Struggles of Workers & Farmers Reach New Heights in 2017
AN unprecedented wave of workers’ and farmers’ struggles spread across the whole country through the year that is coming to an end. It challenged the Modi government and its pro-rich, anti-working people, anti-farmer policies, forcing the government to reverse course in some cases. These battles spanned issues related to falling living standards, growing inequality and loot by the ruling classes, as also the communal politics of the Sangh Parivar that is trying to divide people on religious identity lines. These struggles were increasingly diverse, yet more united, weaving together different industrial sectors and also forging unity between peasants and workers.
Continuing from the past few years’ movement for better prices for agricultural produce, freedom from debt and end to forcible land acquisition, farmers in several regions were on the roads, sometimes facing police bullets (Mandsaur, MP; Maharashtra) and at other places forcing the authorities to bow to their demands (Rajasthan). The broad platforms of struggle evolved in previous years gained immense strength in 2017 in terms of scale of activities and mobilising strength.
In dozens of public sector units – ports, steel plants, coal mines, ordnance factories, banks, insurance companies, etc, – workers went on strikes or protested against relentless government pressure to privatise national assets by handing them over to private industrialists. Contract workers and ‘scheme workers’ (those employed in government schemes) saw large scale protests, often confronting police attacks in various states. Unorganised sector workers like those in the road transport sector fought against proposed laws to squeeze out small units and privatise public services. And in industrial areas from the north-east to Gujarat and from Himachal Pradesh to Tamil Nadu, workers braved attacks from police and hired goons to fight for their livelihoods.
Diverse strands of struggles were brought together in two major protests held in the capital Delhi in November. One was the historic three-day ‘maha-padav’ (mass sit-in) in which about two lakh workers participated, pressing the government to accept their long pending demands which include, minimum wage of Rs 18,000, end to contractor-raj and privatisation, control of prices and strengthening of PDS, withdrawal of neo-liberal labour law reforms, etc. The other, also in November, saw a two-day ‘Kisan Mukti Sansad’ (farmers’ liberation parliament) in which thousands of farmers congregated at Delhi, including families of farmers that had committed suicide due to debt and losses.
So, 2017 became not only a year of deep ferment among India’s working people, it also saw increasing intertwining of two biggest classes of Indian society – workers and peasants. This was repeatedly seen in several struggles. Trade unions held protests across the country on June 16 after five farmers were killed in a brutal police attack on protesting farmers in Mandsaur. Workers participated in large numbers in protests organised in 150 districts on August 9 by the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan, a joint platform of peasant and other organisations. Workers also joined the massive kisan mukti yatras that covered over 10,000 kilometres mobilising farmers.
2017 could well be the year of the struggling farming. High indebtedness, often leading to suicides, inability to meet even cost of production due to unremunerative prices, land acquisitions, low agricultural wages all contributed to ever deepening agrarian crisis that burst out in angry protests in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and other states. In most places, it was met with strong arm methods by governments but such was the pressure that almost all state governments were forced to announce debt waivers. The most significant victory was in Rajasthan where the government was forced to concede various demands after a massive movement led by the AIKS. Due to the farmers’ pressure, the government was also forced to roll back the notification banning sale of cattle for slaughter in animal market. Farmers led by AIKS had burnt copies of the notification in most districts of the country. The matter was also taken to the Supreme Court. Farmers organisations have waged a battle against cow vigilantism – the harassment and even killing of farmers transporting cattle by Hindu fanatic groups. Over 30 such deaths by lynching have been reported till date. AIKS collected funds to support the families of some of the victims.
In Maharashtra, an unprecedented statewide bandh was called for by different peasant organisations with the Maharashtra Rajya Kisan Sabha (affiliated to AIKS) playing a leading role.
Lakhs of peasants and agricultural workers came out on streets of Kolkata for Nabanna Rally organised by AIKS, AIAWU and other organisations on May 22, 2017. It was met by brutal repression by the TMC government’s police leading to the death of one comrade.
