India’s industrial workers, employees, farmers and agricultural laborers will observe a two-day general strike on March 28-29, 2022 under the slogan ‘Save People, Nation’. This means that not only will the country’s vast manufacturing sector workforce stop work, but all banks, other financial institutions, government and public sector offices, transport, construction, ports and docks, government scheme workers, educational institutions, etc will remain closed. Rural areas are likely to see mass protests by farmers and agricultural workers. By all estimates, it is going to be a historic protest action involving up to 250 million working people. This protest will be supported by students and youth, including big sections of unemployed youth, artists, intellectuals, scientists and other middle-class sections.
This year will see the observance of the 75th anniversary of India’s independence from colonial rule. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP-led government has characterized it as the beginning of an ‘Amrit Kaal’, that is, an era of immortality and prosperity. But, for the laboring people of the country, it is a time of deep economic distress with high joblessness, sinking incomes, sky-high prices of essential commodities, and an insecure future – all ushered in by the policies of the government itself. The people’s struggles have been successful in restraining the government from even more unjust policies – as witnessed in the farmers’ movement forcing the government to scrap the three agriculture-related laws. This, however, was just one step in the larger struggle for saving the people from extreme immiseration and exploitation.
There is a 12-point demand charter for which workers and peasants have been fighting for several years. The last two years have seen a further deterioration of the living standards of working people due to the pandemic and the ill-conceived measures taken by the Modi government to tackle it. So, the demand charter has included new issues, like the provision of immediate financial support to struggling families.
Here are the main demands:
1. Scrap the four Labor Codes and the Essential Defense Services Act (EDSA)
The Codes which replaced 29 existing labor laws have not yet been fully implemented due to resistance from worker’s unions. These Codes allow contract work, dilute wage fixation, increase working hours, allow hire and fire, and weaken monitoring agencies. The EDSA prohibits defense production units workers from protesting against corporatization and ultimate privatization.
2. Accept the 6-point charter of demands of Samyukta Kisan Morcha
After Modi announced that the three farm laws would be repealed, the farmers’ organizations announced that they would continue to fight for other pending demands, which include: MSP at comprehensive cost + 50%; withdrawal of Electricity Amendments Bill; stop punishing farmers for stubble burning; withdrawal of all false cases against agitating farmers; sacking and arrest of Ajay Mishra Teni, minister in Modi government and alleged mastermind of Lakhimpur farmers’ murder; and, compensation and rehabilitation for families of 700+ farmers who lost their lives during the agitation.
3. Abandon all privatization and scrap the National Monetization Pipeline (NMP)
Privatization of various public sector undertakings, accompanied by the long term ‘leasing out’ of various physical assets like railways, power transmission systems, telecom infrastructure, etc. and even of land owned by public sector enterprises means these invaluable assets of the people will go to private entities cheaply. The government will lose revenues while corporates will squeeze profits out of these enterprises. Jobs will be lost, and reservations will end.
4. Provide income support of Rs.7,500 per month to all non-income tax-paying families
In the past two years, incomes have declined in as many as 66% of households, 45% of households were indebted, and a shocking 79% of households had some form of insecurity, according to Hunger Watch second-round survey. Under such conditions, merely giving some free food grains is highly inadequate. Hence this long-standing demand for financial support.
5. Increase allocation for MGNREGA and extend employment guarantee program to urban areas.
This year, the Budget allocation for the rural jobs guarantee scheme (MGNREGA) has again been reduced by about Rs.380 billion (4.9 billion USD) compared to last year’s revised estimate of Rs.11.1 trillion (145 billion USD). This crucial scheme provides a lifeline of some income to 110 million people. Yet the government keeps trying to curtail it. Given the high unemployment rate in urban areas, it is essential to have a similar scheme for towns and cities too.
6. Provide universal social security for all informal sector workers
Just about 10% of India’s 400 million strong workforce is covered by some form of social security. In the context of ramshackle healthcare services, employment insecurity and an aging population, social security coverage in the form of pensions, medical coverage and unemployment allowances, etc, are much needed.
7. Provide statutory minimum wages and social security cover for Anganwadi, ASHA, mid-day meal and other scheme workers.
There are over 6 million ‘scheme workers’ primarily women, who are doing crucial jobs like providing frontline healthcare services, child care services, etc. in different government schemes. They are all categorized as ‘voluntary workers’ and given a pittance though they have been working at the forefront during the pandemic too. They need to be regularized and treated as workers with all statutory rights.
8. Provide full protection, and insurance cover, for frontline workers serving the people in the midst of the pandemic
There are hundreds of thousand of healthcare personnel, paramedical and auxiliary staff, sanitation workers and other personnel who have been working in dangerous exposed conditions during the pandemic and continue to do so. They have been promised insurance and medical coverage, but this has not happened.
9. Increase public investment in agriculture, education, health and other crucial public services by raising resources from higher taxation of the rich in order to revive and revamp the economy.
Rather than raising resources from the rich, the Modi government has given massive concessions in the form of tax cuts, rebates, loan write-offs etc to the super-rich corporate sections of India. According to the latest figures from the World Inequality Report, the poorest 50% of Indian people earn Rs 53,610 per year while the top 10% earns Rs 11,66,520 – that is, over 20 times more. In India, the top 10% corners 57% of total national income, while the income of the poorest 50% has gone down to 13%. There is a crying need for taxing the rich so that the bulk of India’s people can survive.
10. Substantially reduce Central excise duty on petroleum products and take concrete steps to arrest price rise.
Since coming to power at the Center in 2014, the Modi government has levied a mind-boggling sum of Rs.1,872,000 crore as Excise Duty from petroleum products. This means that this amount has ultimately been extracted from the people because petrol and diesel costs are passed on to people through higher transport costs of freight. Besides this cooking gas prices have increased beyond all imagination, with a domestic cylinder costing over Rs.1000 currently. Refusal to rein in black-marketeers and hoarders, dependence on imports of essentials like cooking oil and other bankrupt policies have robbed common people’s pockets. This needs to be stopped by a slew of measures which must include universalization of public distribution system, restoration of subsidies, cutting of excise duties etc.
11. Regularize all contract workers and scheme workers, and ensure equal pay for equal work for all.
Even in public sector units, the share of contract and casual workers has steadily increased to 50% or more. This means that the government is not filling up regular posts and instead of appointing contract workers at half or even less wages. This is a dirty way of exploiting workers and escaping current laws on minimum wages and other benefits like bonuses, etc. This needs to be reversed, and job security with better wages ensured.
12. Cancel the New Pension Scheme (NPS) and restore the old scheme; increase minimum pension under the Employees’ Pension Scheme.
The NPS has destroyed whatever security was available to those who were eligible for pension after retirement. It is part of the government’s attempt to wash its hands off the security of retirees and also to use the pension funds to fuel share market-based speculation.
Modi must listen to people’s voices
PM Modi and his party are perhaps under the illusion that they can continue to rule by use of religion in elections, dividing the people and diverting their attention from pressing economic problems. While they may succeed in some places but these are ephemeral victories because more and more people are getting crushed under the economic crisis of joblessness, high prices, low incomes and insecurity of jobs. It is only because alternatives are not yet visible and viable that the BJP is still ruling and ruining the country.
The strike on March 28-29 is a challenge thrown by all working people and their families to the Modi Sarkar – either roll back your hostile policies and stop pandering to the rich, or you will be thrown out by the people. This is a fight to save the people’s future and to save the country from enslavement.