15th August 2007 will mark the 60th anniversary of our country’s independence. In many parts of the world employees retire at the age of 60. While this retirement age does not apply to the Indian state, it certainly marks a time for reflection and contemplation upon the years gone by. The relentless pursuit of economic prosperity has left in its wake the unkept promise of providing the most basic social security to unorganised workers. We seem to have forgotten that the construction workers who build our high rises, the domestic workers who serve us, the vegetable vendors who provide for our daily needs and the waste-pickers who keep our cities clean are as much a part of modern day India as the information technologists and technocrats.
Thousands of unorganised, unprotected workers congregated at Rajghat on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti this year to protest against the cavalier attitude of the government towards the toiling masses. Unmindful of the fact that it was also Dussehra, worker after worker stood up to express her angst through street plays, songs and speeches over a period of two hours. More than venting their frustration they were giving voice to a firm resolve to change the situation to claim a share of the pie that is rightfully theirs.
The question of what should constitute social security legislation has baffled many, including the elected parliamentarians. In retrospect, after interacting with some of them, I am not certain whether they are merely ignorant or deliberately so inclined. Some of us met the prime minister in August to apprise him of the urgent need for social security legislation. He was surrounded by familiar faces who were happy to continue their pleasantries with us, till we brought up the social security legislation. Thereafter, they started making the expected noises to excuse themselves. It was almost as if they felt this was a personal or regional need about which they were neither interested nor willing do anything.
Fortunately, there now seems to be some movement on this issue. The matter of social security legislation has been referred to the Committee of Secretaries convened by the Labour Secretary. Also, the new Labour Minister, Oscar Fernandes, in his first public interview accorded top priority to the issue of social security for unorganised workers.
So, what is social security legislation? In Marathi we like to say the government is our Ma-Baap. It is meant to protect the aged, weak, infirm, mentally and physically challenged, the unorganised, the deserted, and all the vulnerable groups in the country. Of the 40 crore workers in India, less than 2.5 crore are protected by some form of labour legislation. They enjoy security of work, minimum wages, an eight hour working day, a weekly off, paid leave, sick leave, annual bonus, provident fund, pension and so on. The remaining 37.5 crore workers have been left high and dry. These include porters, head loaders, landless labourers, construction workers, domestic workers, brick kiln workers, quarry workers, cycle rickshaw pullers, wastepickers, hawkers and vendors, among others. In our country this implies groups who are marginalised on account of caste, class and gender. They are unlikely to include a single middle or upper middle caste person.
In the past five decades of public life I have organised many such labourers, including porters, waste-pickers, rickshaw drivers, garage workers, hawkers, construction workers, project affected families, migrant workers, physically challenged people, devdasis, domestic help and landless labourers. I have also been involved in the issue of slums and rehabilitation. I have served as a councillor in the Pune Municipal Corporation for ten years and am currently Working President of the National Campaign Committee on Unorganised Labour.
If I had to make a quick assessment of the credits and debits or gains and losses of the past half century, it would be easy to put the Mathadi Act for Hamaals and Other Unprotected Workers, the Slum Rehabilitation Act, Dam and Project Affected Rehabilitation Act, and the Devdasi Rehabilitation Act on the credit side. However, on the debit side we see that there have been almost no gains for domestic workers, deserted women, migrant workers, or construction workers. In the unorganised sector women workers often earn less than 50% of what men do. Also their contribution to family labour is never considered, though in speeches it is often claimed that they contribute 66% to the resource generation of our country. In effect, I concur with Amartya Sen that no job is unskilled, all are skilled.
We are also a caste ridden society. Our government servants like to call themselves ‘officers’ to highlight the difference between themselves and workers, subscribing basically to a casteist ideology. Although the rural balutedar system has more or less collapsed, it is not as if newer emerging production relations are either stable or equitable. Urbanisation has now reached bizarre proportions and is progressing rapidly, adding to the problem of displaced people. This is again a complex issue. In Delhi, it has translated into a battle between the police and the ‘Bangladeshis’. Our large cities lack space to house the poorest inhabitants. If nobody wants slums, where are the poor supposed to live?
We need to draw appropriate lessons from the history of America’s affluence from 1492 to 2006. It is the immigrants who came in, settled down and helped make the America we are familiar with. The contribution of the sweat, blood and tears of Blacks (Afro-Americans) in this history is enormous. And yet, although the tradition of slavery is now dead, human beings continue to be trapped in it. Similarly, while India seeks to emulate America’s socio-economic growth, the racism in the minds of Indian capitalists continues unabated.
