Life between strikes

Gaon Bandh

By Poonam I Kaushish

In this season of civic apathy and economic disgruntlement, clearly strikes are the flavour of the season. Over the decades, India has trudged the treacherous protest road bringing things to such a pass that life is about living between strikes. Curse all you want, it’s for a cause, remember. Wherein a person’s freedom ends at the tip of the others nose!
Think. From June 1 to 10 farmers from 172 organisations across the country led by the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh and the Kisan Ekta Manch held a 10-day ‘Gaon Bandh’ to draw attention to the ongoing agrarian crisis. As part of the protest farmers decided not to sell their produce to cities primarily as they wanted urban folks to understand their misery and make the Government realise the kisans importance.
Their major demands, complete loan waiver, minimum support price that is 50% higher than all input costs and income assurance. However, what makes their case strikingly apart from other bandhs is that it’s for the first time that farmer organizations across the board have resorted to what is the favourite tool of their blue-collared brethren.
And they seem to have struck gold with Parties falling over each other to pander to farmers demands. Recently, Karnataka has promised a waiver of all farm loans up to Rs 50,000. Ditto the case in Rajasthan, Punjab, Maharashtra, UP etc. Paradoxically, the loan waivers have opened a Pandora’s Box for other States with many like Raje prowling for a shortfall of Rs 6500 crores.
Consider. The kisans are a large vote-bank as over 65% of the population lives and works in agriculture or activities thereof. But, over the last 25 years the share of farming in the economy has shrunk from over 33% to 15% resulting in crippling high indebtedness with over 346,538 farmers committing suicide in 20 years, an average of 16,500 deaths annually or 45 deaths every day, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. But the actual number is treble aver agriculturists. In Maharashtra suicides are the norm and in Punjab almost 6,926 farmers and farm labourers in 11 districts committed suicide till two years back.
Not only farmers but turn North- South, East-West, any mohalla, city or State on any given day, the story is the same. Some disgruntled group is on strike to protest some grievance or failure impairing life and bringing the country to a grinding halt. Call it a bandh, hartal, rasta roko, chakka jam what you may matters little, India thrives on protests. The word strike instills a sense of dread perfecting the saying “jiski laathi uski bhains”!
A sure give away of free India out of control. Raising a moot point: Are strikes actually expression of freedom or are they means of suppressing fundamental rights in a democracy? What drives unions to strike? Is it to keep its flock together or ignominy of becoming irrelevant? Guided by workers interest, commitment for a better wages and quality of life or political considerations?
Arguably, not a few simply shrug it off with “sab chalta hai attitude, this is Mera Bharat Mahan at its rudest and crassest best.” Many assert “ki pharak painda hai”. But the fact is that these strikes have exposed how dangerous this game has become replete with violence, mayhem, deaths etc.
Tragically, India has travelled a long way from Tilak’s “swaraj is my birth right” to “strikes is my birth right.” Today, every other section of society plans strikes as a matter of routine. The National Capital numero uno road — Parliament Street resembles a battle ground. Heavily barricaded with baton-wielding policemen, fire engines and police vans, it stands vandalized every other day by slogan-shouting masses protesting about something. The cause is immaterial. It is all about registering ones protest, the louder the better. Success is measured through the prism of causing maximum dislocation and discomfiture to people bringing work to a standstill.
Scandalously, India lost 11.73 lakhs man days to strikes in 2017 which cost the country Rs 1,4350 crores according to the Labour Bureau. Compared to 2016, the number of man days lost increased by 44% resulting in 57% more production loss last year. Textile workers in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, IT employees in Karnataka, multiple workers’ agitations in Kerala, defence employees cross country including outside Parliament and Government employees in different States.
Tamil Nadu lost the highest number of strike days 5.74 lakhs in 2017, followed by Kerala 1.37 lakhs and Gujarat 99,880. Gujarat reported the highest production loss at Rs 286 crores, West Bengal followed with Rs 181 crores, 4,683 man-days. While industry leaders assert strikes are indications of changing policies, labour unions argue the situation is worsening with India’s future threatened, notwithstanding the Centre’s and States boast of the best ecosystem for investment and entrepreneurship.
Clearly, part of the current paradox is explained by the changed notion of strikes aka hartal aka bandh as a form of protest. The original concept was centred on the logic the only way for a disempowered people group to shake the system was agitate, from a gherao for more wages to a voluntary hartal against policy decisions. But slowly perversion set in. A strike could be effective only if stoppage of work could not be overcome easily by the system. Therefore, strikers use their power base, including violence, to stall anything that spells change from the routine.
Look at the irony. On one hand we talk of India as the next super power with a strong economy on par with countries like Japan, Korea and China. On the other, we fail to realize that strikes are a hindrance to achieving this goal. In no civilised nations do Parties or trade unions dare to justify deaths and severe citizens distress as necessary to voice protest. Any call for a bandh should come from the suffering aam aadmi not from netas or corporate fat cats.
Undoubtedly, people are fed-up of bandhs each time some neta gets a headache. According to a recent survey, three out of four people want a legal ban, 8 out of 10 favour severe punishment or hefty fines for leaders. Surprisingly, only 15% believe in strikes, 10% in voluntary participation and 60% support Gandhi’s form of civil disobedience, peaceful dharnas and candle lighting in genuine cases of injustice.
In sum, in a milieu wherein adoption of strong-arm tactics to extract one’s pound of flesh has become second nature, it is time to cry a halt to strikes. Remember, paralysing the State, black-mailing corporates to get attention and policy reversals only exasperates the public, cuts off money flow, shoos investors and endangers jobs.
Time to stop giving into strong-arm tactics, change a bandh’s dynamics replacing it with a new social contract. A referendum should be held for people to decide what is right or wrong. This gives higher bargaining power to citizens against Parties or unions who strike, holding the State hostage to achieve their selfish interests.
India needs good governance and economic growth where the citizen’s right is paramount. Questionably, can we afford strikes? No. At some point we have to stand up and bellow, “Bandh karo ye natak!”— INFA