As over 70,000 workers from across the country gathered at Parliament Street facing down police and paramilitary barricades, the historic 3-day mahapadav (mass sit-in) got off to a rousing start in New Delhi today. Under the banners of ten central trade unions and several federations of workers and employees, which represent the bulk of India’s vast non-agricultural workforce, they are demanding immediate attention to wage increase, price control, end to labour contracting system, strengthening of public distribution system, curbing job losses, and a stop to govt. policies of privatization, inviting of foreign capital, destroying protective labour laws and welfare cuts.
This mahapadav is not just another of those ‘routine’ protests by workers, that are as routinely ignored by the govt., the mass media and the urban middle class. What sets it apart and makes it historic and important?
- It is the first big protest by workers in Delhi after Modi came to power in Delhi in 2014. There have been two country-wide strikes in 2015 and 2016. In terms of numbers and impact they were surely bigger events, with an estimated 1.5 crore workers participating. But in India’s new dispensation with Delhi and Modi as the centre of the universe, especially for the media, there was need for a show of anger and strength in the Capital. Also, it weaves together and unifies diverse strands of protests that have been going on for the past few years, including those by scheme workers, govt. employees, banks and insurance employees, public sector employees, etc. It goes beyond the usual dharnas and even single day mass rallies because the 3-day long event is designed specifically to give the stage to diverse sections of workers and show the resilience of their resolve.
- The mahapadav is backed by 10 central trade unions with only the RSS-affiliated BMS out of it. This unity of trade unions, evident and strengthening since the advent of BJP at the Centre, is of crucial importance in the otherwise fragmented trade union movement in India. Several independent unions and federations have been drawn in to this struggle because of this unity. This means that the reach of the message of this movement is perhaps one of the widest ever.
- The mahapadav comes as a culmination of a three-month long intensive campaign that saw a mass contact programme and public actions in practically every district of the country. Trade unions, especially the CITU, had published extensive material in all major languages of the country well in advance to equip its activists who campaigned in industrial and commercial areas, workers’ colonies, slums and other places of work or residence. Reports from different parts of the country indicate that the call for going to Delhi to protest against the Modi govt. was met with enthusiastic response from workers and their families. This is what became the launching pad for the ongoing mahapadav.
- The Modi govts.’ performance in the past three and a half years is primarily responsible for the wave of unrest and discontent sweeping India’s industrial areas. Ever increasing joblessness has become aggravated by job losses in the past year fuelled by an economic slowdown, demonetization and then the GST rollout. This is happening in the context of tight-fisted policies of successive govt. who subscribe to the neo-liberal mantras of curbing govt. expenditure. Modi’s government has also wanted to push ahead with emasculating labour laws to rein in workers discontent and give more freedom to employers to hire and fire. It is in this backdrop that the call of trade unions for a strong rebuff was given and has received the huge response witnessed today in Delhi.
- The mahapadav brings back to centre stage the struggle of oppressed and exploited people of India for a better life under a more just socio-economic system. It demarcates from the discourse of religious and casteist identities, actively being promoted by the Modi govt. and its mentor, the RSS. The campaign for the mahapadav specifically focused on the unity of all working people rising above divisive lines of identity politics and religious fundamentalism and in defence of religious minorities and, dalits and adivasis, which have faced increased attacks and marginalization under the current regime.
- The mahapadav will also announce a next phase of action by the trade unions. In all probability this will be a general strike early next year. Workers around the country are eagerly awaiting the escalation of this struggle after waiting for three years and listening to Modi’s endless litany of false promises. This also has given the mahapadav a sense of purpose and expectancy among its participants.
It is expected that the coming two days will see an increased participation from workers already on their way to Delhi. The mahapadav is indeed turning into one of the biggest expressions of workers’ solidarity and striking strength in recent times. The Modi govt. would do well to heed the voice of the people – otherwise he and his govt. face a rough ride in the remaining days of their misrule.