Nos. 72 & 73, May 2018
Nos. 72 & 73 (May 2018)
India's Working Class and its Prospects
Some Experiences of Organising Workers in Chhattisgarh1
Rich Land of Poor People
Rain-fed and largely single-cropped rice cultivation still remains the primary source of livelihood in the rural areas of Chhattisgarh, where 80 per cent of its population lives (only 20 per cent land is irrigated on the average). But now in the industrial areas, there are tens of thousands of industrial workers – mostly ‘contract workers’ – working 12 hours a day, doing hard and unsafe work, barely getting the legally stipulated minimum wages and living in shanties under constant threat of demolition.
Commonly called ‘Rich Land of Poor People’, Chhattisgarh was carved out of the larger central state of Madhya Pradesh in the year 2000, ostensibly to grant greater democratic participation and control over resources to its people, particularly the tribal people. The wealthy of Chhattisgarh boast of its high growth rate in the past decade, and indeed the capital city Raipur contains islands of opulence replete with glittering malls, five-star hotels and four-lane highways. The noveau riche industrialists, mining and real estate mafia, liquor lobby, and road and building contractors stash away huge sums of black money. The political leaders indulge in vulgar display of their wealth, and hardly a day passes without the news of tax raids on this or that mining officer, forest ranger or labour inspector revealing assets worth millions of rupees far disproportionate to his income. The flip side of this growth, about which the corporate media is usually silent, is that all over rural Chhattisgarh, among the peasantry and tribal people, brews simmering discontent over land being acquired at an unprecedented pace for factories and mines, a discontent that often bursts into agitations suppressed with a heavy hand.
The districts of Bastar and Dantewada in Southern Chhattisgarh, moreover, are the epicentre of three to four decades-long Maoist (Naxalite) insurgency which has affected not only these tribal-populated and densely forested districts but also several other neighbouring states, and refuses to die down despite heavy militarisation of these areas. The military technique of ‘strategic hamletting’ – of emptying out the villages to bring the people to roadside camps, which is popularly perceived to be a ground clearing operation to enable mining the rich mineral resources of the region, has given rise to fierce, justified resistance by the tribals. The ‘collateral damage’ – of thousands of tribal villagers fleeing their villages, of large scale arrests and killings and burning out of villages has been the subject of nationwide debate and of important cases in the Supreme Court. In its drive to crush Naxalism and Naxal supporters, the Chhattisgarh Government has enacted draconian laws to suppress democratic freedoms of association and expression which are supposed to be guaranteed in the Indian Constitution. It is in this complex context that the work of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakarta Committee) has to be understood.
The Legacy of Shankar Guha Niyogi
Com. Niyogi believed that a nationality movement led by the working class, with its firm class perspective, would never turn reactionary, as, for example, are the Shiv Sena/MNS movements in Maharashtra. The very definition of “Who is a Chhattisgarhi” given by him – a definition based not on birth but on class position – underlines this difference. (A migrant labourer who struggles to earn his living honestly in this region belongs as much to Chhattisgarh as his local co-worker.)
The trade union founded and led by Niyogi in the mining township of Dalli Rajhara of Durg district, was not an eight-hour union dealing only with conditions of work, but a 24-hour union, touching all aspects of the workers’ lives. There were 17 departments of the union including Health, Education, Culture, Savings, Sports etc., and the Union ran 11 schools and a dispensary, Shaheed Hospital, which developed into a full-fledged community hospital catering to the poor rural folk around the mines. The women’s wing, Mahila Mukti Morcha, led a successful struggle against alcoholism among the workers. The Union evolved, and struggled to establish, ‘semi-mechanisation’, a creative technical alternative that not only preserved jobs but had to be admitted by the Bhilai Steel Management to be a cost-efficient, environment-friendly, and more self-reliant alternative to importing heavy mechanised mining equipment from Australia. The Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha developed out of the ‘Peasant Department’ of the Union. It was built up as an umbrella mass organisation of workers and peasants, with the trade union movement as its core. It led all sorts of struggles of the peasants in more than a hundred villages around the Dalli Rajhara mines. The notion that the interests of the working class are pitted against the interests of the peasantry was thoroughly disproved by Com. Niyogi – not only in theory but also in lively and mass entrenched practice.
