Labour, capital and Left movement in contemporary India

Strikes could count as a temporary ?high? but how did the workers benefit from the strike? Photograph:( Others )

Kolkata, West Bengal, India Nov 22, 2016, 11.50 AM (IST) Debraj Bhattacharya

Strikes are common in India. As recently as 2nd September of this year, India witnessed a massive labour strike. Trade Unions from the Left and the Centre organised the strike, protesting the "anti-labour policies" of the government. The strike, going by numbers, was a big success and was widely covered in the national and international press. Friends in social media, especially those who are Left-leaning like me, shared the news reports. It was apparently a moment of Leftist triumph. 

Unfortunately, I could not support the strike. This is not because of the rightwing middle-class “no more bandh” position, but rather because I was not sure whether the “strike” as a tactical move benefits the workers in the present Indian situation. In the game of chess between the workers and the ruling elite, I am not sure whether the workers gain much from a one-day display of defiance. 

 

In the game of chess between the workers and the ruling elite, I am not sure whether the workers gain much from a one-day display of defiance
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Strikes could count as a temporary “high” but we need to ask – in concrete terms - how did the workers benefit from the strike? This does not mean, just to clarify myself once more, strikes should never take place, but my question is whether it served the interest of the working class. Where is the impact assessment, if I may be allowed to use a development sector jargon. 

In all probability, strike as a tactic works well in a situation where the working class is in a head-to-head confrontational position with a clearly identifiable ruling class. You hit them where it hurts the most – profit. Unfortunately, in the present context, the situation is much more complex. The big bourgeoisie and Government of India know how to manage the loss resulting from a one-day strike. They also know that Trade Unions do not have the capacity to continue a strike for so long that the interests of the big bourgeoisie would be seriously hurt. This is because the interest of the workers would be hurt long before the bourgeoisie is in danger. 

 

Trade Unions do not have the capacity to continue a strike for so long that the interests of the big bourgeoisie would be seriously hurt
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This brings me to one the central paradox of working class politics and, indeed, Left politics in India today: the well-being of the workers depends on the health of the industrial sector itself. If factories close down and if industrial units become sick, the workers do not stand to win. This is because a revolutionary takeover of the state apparatus is currently out of question. A Bolshevik revolution is certainly not likely in India in the near future. Strikes, therefore, become tokenistic and in all probability does not help the working class. 

Left politics in India, therefore, has to find its footing in a non-traditional terrain. It has to work towards both industrial development and protecting the rights of the workers. Perhaps, the jute industry of West Bengal can be taken up as an example to illustrate what I mean. 

Recently, I had the opportunity of joining a study team which investigated the present condition of the jute workers of West Bengal. The context of the study was a request from National Jute Board to look at the present situation of the workers of the Jute industry in West Bengal and suggest possible solutions. The researchers carried out a sample survey of 500 households in 10 jute mills and followed it up with qualitative analysis through field visits. 

 

They found that although there are many government welfare schemes which can benefit the household, the workers are mostly not aware of them
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The study team found something interesting. They found that although there are many government welfare schemes which can benefit the household, the workers are mostly not aware of them. By availing these schemes, the households can improve their living conditions but there is a gap between the service providers and the households. To take just a few examples – the survey found that 68.8 per cent of the households does not have any life insurance. Yet, there are not so desperately poor as to not have a life insurance policy. The problem is more of knowledge and linkage rather than absolute lack of money. Similarly, they are not confident about going to the banks. 

The women of the households, the study found, were not organised in Self Help Groups and not linked to national programmes, such as National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM). This is again because of lack of knowledge and confidence rather than matters strictly economic. Awareness on schemes such as Kanyashree of West Bengal was also low. Clearly, neither the employers nor the Trade Unions has made much of an attempt to bridge these gaps. 

This is the non-traditional domain of the Left politics that I wish to point out. This is where they can play a vital role. By linking the working class families with the welfare measures that are already available, Trade Unions can seriously make a difference. Similarly, they can also make specific demands based on in-depth empirical investigations. For example, jute mills have a lot of lands, and it is possible to provide better housing facilities by re-thinking the design of the quarters. The quarters were built long back and were meant for individuals. Today they are housing families. Needless to say, they need to be re-structured. 

 

By linking the working class families with the welfare measures that are already available, Trade Unions can seriously make a difference.
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However, Leftist thinkers need to research on how the industry itself can be rejuvenated. Would modernisation of equipment help? Is it possible to improve the working environment with better technology? How is possible to provide year-round work so that workers feel attracted towards the industry? At present many are preferring the uncertainty of the informal sector rather than joining the jute industry because the former provides the workers with many facilities, such as access to hospitals run by the Employees' State Insurance Corporation. These are the questions that Left intellectuals must explore. 

There is, of course, a powerful counter-argument – this is a mere social democratic approach. Capitalism with a human face. I agree. Such a move lacks the drama and the glamour of a revolutionary change, the news value of a nation-wide strike. Marx probably would have laughed it off. But then, should the workers eternally wait for another 1917? I wish Marx was here to discuss the jute mills of West Bengal. It would have been fun to go to the field with him. In his absence, unfortunately, we have to think on our own. 

Debraj Bhattacharya

Debraj Bhattacharya is a historian and consultant with Riddhi Foundation, Kolkata. He is the author of the book ?Exploring Marxist Bengal?.
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