Reclaim Workers’ Rights-Uphold the fighting legacy!

India is now in the grip of an unprecedented health emergency. The countrywide second surge of coronavirus caught the Modi government napping and exposed the callous unpreparedness of Modi's mode of governance where insensitiveness, apathy and criminal nonchalance are the essential ingredients of this fascist regime. While the WHO cautioned India of an imminent second wave, and predicted it to be more virulent, the despot duopoly had their other priorities and set out for a royal hunt to Bengal with the sole aim of grabbing the state power in the assembly election. It was considered and repeatedly bandied over by the highest office of power that COVID had receded. Shamefully the Election Commission, the hand-maiden of Modi- Amit Shah, in an unprecedented move stretched the assembly elections to elongated eight phases, beginning from 27 March to 29 April, when COVID -2 had started taking its toll. A number of candidates of recognised political parties had fallen victim to Corona virus and the entire state dwindled into the grip of a devastating pandemic. 

The second wave of the pandemic has again spelt out a gloom of unimaginable economic uncertainty. But before the advent of the second wave, industrial production got contracted by 3.6 per cent for the second straight month. The manufacturing and mining sector shrank by 3.7 per cent and 5.5 per cent respectively in February 2021 as revealed by the NSO data. It also explained that the growth in industrial production is fluctuating since March 2020. 

But our policy makers never took much initiative in identifying and issuing correctives for the ills of our economy that had loomed large much before the pandemic hit our country a year before. Stubbornly denying steady slowdown in the economy years before the COVID - 19, remained the hallmark of arrogance of the Modi government.  Even in January 2021, much after the first phase of the pandemic ravaging all the contours of our economy, the Economic Survey placed by the CEA painted a rosy picture of Indian economic status and predicted a V - shaped recovery, coupled with a real GDP growth of 11 per cent in 2021-22.  The budget went a step forward by refusing to acknowledge the loss of millions of jobs, both in formal and informal sectors, ignoring the plight and precarious predicament of the migrant workers. This gruesome spectacle not only shook the nation but had drawn international concern. The informal sector, which constitutes more than 92 per cent of the country's workforce, didn’t find a mention in the Finance Minister's budget speech. And the most condemnable aspect is, even as the pandemic pushed innumerable faceless nameless informal workers' well below the poverty line, the budget mercilessly slashed all the scant subsidies it had offered before and curtailed all the hitherto rudimentary social security of these workers. The outlay of MGNREGA was drastically reduced by 34.5 per cent, and the overall budget subsidies stand curtailed by 43%! All the tall claims of economic rejuvenation proved to be false and the fact remained that the Q1 of FY 2020-21 faced an unimaginable contraction of 23.9 per cent followed by a downward slide of 7.5% in the Q2. It's highly intriguing that despite such an annual contraction, the sycophants within the corridors of power claimed that India's economic policies had helped the country significantly to reduce the impact of pandemic on economic growth!  

The twin crisis of health and economy is telling upon the employment scenario of the country. CMIE data shows unemployment had reached 23.52% by the end of April 2020, followed by 21.73% and 10.18% in May and June 2020. Throughout the second half of 2020 the rate of unemployment remained above 6.5 per cent, reaching a peak of 9 per cent in December 2020. Now, Modi has passed the buck on the state governments and different States are trying to combat pandemic by clamping partial lockdown, complete lockdown for a short phase, 144 restrictions, night curfew etc. The Prime Minister has announced to clamp total lockdown only as a last resort. But, the harsh reality is that the migrant workers have lost total trust and faith upon the Union government, the Indian State, and also on the state governments and are returning in thousands to their native places. The unemployment rates have begun to rise again, and for the week ending April 18, 2021, CMIE recorded the unemployment rate at 7.4%!  It is generally believed that in terms of secured employment, salaried employees reside in the safest territory. But, the pandemic has shattered this belief. CMIE report shows that the biggest loss of employment in 2020-21 was inflicted upon the salaried people - their job loss was to the tune of 9.8 million. CMIE report also suggests that the present number may swell over to 120 million in job losses, which amounts to 30 per cent of the total population employed across all sectors. Jobs already lost during the first wave have no hope of getting recovered in days to come, and the very idea of a decent job appears a chimera.\