Of course, all this was achieved against the stiff resistance of the vested interests and the State, which resorted to repeated police firings on the agitations of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, killing 11 workers in the miners’ agitation of Dalli Rajhara (1977), 4 workers in the textile workers’ struggle in Rajnandgaon (1984), and 17 in the Bhilai contract workers agitation (1992). Leaders were thrown out of work, attacked by goondas, and had false cases foisted on them. Hundreds went to jail in preventive detention. And in 1991, after a notice under the National Security Act for Shankar Guha Niyogi’s externment from several districts was quashed by the High Court, Niyogi was assassinated. For the first time in Indian history, a trial court convicted two industrialists and their henchmen for the murder of a trade unionist . (Ironically, the Supreme Court in 2005 acquitted all except the contract killer.) The workers determinedly followed the entire proceedings in the courts thronging not only the Sessions Court but even the far away High Court and Supreme Court, and fought for the special status of ‘assisting the prosecution’ through their own counsel.
In the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha’s view, elections could be used as one of the means to help consolidate a power centre of the working class against the formidable corporate-state nexus, while abjuring it as the only, or even major, strategy for change. Accordingly, it sometimes mobilised to defeat a notorious candidate, sometimes support a candidate it considered progressive, sometimes publicly raised workers’ issues with all candidates, and, when the movement was at its peak, fielded its own candidate. Janaklal Thakur won the tribal dominated Vidhan Sabha seat twice – once during the anti-mechanisation struggle at Dalli Rajhara, and the second time after Niyogiji’s assassination, in the Bhilai movement. But fundamental change was always seen by the CMM as being rooted in the vigorous mass democracy radiating from its organisational structure, with leaders not only from the workplace but also the working class shanties, and the families of the workers.
While Com Niyogi was a master artist of mass politics, he remained an individual political centre. Tragically, the Committee he suggested in his taped ‘dying declaration’ to carry on his political legacy had never had a collective meeting in his life time. His, perhaps understandable, apprehension that other parties would dominate his mass political methods led to a failure to engage with his cadre deeply on crucial ideological issues. Thus, within a few years of his martyrdom, many negative trends such as confusing politics with parliamentarism, bureaucratic trade union functioning, and tailing of NGOs, became apparent in different branches of the organisation, leading to its disintegration.
Since the assassination of Shankar Guha Niyogi in 1991, the Chhatisgarh Mukti Morcha has undergone several divisions. One group – Mazdoor Karyakarta Committee(henceforth CMM-MKS) came into existence in 2005. This group works mostly in the industrial areas from Bhilai to Bilaspur through its Unions – the Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh Union (PCSS) and the Jan Adharit Engineering Mazdoor Union – both primarily organising contract workers, but also working in the urban shanties of the workers and the rural areas around the industries.
A struggle to regularise contract labour
These cement workers themselves have been agitating for implementation of the Cement Wage Board agreement. The Agreement came into existence as a result of industry-wide negotiations from 1978 onwards between the Cement Manufacturers Associations, consisting of several private cement companies (including ACC and Ambuja Cement – both now subsidiaries of the multinational cement giant Holcim), and the Federation of Cement Unions. This Cement Wage Board Award, which is extended and revised every few years, stipulates that no contract labour is to be employed in cement production. Even in processes like raw material unloading and loading or packing, where contract labourers are permitted to be employed, they are to be paid wages at the same rate as regular workers. In practice, there is gross violation of the Cement Wage Board. An increasingly large proportion of workers of the cement industry, indeed now about 70-80 per cent of the workforce, is of contract workers barely paid the Government–stipulated minimum wages and entrusted with the most difficult and dangerous work.
The workers of ACC in Bhilai, under the leadership of PCSS, successfully fought a long litigation in the Industrial Court, braving the intimidation of witnesses and the illegal dismissal of several hundreds of workers during the pendency of the case. They obtained an Award in the year 2006 holding that the so-called contracts were sham and bogus, a mere paper arrangement by the management to avoid the rigours of the Cement Wage Board. The Award also reinstated the dismissed workers. The Award was partially upheld by the High Court in 2011, to the extent of holding the contracts as sham and bogus, though it did not reinstate the dismissed workers. However, Holcim was adamant and was not prepared to regularise even the 150-odd workers who benefited from the High Court order. The union carried out a series of militant strikes to enforce the court judgments, but with the help of a callous administration, and a hostile police, the management merely foisted more cases on the workers.