The conventions of the International Labour Organisation are not honoured here. Even in the consideration of minimum requirements, we conti- nue to look at only calorific values, refusing to take living conditions into account. The central government Employment Guarantee Scheme assure minimum wages of Rs 60 per day for 100 days. This could have only been determined considering the calorific requirements. Rs 6000 in rural India, for 100 days of work, can at best ensure minimal grains for consumption. Urban people making these calculations often fail to understand that this kind of money cannot allow for any real productive work to happen in the villages. Why this attitude?
Nonetheless, we accept the EGS, saying ‘bricks are softer than stone’! The Maharashtra government has enough experience to show that EGS programmes can be used to convert barren land into forests and grazing lands. America may have gone mechanical; India, however, cannot forget its large labour force. While the population of America is 300 million, the spread is three times India’s.
Old age pension, health care, compensation for death or accident, maternity benefit, life insurance, or education for children are all schemes which will cumulatively cost the government less than one per cent of the GDP. Unfortunately, the need for pension has still not been recognized by these experts. In Maharashtra, the demand for a mathadi act was first raised in just three cities – Mumbai, Nagpur and Pune – and for just a few occupations. The historic struggles for the Act included dharnas at Chief Minister Yeshwantrao Chavan’s residence and his public engagements, morchas at banks where hamaals were indebted, jail bharo agitations and so on. Finally, it was passed in 1980, partially fulfilling the dream of Sanyukta Maharashtra.
Hamaals were migrants from rural areas who first arrived in the thousands to Mumbai by boats and ships to help unload sacks of grains on the docks. They slogged through the day, bathed at community taps, used community toilets and slept on the roadside after eating frugal meals. Around 1945, D’Mello started organizing these workers. The officers in the godowns were privileged and protected, like government servants and unconcerned about the hamaals, who were considered ‘casual’ workers and paid wages according to ‘piece rate’. D’Mello started talking about ‘decasualisation’. Ideas and schemes were put forward. The loaders were not exactly employees of the dock; they were paid only if there was work available. D’Mello demanded an imposition of a levy for hamaals to be borne by the Dock Labour Board. The board had to pay a levy over and above the hamaal’s wages. The levy started coming in and gradually the exploitation of hamaals declined. Finally pension, provident fund, bonus, gratuity, insurance, etc became a reality for hamaals.
In 1960, with the formation of Maharashtra, a state of Marathi speaking people finally became a reality. Marathi speaking hamaals lobbied the government and ensured the act was passed. Though the legislation was first proposed in 1969, the Act was introduced only in 1974. Since the traders had taken their opposition all the way to the Supreme Court, it was only in 1980 that it got implemented in Pune. Due to pressure from the trader lobby, neither the government nor the labour department was keen on it. Pune, Mumbai and Nagpur were the only cities where it was implemented. Subsequently, almost all the zillas started serving notices, though in Nagpur, even today, the act is not implemented in kalamna markets. Nonetheless, almost 200-300,000 hamaals are protected under this act and benefit from it. There is also no financial liability on the government treasury.
Many years later, though Ravindra Verma sought information regarding the working of the act, made some recommendations and proposed an ‘umbrella legislation’, the Vajpayee government didn’t allow it to reach Parliament. The Congress government changed the name and started calling it social security legislation, promising to make it a reality. A committee was formed under the leadership of Arjun Sengupta, which submitted its report and a draft of the social security legislation to the government. This itself took close to two years. Nevertheless, there is still no decision. Meanwhile the central labour department, the National Advisory Committee, and the Sengupta Committee, among others have already submitted their drafts regarding both social security legislation, facilities and the work conditions. As a matter of fact, all unorganised/ unprotected workers, men and women, urban and rural workers should benefit from the legislation.
To date, the issue of social security is confined to discussions. It will have to come to the public eye by taking to the streets. The groups for whom the legislation is being considered are often themselves not aware of it. The central and state labour departments are not very helpful. The press has virtually boycotted the issue. The financial experts are not willing to budge. There is absolutely no political will.
It is unlikely that the issue can gather strength without collective and organised struggle. In the recent discussions in Delhi, trade unions, mass movements and NGOs have declared their resolve to struggle together for the Act. In the winter session of Parliament there will be organised protests and sit-ins. Eminent labour leaders, social leaders, the literati, journalists, professors, teachers and artists will also be invited to participate. State level meetings and conventions will be held.
If there is still no action, in February 2007 before the budget session of Parliament, we propose to organise a huge protest. There will be a nationwide agitation, insisting on social security for the country’s marginalised in the 60th year of India’s independence. It is unfortunate that though everyone talks about the increasing economic divide due to the new economic policy, little is being done to change it. The time for action is now, for tomorrow may be too late.