There have been a series of struggles of adivasis for implementation of the Forest Rights Act and against evictions. In Jharkhand, there were sustained and militant struggles of adivasis on a joint platform including the Adivasi Adhikar Manch and Kisan Sabha against the amendments to the Chotanagpur and Santhal Parganas Tenancy Acts by the BJP state government. There were police firings in which one adivasi participant was killed and several injured. Ultimately the joint movement forced the government to withdraw the amendments.
A major strand of workers’ struggles was against Modi government’s privatisation drive. In its three and a half year reign, Modi’s so-called nationalist government has sold off Rs 1.25 lakh crore worth of public sector assets to private buyers, putting at risk thousands of jobs. Protests against these moves spread through workers in public sector undertakings throughout the country. In most of these struggles, CITU played a leading role, often uniting other trade unions in a joint platform.
Defense production employees held a 45 day relay hunger strike in July. In Tamil Nadu, Kamrajar Port employees protested against sale of the profit making port to Adani Group, reportedly a crony of Modi. Bharat Earth Movers Ltd employees went on strike in May in Kolar and Mysore districts of Karnataka and Palakkad district (Kerala) against disinvestment. In March, Cochin shipyard workers went on strike against 25 per cent privatisation. In April, workers went on strike in three steel plants (Durgapur, Salem and Bhadrawati) which were up for sale. Dredging Corporation workers also struck work in April. In Haryana, state road transport workers went on a lightning strike against plan to handover routes to private operators. There were huge protests in coal mines against closure of 10 ECL mines in West Bengal. NALCO workers in Odisha protested against privatisation. On February 28, bank employees across the country held a one day strike against government plans of privatisation. Again, on August 22, the bank employees struck work demanding an end to merger move of public sector banks, demanding stringent action against willful defaulters etc.
One of the significant features of workers’ struggles in 2017 was the high participation of women. This was mainly because women dominated scheme workers fought a bitter and arduous battle against government fund cuts and refusal to treat them as regular employees. There are about one crore scheme workers in the country, employed on irregular or contract basis, though they work year round delivering services like primary healthcare, meals in schools, child care and nutrition, etc. During 2017 scheme workers held protest actions in Maharashtra, Assam, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Karnataka, Haryana, Punjab, Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Assam, among others. They also successfully held a one day country-wide strike on January 20, 2016 which was preceded by demonstrations in practically all districts. Later in the year, on August 21, ASHA workers (health workers) held a massive protest at the parliament, submitting nearly 50 lakh signatures from villagers from all over the country in support of their demands.
Even government employees, both central and state, were on the warpath against government delays in implementing pay commission recommendations and changes in pension plans. Over 13 lakh central government employees went on strike on March 16 while on March 2 state government employees’ held a mass dharna at Delhi demanding withdrawal of a new pension scheme, against out-sourcing of work and other demands. Municipal workers in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu held protests and strikes against similar outsourcing of jobs to private contractors. In Karnataka, even gram panchayat workers protested against similar issues.
Road transport workers in various parts of the country struggled against the proposed new law for privatisation, including in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Assam, Karnataka, etc. Construction workers, mostly in the unorganised sector protested against low wages, job losses and repression in various states including Haryana, West Bengal etc. A countrywide strike by medical sales representatives was held in February demanding cost based capping of medicine, nil tax and regulation of working conditions in MNCs. Workers from 300 tea gardens in West Bengal went on a two-day strike demanding better wages. They had to face police brutality. In Tamil Nadu, fishermen held protests against a government law prohibiting them from going beyond three nautical miles out in the sea. Beedi workers in several states protested against low wages. Even LIC agents held a protest rally in Delhi in August against government policy regarding the insurance sector.
In many states, like Karnataka, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Assam etc, huge protests were held by joint platforms of trade unions and other organisations against price rise, farmers’ debts, job losses and other people’s issues.
As the year ends, the foundation laid by these struggles – and many others not mentioned – will become a launching pad for widening struggles in the coming months. Ultimately, the aim is to reverse the anti-people policies followed by this and previous governments and install a pro-people dispensation with an alternative set of policies.