By Poonam I Kaushish
Politicians love a good bandh. Specially when general elections are months away to highlight Modi Raj’s innumerable failures. Except the hapless aam janata who are trying to make it home or work. But then, they are an expendable lot. For the rest, a shutdown is usually an extra holiday and an opportunity to display our inclusive capacity. Big deal if the Bharat Bandh called by the Congress against fuel price hike and highlight the Rs 11 lakh crores loot yesterday cost the economy around Rs 130,000,000,000 (13,000 crores). It’s no water off a duck’s back!
Last week too, another Bharat Bandh by 35 upper caste and OBC organizations against amendments in the SC/ST Act evoked a good response in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, UP, Bihar, Punjab, Maharashtra and Delhi. Read normal life was paralyzed, shops, business establishments, schools and educational institutions shut and everything came to a standstill. Alongside, the ‘me too’ Mazdoor Kishan Sangharsh Rally protested in the national Capital for higher MSP even as Gujarat local lad Hardik Patel on hunger strike since August 25 demanding reservation in jobs for the Patidars in Gujarat was hospitalised.
Curse all you want, it’s for a cause, remember. Clearly, India thrives on bandhs aka strikes. A six-letter word that instills a sense of dread. Which has perfected the old saying “jiski laathi uski bhains”. Today, every other section of society plans bandhs as a matter of routine. The cause is immaterial. It is all about registering ones protest, the louder the better. Success is measured in terms of causing maximum dislocation and discomfiture to people.
In fact, no day passes without a strike somewhere. Be it a mohalla, district or State. The story is the same. Bringing things to such a pass that it is like living life between strikes. Be it labour strikes, political protests, hartal, rasta roko or chakka jams replete with violence, mayhem, deaths et al. A sure give away of free India out of control. Whoever coined the phrase that ‘your freedom ends where my nose begins,’ was correct.
Clearly, apart from being a public relations exercise to showcase muscle and might, a pain for the aam aadmi in terms of transportation, businesses and educational establishments, huge monetary loss to daily wage earners, employees and private and public enterprises there is precious little gains for those who perpetrate strikes and for the country/State vis-à-vis welfare of the people.
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.
Recall, in August 2003, the Supreme Court had expressed its anguish over strikes. Upholding the Kerala and Calcutta High Courts’ judgments declaring bandhs as “illegal and unconstitutional way of collective bargaining”, it had ruled, that Government employees had no “fundamental, legal, moral or equitable right” to go on strikes whatever the cause “just or unjust.” Pointing out that aggrieved employees had other options available to them, the Bench opined: Strike as a weapon is mostly misused, which results in chaos and total maladministration,” while disposing six petitions challenging the en masse dismissal of 1.07 lakh employees by the Tamil Nadu Government.
Arguably, if the highest court could not put a stop to bandhs, it is futile and pointless to criticise the tradition of strikes and shutdowns in India. Or question how it benefits the people? Whether they are actually expression of freedom or a mean of suppressing fundamental rights in a democracy? What drives netas and unions to strike? Is it to keep their flock together or ignominy of becoming irrelevant? Guided by party/workers interest, commitment for better wages or political considerations?
Look at the irony. Drive down the teeming metropolises and one sees the inherent contradictions of India’s liberalization. The imposing glass-and-concrete high rises, neon signs flashing some of the world’s biggest global names, and malls are all symbols of the thrusting ambitions of Indian business and society.
On the flip side the potholed roads, unreliable power supply and lack of urban infrastructure exposes the rank failure of the Government. This in turn encourages cynical trade unionism at the cost of generating employment and economic growth. Besides, part of the problem is that most trade unions are headed by netas who have their own axe to grind with the Government
Alas, it’s not easy to wish away a bandh, however damaging it may seem to the image-building process. It has now become a weapon for the Opposition which resorts to it when it feels like venting out its frustration or desperation for power, or whatever. However, while bandh politics is not yet obsolete, it has lost its cutting edge and become a nuisance to most people. People have now started voicing their angst against it each time some leader gets a headache or a gripe.
According to a recent survey, over 78% people were against bandhs, 80% opposed Parties or religious institutions organizing them and 95% believed that our netagan organized them for personal gain. While three out of four people wanted a legal ban on strikes, eight out of 10 favoured severe punishment or hefty fines for the ringleaders of mob violence. Over 62% felt that the bandh organizers should be punished and made to foot the bill. Yet on a good bandh day, one can put one’s feet up, eat, drink, and thank the Opposition. It’s a no brainer of a choice.
Plainly, the time has come to take a leaf out the US law, wherein there is no Constitutional right to make a speech on a highway or near about, so as to cause a crowd to gather and obstruct the highway. The right to assembly is to be so exercised as not to conflict with other lawful rights, interests and comfort of the individual or the public and public order.
Undoubtedly, in a milieu wherein adoption of strong-arm tactics to extract one’s pound of flesh has become our second nature, who should one fault? The polity and the unions are two sides of the same coin. It is only a question of who engineers the strike and for what gain. Conveniently forgetting democracy is neither mobocracy nor a license to create bedlam. It is a fine balance between rights and duties, liberties and responsibilities.
One’s freedom pre-supposes another’s responsibilities and liberty. Consequently, bandhs cannot set things right nor create any psychological impact or pressure on the minds of those people who are sitting at the helm of affairs. However, either which way a bandh per se as an instrument of expression of disenchantment with the ruling dispensation has far outlived its usefulness.
Think. Of the innumerable hartals called this year has anyone achieved its objective? Then why persist and paralyze normal life? Of course, not a few simply shrug it off with “sab chalta hai attitude,” others assert “ki pharak painda hai” let the netas try to out-do each other to garner votes, but when push comes to shove the time has come to stand up and bellow, “Bandh karo ye nautanki!”— INFA