2022: India’s workers and peasants fight back – and fight on

With economic conditions continuing to decline for India’s laboring sections, 2023 is set to see more struggles and strikes both at a local and a national level

January 03, 2023 by Subodh Varma

In India, the year that has just passed started with hope but ended with anger and discontent. Hope, because it was thought that with the pandemic finally dwindling, the economy would revive and so would jobs and incomes. The mainstream media talked of a V-shaped recovery, the government again started talking of a $5 trillion economy (whatever that means). Although there was no reason to do so, working people, desperate after two years of extreme hardship, hoped against hope. The victory of the farmers’ movement in forcing the government to back down on the three agricultural laws also boosted the morale – perhaps, the government was finally beginning to listen to the people. However, this dream broke down in short order.

Not only has the jobs crisis worsened but unbridled price rise over several months, including for staples like wheat and cooking oil, has drastically eroded the already meager incomes of working people, the self-employed and farmers. The economy is stagnating, investment is not happening, exports are down, imports are up, the rupee is getting devalued, indirect taxes are rising (driven by onerous excise duties on petroleum products) – and inequality is rising fast. This was not what was hoped for.

Although the working class and peasantry, as indeed various other sections of society, had continued their fight for better economic conditions through the pandemic ravaged two years, this turn of events led to deep and widespread anger. This was aggravated by the attempts of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to further tighten the screws on the people by cutting funds for various welfare programs like ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) and MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee), of increasing contractualization leading to intense job insecurity, and the relentless push to privatize everything — from historical monuments and railway stations to profit making public sector units, hospitals and schools.

All over the country, there emerged struggles for immediate local demands – teachers and school cooks demanding payment of back wages, anganwadi workers demanding increase in honoraria, municipal contract workers demanding regularization, steel workers demanding scrapping of privatization, farmers demanding better prices or roll back of land acquisition, tribals fighting for their customary forest and land rights, and so on.

Historic 2-day strike

These strands of anger coalesced and merged into a massive, historic two-day general strike on March 28-29, 2022. It was one of the biggest strikes Independent India has ever seen taking into its sweep diverse industrial sectors as well as large sections of the unorganized and informal sector.

What made it so impactful that even the international media was forced to take note of it, was the fact that very large number of farmers and agricultural laborers too joined in the protests on these two days. Steel, coal, port & dock, transport (including road, rail and water), financial sectors, telecom, electricity, sales representatives, and hundreds of thousands of scheme workers (those working in government schemes like ICDS, National Health Mission, etc) took part in the strike or joined in protests across the country. The call for the strike was jointly given by the 10 central trade unions (barring the one affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS/BJP) and also the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), a joint platform of over 500 farmers’ organizations that had spearheaded the victorious farmers’ movement.

The demands of the striking and protesting workers and peasants included raising the minimum wage to Rs.26,000 per month (USD 320), grant of Rs.7,500 per month (USD 92) to non-tax paying families to tide over the pandemic induced slow-down, end to contractualization of jobs, roll back of disinvestment policies, guarantee of statutory minimum support price (MSP) for a range of agricultural crops, scrapping of the Electricity Amendment Bill, expansion and universalization of the Public Distribution System, etc.

The strike was notable for large scale participation of workers from the private organized sector in the States of Karnataka, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and others on both days. It saw huge participation of scheme workers, plantation sector workers, and diverse unorganized sector workers like construction, beedi, head load workers, street vendors, domestic workers, IT employees, road transport workers etc. Railway contract workers, particularly goods sheds workers, safai karmacharis (sanitation staff), bedroll workers, track maintenance workers etc. participated in the demonstrations on March 28-29 in several States.

Sectoral struggles and strikes

Subsequently, the country saw a rolling wave of struggles across various sectors, which had been struggling in earlier years too and carried on further.

At the call of All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers & Helpers, thousands of anganwadi employees participated in a three-day-long Anganwadi Adhikar Mahapadav in front of Parliament in New Delhi during July 26-28  2022 against the anti-worker, anti-people, anti-scheme workers policies of the Central government. Independent as well as joint strikes of ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activists) workers were held in Haryana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand etc demanding additional remuneration achieved partial success.

On August 8, 2022, more than one million electricity employees, engineers and pensioners came out on the streets across the whole country to protest against the autocratic move of the Central government to introduce the Electricity Amendment Bill 2022 in Parliament. The lightning strike/work-boycott action and stiff opposition within Parliament compelled the government to refer the Bill for examination by a Parliamentary Standing Committee. Meanwhile, protests have been ongoing in various Union Territories where the Central government is pushing for electricity privatization.