A new opening for the struggle was found with the development of international solidarity with global trade unions such as the ICEM, BWI and Unia, and solidarity groups like Solifonds and Multiwatch. PCSS filed a complaint against Holcim to the Swiss Contact Point under the OECD Guidelines on 7th January 2012 – quite a challenging task for an independent contract workers’ union. Holcim has been closing down its European and American plants, where the working class (paid $20 an hour) intensifies its struggles to retain hard won rights. Instead, it is shifting production to India, where contract labourers are paid a mere $5 a day. Holcim CEO Markus Akerman had an annual pay packet of about Rs 10 billion (Rs 1,000 crore) in 2012, even as Holcim refused to regularise a mere 100 contract workers in India and pay them 10 years’ arrears, despite two court orders. Holcim gobbled up ACC and Ambuja Cements – two flourishing private cement plants that were showing 13 per cent and 14 per cent profit margins in 2010-12 as opposed to 1.33 per cent for Holcim internationally. Meanwhile the State-owned plants in India were shut down as sick.
A second important development was unfolding simultaneously: Holcim began constructing a huge, highly mechanised, state-of-the-art plant in Jamul next to the old plant, aiming to expand capacity several times. It fondly imagined that after closing down the old plant and getting rid of its 1200 odd workers (and of course their union too) it would run this plant with some 90 highly trained workmen from outside. Right from the inception of this plant, PCSS began agitating for local employment and intervened several times for the rights of the thousands of construction labour engaged there. This too helped PCSS to put pressure on Holcim.
The OECD complaint at Berne meant two non-English-speaking working class Chhattisgarhi comrades with barely any bank balance traveling to Switzerland for discussions with the CEO of Holcim. But, despite much resistance from Holcim, and with the help of the IndustriALL comrade Matthias Hartwich, the talks ended in an agreement that the parties would negotiate in India.
Then followed two years of tough negotiations with Holcim’s top India management. PCSS, which had little experience of such negotiation, was greatly helped in this by Comrade Ashim Roy of the New Trade Union Initiative. The negotiations themselves were like walking a tightrope, but the union was also able to keep up the pressure on the company because of its ground level mobilisation of unemployed youth and families of workers against the new expansion plant.
It soon became clear that it was a difficult choice before the union – either obtaining the benefits of regularisation and arrears for a small group of workers as directed by the High Court; or negotiating to minimise the retrenchment that was being proposed. At this point the beneficiaries of the High Court’s decision showed remarkable collective union spirit in giving up those benefits to push for maximum deployment of existing workers in the new and old plants with better working conditions, and push for the maximum compensation package with alternative livelihood support to those who were to lose jobs.
On this basis, the union continued its struggle for maximum recruitment of workers in the new plant and for the best possible compensation package for those who would face retrenchment. This finally resulted in 537 workers being retained and 430-odd retrenched workers getting compensation at the rate of 3 months’ wages for every year worked, averaging out to Rs 2.5 lakhs to each worker, at a total expense of Rs 10.5 crores to the company. The workers who were retained were at three levels of wages – cement wage board level (about four times minimum wage), half of the cement wage board level (twice minimum wage) and 25 per cent above minimum wages, with a substantial number to be regularised over two years. (These workers were selected through a skill assessment process by the management which the union tried to keep as fair and transparent as possible.) The remaining surplus workers have been awarded three months of wage for every year they worked as compensation (in addition to their gratuity and other legal dues), thus getting packages ranging from over Rs 20,000 for a worker who has worked for a year right up to around Rs 4.5 lakh for older workers. About 200 of these workers have put in less than five years, and another around 75 workers are over 55 years of age. Each such unmapped worker would be entitled to nominate one person from his family to get industrial training from the company’s training centre and support in placement. For contract workers this was quite unprecedented.
The reason why we are relating this in so much detail is to describe the Herculean efforts (strikes, litigations, negotiations) that were required to break the glass ceiling between contract workers and permanent workers even after an award and court rulings.
Although the settlement was concluded on 22nd January 2016, it took nearly a year thereafter of repeated skirmishes with the management, including a strike call on 1st May 2016, to get all the provisions of the settlement implemented – revised wages, arrears, 15 per cent bonus (as opposed to the statutory 8.33 per cent) and the proper gradation of work.
