincidence that women constituted a good proportion of the nearly two lakh rallyists. Rising prices of essential items, including food items, with no commensurate increase in wages has been a major cause for discontent.

Tapan Sen, general secretary of the CITU, said central trade unions were planning a joint agitation before the end of the year. “People are genuinely fed up. We find there is greater empathy among the people as it is common knowledge that the Modi government hasn’t delivered,” he said.

The spate of protests, he said, would garner momentum in the coming months. Most central trade unions except the BJP affiliate, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, preferred to opt for joint protests and representations.

The additional support of farmers, peasants and agricultural workers’ organisations to trade union action programmes gives a significant dimension to the growing discontent.