India is all set for precarious employment, sans social security and absolutely low wages. Huge army of unemployed will depress the real wages in the future. As of now, reverse migration from urban to rural areas has increased to a great extent. Pandemic is now fast spreading to the villages too, posing a great challenge to the already dwindling health system. Reverse migration is indicative of job losses in urban areas, both among salaried and non-salaried employees. During the first phase of pandemic, MGNREGA was the last straw to grab at for the vast section of rural population who lost their livelihood. A report of Indian Express revealed that in the FY 2020- 21 more than 11 crore people registered their names under this project and within a span of one year, the number jumped to 41.78% of our country’s population! This is the highest spike in the number of job seekers since the commencement of this project way back in 2006-07. If the second surge spreads fast to the villages, the MGNREGA project may suffer immensely, adding severe economic crisis in the rural areas. 

The pandemic has also dealt a cruel blow on the vast vulnerable, marginal workforce across the globe, and the degree of the damage is unevenly distributed. Growing income and wealth inequalities is one of the biggest concerns for economic recovery. While the downtrodden, teeming millions were crushed, losing income and livelihood, the fortunes of big corporations and the richest swelled continuously, both in India and across the globe. The list of Indian Dollar Billionaires jumped from 102 to 140 during one year alone, as per the latest report of Forbes. 140 individuals had 22.7% of our GDP of $ 2.62 trillion! Their combined wealth nearly doubled to $ 596 billion, up by 90.4% in a year when the country’s GDP contracted by 7.7%. It is worth mentioning that two out of 10 Indian plutocrats grabbed their ill-gotten wealth from the healthcare industry during the pandemic, when an overwhelming segment of our population was ravaged by COVID - 19. 

Few weeks before ILO published "Global Wage Report, 2020- 21- Wages and Minimum Wages in the Time of COVID - 19". In that report it has been revealed that Indians are among the most overworked workers globally while earning the lowest minimum statutory wage in Asia - Pacific region, barring Bangladesh. In this regard India stands fifth, only Gambia -- Mongolia - Maldives and Qatar have longer working hours than India, the report mentions. 

The sheen of Modi's 'development ' plank has torn asunder. The entire nation, the world is witnessing that numerous COVID patients are dying for want of oxygen! The crematoria are seen dotted with an unending queue of corpses. India is gasping for oxygen, and Piyush Goyal, another cabinet minister remaining an unabashed Sanghi is advising Indians to 'breathe wisely'!  The utter bankruptcy of Indian health system has exposed its abject failure. Direct cash benefit transfer to the citizens who are below the poverty line, free and universal inoculation to all, free ration, enforcing the employers to protect the wages of workers' and prohibiting retrenchment at this time of crisis, free availability of all the Covid related medicines, providing PPE as public good are the immediate steps the central government should undertake immediately. 
Historic May Day is approaching. On 1 May, 1886, hundreds of thousands of North American workers were mobilised to strike for the eight - hour work day. Chicago was then a key centre of working class organisations, the heart of the left wing of the labour movement with International Working People’s Association in the lead. As was to be expected, the working class movement had to face the worst opposition of the capitalist class backed by the police, infamous for their brutality. Four innocent men were executed after being falsely implicated. Among them were August Spies and Albert Parsons, whose only ‘crime’ was that they were radical labour militants, fighting relentlessly for the rights of workers including the eight hour workday. 

The Modi government has forcefully snatched away all the rights Indian working class achieved in the course of their century-long protracted militant movements. The government as an employer denies to recognise more than a million persons engaged in the forefront of delivering essential social services as regular workers. Anganwadi workers, para teachers, the ASHA and Mid-Day meal workers are denied employees’ rights. Now, we could again remind them of the ' eight hour song' that used to be sung in 1880's Chicago, whose last lines go something like this :-

"We want to feel the sunshine, we want to smell the flowers;
We're sure that God has willed it, 
and we mean to have eight hours. 
We're summoning our forces from Shipyard, shop and mill;
eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will. "