Thursday, February 17, 2011

23rd February March to Parliament - Why ?

The working class of the country is gearing up for a major struggle against the anti-worker and anti- people policies of the Government. All the central trade unions who have called for the 23rd February ‘March to Parliament’ have started preparations in right earnest. The reports from different states and industrial federations indicate that the workers are responding enthusiastically to the call and the targets set are expected to be surpassed. The 23rd February ‘March to Parliament’ is indeed going to be a milestone in the history of the working class of India.

Why?

Because the demands raised by the trade unions touch the day to day lives of all sections of workers and also the fact that all the major trade unions have been unanimous in raising these demands. The struggle is not for any increase in the wages or other monetary benefits of the workers but for a reversal of the policies of the government which are adversely impacting the working and living conditions of not only the entire working class but also all the other sections of the toiling masses.

Right to Food

The first and foremost demand is for immediate steps by the Government to control the continuous price rise of all the essential commodities, particularly food articles. Even dal and roti, the staple food of the poor, have gone beyond their reach. It is not the seasonal ups and downs in production and demand that are responsible for the rise in the prices but the policies pursued by the government. Despite the FCI godowns overflowing with 5.7 crore tonnes of food grains, the government has refused to distribute them at cheaper rates through the PDS, which would have helped in bringing down the market prices.

The report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Right to Food has made it clear that the increase in the prices of food commodities was due to the entry of big powerful investors in speculative trade, i.e. the futures and forward trading. In less than one year, the volume of trade in commodity market has grown by more than 102% though their production has increased by only 3-4%. But the government refuses to ban forward and futures trading in order to protect the windfall profits of the corporates and big business houses.

The deregulation of petrol price by the UPA II Government and its intention to deregulate the prices of diesel and cooking gas, the repeated increase in the price of petrol - seven times in the last six months - have further contributed to the price rise. The overwhelming majority of the workers including the unorganised sector workers, the anganwadi employees, ASHAs, mid day meal workers, domestic workers, construction workers etc, the poor peasants, agricultural workers etc find that their real incomes are being eroded due to the steep rise in the prices.

Implementation of Labour Laws

Any citizen of the country is bound to abide by the laws of the land. Common people are penalised for even minor infringements like violation of traffic rules. Severe restrictions are imposed on the workers and the common people even on exercising their basic rights, like the right to protest etc. In many cities today, wall writing, display of banners, buntings, and flags at public places are not allowed; and restrictions are being imposed by the courts on demonstrations, rallies etc.

However, the laws of the land apparently do not apply to the employers. The government and its law enforcement machinery has become totally subservient to the corporates, domestic as well as foreign, protecting them even in cases of gross violations of labour laws. The 8 hour work day, minimum wages, social security benefits, the right to organisation and collective bargaining, the Contract Labour Abolition Act etc were all won by the working class, through decades of hard struggles. But, today all these laws are violated with impunity by the employers. In the industrial centres in and around Delhi, the national capital, a 12 hour work day has become the norm; workers are forced to work on contract basis for decades without any security and without being regularised. Earlier, the company managers often used to deploy ‘goondas’ to intimidate the workers and to break the unions; but now, ‘goondas’ are being employed as managers and are moving around brandishing pistols and arms. No safety rules are implemented. Hundreds of workers continue to die in industrial accidents, be it the BALCO chimney collapse, fires in Agra shoe companies, in Bhushan Steel or construction workers, including those employed in the prestigious Delhi Metro project and in the construction related activities of the Commonwealth games.

Contractorisation and outsourcing have become the order of the day, not only in the private sector but also in public sector undertakings and government departments, both central and state. Millions of workers are at present employed as contract workers in regular jobs, to perform work of a permanent nature. These workers are paid miserably low wages and have no social security benefits, thus creating a situation where two types of workers work side by side in an enterprise, doing the same job but getting highly unequal wages and benefits, thereby creating rifts among the workers.

Whether it is Honda in Gurgaon and Liberty in Karnal in Haryana or Hyundai, Foxconn, Build Your Dreams in Chennai, or Hero cycles in Ludhiana or Mahindra and Mahindra in Nasik, mass scale victimisation and repression are let loose on the workers when they try to organise and demand implementation of their basic rights. An overwhelming majority of the struggles by the workers and the labour disputes today are not related to any new demands by the working class but to the implementation of existing labour laws.

Instead of ensuring implementation of the labour laws, the governments in several states, except those in the Left ruled states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, are resorting to the most brutal police repression on the workers and their union leaders. It is not the employers who are punished for not implementing the laws but the trade union leaders who are punished for demanding their implementation. The most recent example is the handcuffing and imprisonment of A Soundararajan, Secretary of CITU and the General Secretary of its Tamil Nadu state committee for leading the fight of the Foxconn workers.