Apart from the solidarity received from IndustriALL, NTUI and Solifonds, this struggle owed much to the women and men of the working class bastis of Bhilai and Raipur and villages of Baloda Bazar, who stood with the workers to brave lathis and share jails and lockups; as well as to unionists, lawyers, journalists, students, social activists, film makers, and intellectuals in Chhattisgarh and all over the country, who supported the struggle morally and materially.
Struggles regarding the ‘development’ process
The Union has supported and organised the peasants affected by Ambuja-Holcim and other cement companies to struggle against the encroachments by the company on communal lands, roads, dams and canals. It has struggled alongside them against the over-drawal of ground water by the company. From a situation where the villagers had to feel beholden to the company for the crumbs it threw their way in the name of Corporate Social Responsibility – the blackboards in the schools or the urinals near the Magistrate’s office – they are beginning to assert their rights on communal resources. The PCSS has been working hard to unite all cement workers in Chhattisgarh across union lines into a loose joint front – the Chhattisgarh Cement Shramik Vikas Manch – for their common demands, particularly the implementation of the Cement Wage Board Agreement. The Front has had some joint demonstrations and even a joint strike on May Day.
In 2012 hundreds of these plants came to the verge of closure, and with a rough reckoning of 100 workers to each plant, 30-40 thousand workers may have been rendered jobless because these small industrialists of Chhattisgarh were unable to bear the increasing cost of iron ore in the market, which sometimes went up to Rs 5000 a tonne. On the other hand, the best quality iron ore of Chhattisgarh from the Bailadila mines in Bastar was being sold at that time to Japan at Rs 400 a tonne. The big Indian players, Tata and Jindal, had captive iron plants. The cost of iron ore for them (including the paltry Rs 27 per tonne that the people of the State got as royalty) would barely work out to Rs 50 a tonne.
The CMM MKS had faced severe repression unionising in the small/medium sponge iron factories, and in several industries – Vandana Global, Sunil Steel etc. – the Union was busted, entire shifts of workers were retrenched for accepting union membership or arrested for ‘breach of peace’ by the company-friendly police, leaders were attacked, and the union was left with a whole lot of criminal cases to deal with. Yet the Jan Adharit Engineering Mazdoor Union started a debate with these factory owners to persuade them that, if they resisted the imperialist export policy and demanded iron ore at a subsidised rate for local industrialists, then the workers would support them. Of course, this support would be on the condition that the factory owners abide by the basic labour laws – the 8 hour work day and minimum wages – and also install and run ESPs to reduce the effect of pollution. It tried to persuade the leadership of these small industrialists that cutting corners on pollution and squeezing labour could get them only marginally greater profit at the cost of being hated in the society at large, whereas their real losses arose from the grossly discriminatory and pro-imperialist policy of iron ore pricing. The response was lukewarm, because the union here did not yet have the striking power and clout as the Dalli Rajhara contract miners had when they fought semi-mechanisation and brought round the transport contractors and other traders to their point of view.
Women workers – holding up half the sky
Developing a deeper understanding of patriarchy, Mahila Mukti Morcha has now gone beyond the phase of women being at the forefront of struggles and yet absent in the leadership, to one where they are also organising autonomously within the union, and raising issues not only of the violence within working class families, but also the obstacles to women participating and leading in the union. One important development is that the Mahila Mukti Morcha is egging the union on to dare to take up the issue of marriage of younger women - whether they break caste and community barriers, or whether they reject marriage altogether. No doubt this is an extremely difficult, complex ongoing task.
Sangharsh Aur Nirman
Cultural activists of the CMM MKS are part of a nationwide cultural effort called Rela. It involves people’s artists from all over the country who give voice to the workers, dalits and adivasis. They reshape people’s culture for struggle.
A time for industrial action
In CMM’s experience, the working class has been giving a remarkable response to the strike calls of the central trade unions, which indicates the workers’ present state of their mind. Although the central trade unions give the call, it is only the active unions who actually enforce it. CMM unions plan, form teams and enforce strike calls vigorously, and find it an enormously empowering process in which the young contract workers participate with enthusiasm.
CMM’s efforts to bring together unions to create a regional hub of working class mobilisation all along the length of Chhattisgarh in the industrial areas of Raigarh, Korba, Sirgitti, Baloda Bazar, Urla-Siltara-Raipur, Bhilai, Tedesara, Rasmada, Dalli Rajhara, Nagarnar and Bailadila has not been successful yet. But it persists, since in Chhattisgarh, the industrial working class is a significant enough force to shape its future.
