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India 2017: Struggles of workers and farmers reach new heights

SAVERA surveys how Indian workers and peasants groups have been resisting capitalist injustice over the course of the year

AN unprecedented wave of workers’ and farmers’ struggles spread across the whole of India through the year that is coming to an end. 

They challenged the Modi government and its pro-rich, anti-worker, anti-farmer policies, forcing the government to reverse course in some cases. 

These battles spanned issues related to falling living standards, growing inequality and looting by the ruling classes, as well as the communal politics of the Sangh Parivar, a powerful group of Hindu nationalist organisations, which 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 an end to forcible land acquisition, farmers in several regions were on the roads, sometimes facing police bullets (Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra) and elsewhere 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 the scale of activities and mobilising strength.

In dozens of public-sector areas — ports, steel plants, coal mines, ordnance factories, banks, insurance companies etc — workers went on strike or protested against relentless government pressure to privatise national assets by handing them over to 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 200,000 workers participated, pressing the government to accept their long-pending demands. These include a minimum wage of Rs 18,000, an end to privatisation, control of prices, a strengthening of the public distribution system which ensures food security and withdrawal of neoliberal labour law reforms. 

The other, also in November, saw a two-day Kisan Mukti Sansad (farmers’ liberation parliament) in which over 100,000 farmers congregated in Delhi, including families of farmers who had committed suicide due to debt and losses.

So 2017 became not only a year of deep unrest among India’s working people, it also saw increasing intertwining of the 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 people 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 groups and other organisations. 
Workers also joined the massive kisan mukti yatras that covered over 10,000km mobilising farmers.

2017 could well be the year of the struggling farmer. High indebtedness, often leading to suicides, inability to meet even cost of production due to unremunerative prices, land acquisitions and 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 government officials, 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 All India Kashmiri Samaj (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 lynching deaths  have been reported to date. Aiks collected funds to support the families of some of the victims.
In Maharashtra, an unprecedented statewide bandh (general strike) was called for by different peasant organisations, with the Maharashtra Rajya Kisan Sabha (affiliated to Aiks) playing a leading role.

Hundreds of thousands of peasants and agricultural workers came out on streets of Kolkata for the Nabanna Rally organised by Aiks, the All India Agricultural Workers Union and other organisations on May 22. It was met with brutal repression by the Trinamool Congress government’s police, leading to the death of one comrade. 

There have been a series of struggles by adivasis for implementation of the Forest Rights Act and against evictions. 
In Jharkhand 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 Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party) state government. 

There were police shootings in which one adivasi participant was killed and several injured. The joint movement ultimately forced the government to withdraw the amendments.

All these struggles were woven together through a Kisan Mukti Yatra that travelled 10,000km across the country mobilising farmers for increased struggles, finally converging at the Delhi Kisan Mukti Sansad in Delhi on November 21-22. 

Over 200,000 farmers participated in the historic event. Families of over 40 farmers who committed suicide due to unpayable debt burdens and losses in farming were also present, narrating their harrowing experiences. 

The Sansad adopted two “bills” for a complete debt waiver and for ensuring remunerative prices for farmers’ produce.
A major strand of workers’ struggles was against the Modi government’s privatisation drive. 

In its three-and-a-half year reign, Narendra Modi’s so-called nationalist government has sold off Rs1.25 trillion worth of public-sector assets to private buyers, putting thousands of jobs at risk. 

Protests against these moves spread through workers in the public sector throughout the country. In most of these struggles the Centre of Indian Trade Unions played a leading role, often uniting other trade unions on a joint platform.

Defence 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 Corp workers also struck work in April. In Haryana, state road transport workers went on a lightning strike against a plan to hand over routes to private operators. 

There were huge protests in coal mines against closure of 10 ECL mines in West Bengal. National Aluminium Company workers in Odisha protested against privatisation. 

On February 28, bank employees across the country held a one-day strike against government privatisation plans. Again, on August 22 the bank employees struck work, demanding an end to a merger move of public-sector banks, demanding stringent action against wilful defaulters.

One of the significant features of workers’ struggles in 2017 was the high participation of women. 

This was mainly because women are the majority among scheme workers and they fought a bitter and arduous battle against government funding cuts and refusal to treat them as regular employees. 

There are about 10 million scheme workers in the country, employed on irregular or contract basis, though they work year-round delivering services like primary healthcare, meals in schools and childcare and nutrition. 

During 2017 scheme workers held protest actions in Maharashtra, Assam, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Karnataka, Haryana, Punjab, Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat and Assam, among others. 

They also successfully held a one-day country-wide strike on January 20 which was preceded by demonstrations in practically all districts. 

Later in the year, on August 21, health workers held a massive protest at the parliament, submitting hundreds of thousands 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 130,000 central government employees went on strike on March 16 while on March 2 state government employees held a mass sit-in protest at Delhi, demanding withdrawal of a new pension scheme, against outsourcing 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 (village council) 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, W Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Assam and Karnataka. 

Construction workers, mostly in the unorganised sector, protested against low wages, job losses and repression in various states including Haryana and West Bengal. 

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 multinational companies. 

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 to sea. 

Beedi (cigarette) workers in several states protested against low wages. Even Life Insurance Corporation 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 and Assam huge protests were held by joint platforms of trade unions and other organisations against price rises, farmers’ debts, job losses and other people’s issues.

As the year ends, the foundation laid by these struggles and many others 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.

This is a slightly edited version of an article that first appeared at www.cpim.org.

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