On August 10, 2022, postal employees resorted to an unprecedented strike in all 23 circles across the country at the call of their national federation, NFPE, and GDS (Gramin Dak Sewak) union.

Steel workers of the Vizag Steel Plant continued their valiant struggle against privatization, getting massive public support. The Andhra Pradesh State government led by the YSR Congress, which had earlier signed a memorandum of understanding with South Korea’s POSCO to hand over land of Vizag Steel Plant, was also forced to support the struggle against its privatization.

Also, coal workers conducted campaigns and protests against legislative action by the government to promote commercial mining through private sector, after opening it up to foreign direct investment earlier. The telecom employees of BSNL, under the leadership of various unions acting jointly, carried on protest agitations in various forms against the discriminatory policies of the government against state-run telecom service provider.

Defense production employees organized numerous protest programs against the government’s moves to dismantle the ordnance factories network for privatization through the corporatization route and the promulgation of Essential Defence Service Ordinance prohibiting strikes in the defense sector and empowering the government to prohibit strikes in sectors having link with defense sector production activities which was later enacted as Essential Defence Services or EDS Act.

About 200,000 medical and sales representatives (SPEs) of the pharmaceuticals industry observed a one-day countrywide strike on January 19, 2022 in pursuance of their 16-point demands.

In the transport sector, struggles by road transport workers against fuel price hikes and the new Motor Vehicle Act continued. Water transport workers organized massive joint campaign and agitation against the National Monetisation Pipeline (NMP) which seeks to privatize all major ports, and the Major Port Authority Act. Struggles also took place at the port level by workers and their unions against hiving off the port hospital through the public-private partnership route.

The cement sector, too, saw a series of struggles in Madhya Pradesh, Himachal and Rajasthan. In MP, the President of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions in JS Cement was recently reportedly killed by the management-sponsored goons and the mass of the workers’ counter response to that compelled the administration to arrest some senior management officials, and at the same time the company was also compelled to pay substantial compensation.

The employees of both Central and state governments, at the initiative of their respective confederations and federations, also staged a number of protest agitations on their demands and also organized solidarity programs in support of peasants’ struggles.

Gig workers in the transport sector (Uber, Ola) staged a massive agitation in West Bengal and compelled the employers and the State government to come forward for negotiation and settlement. Also, workers of Swiggy (a food delivery service) organized a successful agitation on their demands and against attacks on their working conditions in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand at the initiative of a union.

Besides these, there were important and militant struggles and strikes in private sector industries in several states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Maharashtra

Farmers’ protests

Under the aegis of SKM, farmers continued to fight for a variety of local issues while also focusing on the central demands for a statutory MSP guarantee, sacking of a central minister whose son is the prime accused in the Lakhimpur Kheri mowing down of farmers, etc.

In June, farmers joined anti-Agnipath protests across the country. The scheme for short-term recruitment in the Armed Forces was heavily criticized for betraying the aspirations of hundreds of thousands who were looking to join the Armed Forces as a career. The peasantry, especially in some Indian states, has deep ties with the armed forces and consequently this scheme was strongly opposed.

In November, on the second anniversary of the farmers’ movement (which started on November 26, 2020) massive protests were held in all state capitals jointly by farmers’ organizations and supported by trade unions and other peoples’ organizations.

Farmers have been fighting sustained battles against land acquisition (as in Azamgarh, UP), better prices for produce and clearance of dues (sugarcane farmers in western UP), charging of metered electricity rates from farmers in UP, and many other such issues that damage the economic viability of farming. Protests were also held against shortage of fertilizers in several states.

Workers-peasant struggle rally on April 5

A massive Workers’ Peasants Convention was held on September 5, 2022 at New Delhi in which over 6,000 workers-peasants-agri-workers from all States participated. This was organized by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) along with the All India Kisan Sabha and AIAWU, the agricultural workers union. This represented another big step forward in building the already growing unity between industrial workers, farmers and agricultural workers for rejection of the anti-people policies of the BJP government and presenting an alternative set of pro-people policies,

The convention gave a call for a massive Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Rally (Worker-Farmer Struggly Rally) on April 5, 2023 during the budget session of Parliament to be preceded by a series of campaign-agitations. Preparations for this are already underway. By all accounts, the rally is expected to see a never before mobilization of the laboring classes of India. The new year of 2023, therefore, promises to be a year of determined and sweeping struggles, epitomized by this rally.