No revolution without annihilation of caste
As a union the CMM MKS is making efforts to be aware of and change ingrained attitudes towards caste, since in the manufacturing sector, particularly skilled and semi-skilled workers, there is a majority of middle or OBC castes. Many worker comrades who are militant in trade union struggles are also active participants in their caste panchayats which enforce casteist and patriarchal norms. Here Mahila Mukti Morcha’sconstant questioning plays a crucial role.
The anti-displacement movement
Thus CMM MKS is an active participant of a broad front of anti-displacement movements called the ‘Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan’, which includes a large number of village organisations, tribal organisations, farmers organisations from 11 districts of Chhattisgarh and which has been mobilizing and agitating on issues of land acquisition, mining, forest rights, environmental devastation and agricultural crisis for the past eight years.
In Raigarh, a remarkable woman comrade has been leading a struggle against mining, environmental devastation, and denial of forest rights, by organising the marginalised of the village – the adivasis who are cultivating forest pattas without rights; and by lending support to the efforts of villages to document environmental violations – pollution and lowering water levels, and the impact on health through community processes.
The CMM MKS has also been observing and supporting a remarkable process of organising the peasantry that has been going on quietly for the past six to seven years in the district of Rajnandgaon (incidentally, where the constituencies of the Chief Minister and his son are located). Over the past year, provoked by the bad harvest and increasing debts, this has erupted into huge mobilisations of thousands of farmers. Some of the striking features of this have been the participation of marginal adivasi farmers and women, as also the funds and rice that the farmers managed to collect as contribution, and the totally autonomous character of the mobilisation, independent of, and in fact crossing, party lines. The demands of the movement have been: payment of bonus promised in the BJP Manifesto, waiving of loans, and increase in the support price. When a programme of marching to gherao the Chief Minister was launched by a platform of peasant organisations on 21st September 2017, the police cracked down – picking up farmer leaders from their houses the previous night, detaining scores of men and women from the dharna at Rajnandgaon, and arresting farmers’ leaders from all over the state in Rajim, Dhamtari, Balod and Raipur.
Standing with the adivasis of Bastar
Today the CMM MKS is part of a platform called the Bastar Bachao Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti, which includes a broad spectrum of social and political organisations, including the Sarv Adivasi Samaj, which are demanding a democratic solution to the grave humanitarian crisis in Bastar. This front is demanding a stop to the scorched earth policy; permitting adivasi villagers to be resettled in their abandoned villages; strict compliance with the PESA and Forest Rights Act; de-escalation of militarisation; an end to false encounters and sexual violence by the security forces; and justice for the thousands of adivasis incarcerated in the country’s most overcrowded jails under omnibus FIRs of grievous offences, who are denied bail only to be acquitted years later.
CMM MKS is very active in the civil liberties and democratic rights movement in Chhattisgarh. It was one of the organisations that played an active role in the campaign for the release of human rights defender Dr. Binayak Sen, who was jailed by the state government basically because he exposed the State-sponsored vigilante group Salwa Judum and their violent ground-clearing operations in Bastar. Dr Sen,one of the founding doctors of Shaheed Hospital, used to run a clinic for workers in the Raipur industrial belt. CMM MKS has also supported other human rights defenders such as environmentalist Ramesh Agrawal, arrested on a complaint by a manager of the powerful Jindal Steel & Power Ltd. of “inflammatory” speeches in an environmental public hearing (!). It has not hesitated to raise its voice, with other peoples’ organisations against fake encounters by the security forces. It has been one of the consistent supporters of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group – a group of women lawyers trying to provide legal aid to indigent adivasis against all odds including continuous police harassment.
It is not therefore surprising that CMM is dubbed “dangerous” by the State Government, as indeed Shankar Guha Niyogi had been. Then a CMM MKS leader and elected local government representative Bhagwati Sahu, falsely accused by a Security Officer of Holcim of “dacoity” and “assault” for a mobile phone (!), had to languish in jail for 13 months, being denied bail even by the Supreme Court. Today almost all CMM MKS karyakartas spend a few days a month in courts coping with numerous preventive detention and chakkajam cases.
1. The following is a more detailed and updated version of a note published in the PUCL Bulletin, May 2017. It has been edited by Aspects. (back)
All material © copyright 2018 by Research Unit for Political Economy