December 27, 2020

2020 – Relentless Assault on People by a Callous Govt


THE year that is ending saw India face one of the worst calamities in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the year will also be tragically remembered because the Indian government turned into an open enemy of the people, dropping all pretences of working for their welfare. It not only monumentally mismanaged the pandemic but, in the process, it foisted a series of policies on the country that would consolidate the rule of big capitalists and landowners, big traders and foreign monopolists, grinding down the peasantry and working class in the process. But, as often happens in history, the resistance of people to these exploitative and oppressive policies has also gathered strength as the year passed. Let us take a look at how the government led by prime minister Modi has tried to destroy the lives and livelihoods of people in this year.

The first case of the COVID-19 pandemic was reported in India at the end of January this year. For the next 54 days, the Modi government did not make suitable preparations though it was clear that the pandemic was a health emergency. Then, out of the blue, a countrywide lockdown was imposed that lasted two months and destroyed the economy. It saw lakhs of migrant workers struggling to get back to their distant villages, mass unemployment and hunger. The pandemic meanwhile continued to take its toll, with cases continuously rising from just about 600 cases on  March 24 to nearly two lakh by end of May, nearly 17 lakh by end of July, 63 lakh by end of September and crossed one crore on December 18. Testing systems were put in place too late, and the necessary following steps of tracing and isolation were never seriously carried out except in some states. The Modi government initially tried to direct everything from the centre, using the disaster management law’s authority, but later as things began to go out of control, it took to just issuing diktats to states, putting the whole responsibility on their shoulders. Necessary financial help was not provided for the states, and even mandatory transfers (like GST related) were held back even though the states were grappling with the pandemic. PM Modi himself took to periodically exhorting people over national telecasts but Indians have paid a big price, with 1.46 lakh persons having died. The vaccination campaign that is looming is likely to have the same bumbling inefficiency, though typically, Modi and the government will use it for photo ops.

The economy was already in a tailspin since last year, but in 2020, the pandemic and the government’s complete inability to handle it drove the economy over the edge. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth plummeted by -23.9 per cent in the April-June quarter and then by -7.5 per cent in the July-September quarter. This was a staggering blow to the people because unemployment zoomed up to a shocking 24 per cent in April and 21 per cent in May. Since then, though it has come down as the economy reopened, the level is still agonisingly high – in December it was reported at 8.5 per cent. The MSME sector took the biggest hit, with estimates suggesting that over a third of such enterprises would never recover. High employment sectors like construction and trade continue to be in the doldrums. The Modi government tried to hoodwink people by announcing so-called ‘relief’ and revival packages amounting to what they claimed was about Rs 30 lakh crore or 15 per cent of GDP, but most of it was in the form of credit. The government refused to spend money from its own account, which was essential if the economy was to be boosted by pushing up demand. It is estimated that actual government spending was not more than Rs 2.5 lakh crore or less than two per cent of GDP. As a result, the economic situation continues to remain distressed, the number of employed persons has declined, consumption spending by people has dipped, the investment rate is flaccid. Notably, this crisis doesn’t seem to be affecting the profits of the corporate sector which has reported the highest ever profit (among listed companies) of Rs 1.33 lakh crore in the July-September quarter, the highest ever. That’s because they cut back on spending by sacking workers and reducing wages.

Life of workers and employees changed drastically for the worse with the pushing through of three more Labour Codes in Parliament, with the fourth one (Code on Wages) already passed last year. These three are: Industrial Relations Code, Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code and Code on Social Security, all passed on September 23, 2020.  Rules framed under the three new codes have also been notified, largely ignoring public comments.