Employment

The third demand highlighted by the joint movement of the trade unions pertains to employment. According to the Employment Survey conducted by the Labour Bureau, unemployment has reached an alarming proportion of 9.4%. In addition to this, underemployment is a serious problem in our country as the poor cannot afford to remain to be unemployed as they do not get any unemployment allowance. Lakhs of workers, particularly in the export oriented sectors, have lost their jobs due to the global economic crisis during last two years. Many sectors, like the handloom and textile sectors, which provide employment to lakhs of workers, are still facing a serious situation resulting in loss of employment to large numbers of workers. But the government has not taken any action either to create jobs or even to protect the existing jobs.

The trade unions have demanded that job protection should be made conditional for extending stimulus packages for industry impacted by the global economic crisis. But though the government has extended lakhs of crores of rupees worth of incentives to the big corporates on the pretext of the global economic crisis, and has decided to continue them even now, it has not taken any measures either to protect the jobs of the workers ot to create new jobs for the unemployed.

Social Security

The UPA I government enacted the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act in 2008, on the eve of the Lok Sabha elections. Much hype was generated on providing social security to the unorganised sector workers who constitute 94% of the workers in the country. More than two years down the line, what have the unorganised sector workers gained from this Act? No specific social welfare scheme has been formulated under the Act till now. Only ten existing social welfare schemes have been annexed to the Act and were supposed to cover the unorganised sector workers. Most of these are confined to BPL sections only. With the income criteria norms of the Planning Commission being fixed at ridiculously low levels of around Rs 11 per day in rural areas and Rs 16 per day for urban areas, 90% of the unorganised sector workers are excluded from the purview of these welfare schemes. The government has allotted a meagre amount of Rs 1000 crores in the last Budget for the National Fund for the unorganised sector workers. But till now no concrete welfare measure has been identified for spending even this amount.

Though the National Social Security Board (NSSB) constituted as per the Act has unanimously recommended that all the unorganised sector workers in the country should be provided floor level social security that includes old age pension, health and maternity benefits, and accident insurance, and that adequate fund should be created to ensure social security benefits to all the unorganised sector workers, the government has not yet taken any concrete decision on this. It has only decided to extend the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) to some segments of the unorganised sector workers. Even in this case, it has not taken any action on the NSSB recommendation to include the Anganwadi employees and ASHAs under the RSBY.

Disinvestment - Sale of Public Assets

The UPA II government has fast tracked the disinvestment process. It was not that the UPA I government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the prime architect of the neo liberal globalisation initiated by a Congress government in the country, had any intention of strengthening the public sector. But the strong opposition from the Left, on whose support it depended for its survival, had forced the UPA I to abandon the disinvestment it had announced in BHEL and Neyveli Lignite Corporation. With no such constraints in the 15th Lok Sabha, the UPA II has already disinvested shares in Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam, Engineers India Limited, National Mineral Development Corporation, National Hydro Power Corporation, National Thermal Power Corporation, Rural Electrification Corporation and Coal India Limited. Disinvestment in Power Grid Corporation, Manganese Ore India Limited, Shipping Corporation, and Hindustan Copper are next in line to be followed by follow on offers in Indian Oil Corporation, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and Steel Authority of India Limited. The government wants to earn Rs 59000 crores through this process of selling public assets in this financial year itself.

The predominant role of public sector in our economy is also being consciously reduced, as in the case of BSNL and Air India, by unrestricted entry of private corporates in these sectors. A similar fate awaits ONGC, NTPC, IOC, BPCL and HPCL in the fields of natural gas production, power generation and oil sectors.

Almost all these public sector units are in strategic sectors like minerals, power, oil, infrastructure etc. They have been contributing to the development of self reliance for our country and in protecting our sovereignty. They have been contributing huge amounts of money to the public exchequer through taxes, dividends etc. They have huge reserves which could have been utilised to expand their capacity which in turn would generate employment. But the government, is not bothered about the self reliance and sovereignty of our country. Our precious natural resources including mines, are being handed over to private corporates including the multinational corporations. Can the working class be a silent spectator to such loot of the nation’s assets by private national and multinational corporations?

Despite the continuous joint campaign during the past one and a half years on the above demands, during which the trade unions have organised different forms of struggles to highlight the above demands of the workers including an all India Protest Day, State level rallies etc and the unprecedented All India general strike on 7th September 2010, the UPA II government has remained arrogantly insensitive to these demands. It is in this situation that the ‘March to Parliament’ is being organised on 23rd February 2011, in which, as per reports from different states, more than ten lakh workers will be participating.

Through this historic march the working class will give a jolt to the government and brace itself for more intensive struggles if the government continues to be insensitive to the plight of the common people.

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