The four codes together constitute an integrated dismantling of 29 existing labour laws which provided some semblance of protection to workers and employees from exploitation. Taken together, these new laws allow employers to increase working hours to an unprecedented 12 hours in a working day, put in place a system of ‘fixed-term employment’, that is, contractual work of a kind, dismantle the well-settled wage fixation norms for governments, give more leeway to remove workers from service without having to take permission, and bring workers in diverse trades with specific problems under umbrella provisions. Social security benefits remain restricted, large sections, including scheme workers remain outside the purview, and eligibility based on number of workers have been raised, while employers’ contributions to ESI and EPF have been reduced, starving the bodies of funds. The enforcement machinery which was already gasping for breath has been further disarmed. A large number of matters are now left to the discretion of concerned government authorities rather than being part of statutes, thus leaving the door open to further weakening of the protective and welfare-oriented erstwhile laws, that had been won by workers’ struggles over the decades. Even the right to organise unions and protests has been made more difficult.

The new labour laws are thus a license to unbridled and intensified exploitation, at less wages and more freedom to hire and fire – a paradise as far as the capitalist class is concerned. The dogged resistance put up by workers over the years to changes in these laws was brushed aside by the Modi as was the repeated protest by trade unions across India.

In June this year, at the height of the pandemic, the Modi government promulgated three ordinances that dealt a devastating blow to the existing system of cultivation, trade, stock holding and prices of agricultural produce. These were presented to Parliament in September and rammed through, denying the ‘opposition’ any chance to discuss or hold a proper vote on them. The government had earlier moved a Bill on amending the Electricity Act which too would end subsidised power to farmers, thus increasing their expenses further.

Taken together, these three laws and one Bill will decisively open India’s agriculture sector to predatory agri-businesses and big traders for making profits while crushing the farmers, of which over 80 per cent have small and medium landholdings. Agricultural labourers, sharecroppers, tenant farmers will also suffer from the effect of these laws.

The Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act or the APMC law as it is popularly known, allows private entities to buy up key food grains directly from farmers, in competition with government-run Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) with no guarantee for government-declared Minimum Support Price (MSP). In the unequal trade between powerless farmers and giant corporations, this would mean a death-knell for the MSP system, which is a lifeline for many farmers. The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, otherwise known as the contract farming law, is meant to give a boost to contract farming which would make farmers wage labourers on their own land, besides subjecting them to vagaries of global companies and their profit-seeking. The third law amends the existing Essential Commodities Act by removing all restrictions on stocks of essential food produce, and even largely allows freedom to determine prices. It would encourage hoarding and black-marketeering in essential grains and vegetables.

Besides destroying farmers’ lives, the four laws would also prepare the ground for destruction of the public procurement of food grains, thus leading to the collapse of the public distribution system. Crores of people across India who depend on subsidised food grain – especially in these times when unemployment is high – would be left to fend for themselves. This is in line with what the advanced capitalist countries have been pressing India for in WTO negotiations and elsewhere, so that food grain can be exported from there to India.

First as an ordinance and then as an Act, the Mineral Laws (Amendment) Act was passed to change two central laws that regulate the mining sector - the Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act (MMDR), 1957 and the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act, 2015, all in the name of “ease of doing business”. These amendments allow companies without any previous experience to bid for coal blocks and also allows extraction of coal without any prior restrictions of end-use. These are part of the process of privatising India’s mining sector, especially coal, and allowing foreign capital to enter the lucrative field.

Using the pandemic/lockdown pretext, a series of measures were announced by the Modi government that dilute or do away with environmental regulations for extractive industries – in the name of ‘ease of doing business’. The new draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Rules exempt entire projects and project expansions up to 50 per cent from the earlier mandatory public hearings and reduce the notice period for such hearings from 30 to 20 days. This is being done to suppress opposition from the people living in the area who will be affected by the projects. The new amendments also validate projects that kick off without seeking prior approval. Since the Modi government is handing over large tracts of land to mining and construction corporates, these measures facilitate their speedy takeover, leaving the local people side-lined.

The year 2020 began when the country was in the throes of a movement against the hated Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which discriminates against Muslims for grant of citizenship. It is ending when lakhs of farmers are on the roads fighting to get the black farm laws scrapped. In between, there have been two country-wide strikes by workers and people from all walks of life have been fighting against ever-increasing oppression and religious bigotry. The coming year promises to be one in which this tide of peoples’ anger will rise further against a hated government.