A Ray Of Hope

Emerging Unity of Farmers and Workers

Bharat Dogra & Jagmohan Singh

It was very good that the farmers' movement gave a call for observing February 27 as Day of Unity of Farmers and Workers. On this day the nation observed Sant Ravidas Jayanti. Along with other saints of the Bhakti and Sufi movements Sant Ravidas stood for devotion and spirituality which contributes for justice and welfare for all humanity and indeed for all forms of life. Several centuries have passed but if India follows the path of bhakti and sufi traditions, the path of Guru Nanak, Sant Kabir, Sant Ravidas and Garib Nawaz then India will become an ocean of devotion and love that leads to justice and welfare and create a confluence of inter-faith harmony which will contribute to great peace, learning and spirituality. Everyone respects Sant Ravidas but there is a special place for him in the hearts of toiling masses, dalits and workers and so it is all the more appropriate that his birth anniversary is being observed as the day of the unity of workers and farmers. February 27 was also observed as the martyrdom day of the great revolutionary freedom fighter Chandra Shekhar Azad. He was the coordinator of the foremost organisation of revolutionary freedom fighters called the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association which placed a lot of emphasis on working among farmers and workers and called upon young freedom fighters in particular to do so. Azad in particular became a symbol of the highest form of courage and determination among freedom fighters. So it was very appropriate that his martyrdom day should be observed as the day of unity of workers and farmers.

 A significant step in the direction of this unity was taken about three months back. On November 26, 2020 India witnessed a significant escalation of resistance movements in the form of a nationwide one-day strike by a very large section of workers, accompanied and followed by an indefinite movement of farmers which is still continuing.

Covid-19 times have witnessed the emergence of a serious economic crisis which refuses to go away after the lifting of the lockdown. Its worst impacts have been felt by weakest sections particularly informal sector workers and migrant workers. Reports of increase in unemployment, denial of due wages, poverty, hunger, malnutrition, school drop-outs , denial of essential medical care, exploitation and even trafficking have been frequent since then. The situation has been redeemed only very partially by announcements of modest relief measures by the government. This relief, such as increased rations of subsidised food plus some free food allocation up to November, has been found to be very meagre and high level of economic distress has been leading to increasing resentment.

It is against this background that the decision of the government to hurriedly push through highly controversial legislation on so-called reform of labour and farming sectors added fuel to the already simmering fire of discontent and resentment.

Early in 2020 three ordinances for the farming sector were issued without even waiting for a session of Parliament. This was seen as an arbitrary act taken without any meaningful consultation with farmers. Despite the main voice given to the states on the subject of agriculture by the Indian constitution, any significant efforts to obtain the consensus of state governments were also not made, all the more so in the case of states ruled by non BJP/NDA parties or opposition parties. As these laws were widely perceived by farmer organisations to be harmful for farmers while advancing the interests of big corporate interests, particularly those known to be close to the ruling party, protests against these ordinances started but were ignored by the union ( central) government.

 The government's other decision to pack several diverse labour laws into four labour codes had been in the making for a longer time, drawing much protests from trade unions and other labour organizations for weakening and diluting rights of workers gained after decades of struggles. Now the government used Covid-19 times to hurriedly push through three labour codes ( one had been introduced earlier ) in the monsoon session (September 14 to 23) of the Parliament whose periodicity was cut back due to Covid-19 factors, ignoring strong objections from labour organisations and several opposition parties. The three labour codes passed included the Industrial Relations Code Bill 2020, the Code on Social Security Bill 2020 and the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code Bill 2020.

Soon after the new labour laws were passed, on October 2, co-incident with Mahatma Gandhi birth anniversary, ten central trade unions and other labour federations/organisations decided at a virtual convention to observe a nationwide general strike on November 26. The issues and demands emphasized at the convention were opposition of new labour codes as these were rolling back labour rights, opposition of privatization, and pressing need for immediate relief in the form of cash transfers to non-income tax playing households and free food grains to all needy households.

Sanjeeva Reddy of the Indian National Trade Union Congress said that the government is trying to take away rights workers earned after years of struggle. Tapan Sen of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions stated that workers would consistently oppose government efforts to sell public sector companies.(R1)

The need for united action of trade unions was emphasised and attempts were also made to forge links with farmers' organisations. Amarjeet Kaur of the All India Trade Union Congress said that the government was actually proceeding to benefit those at the top of the food chain.

In the same curtailed session of Parliament, the three farm ordinances were converted into parliamentary legislations with even more unseemly hurry. As an expert on parliamentary procedures M R Madhavan, President of the PRS Legislative Research, commented, "The Bills to replace the ordinances were introduced in Lok Sabha (Lower House) and passed within three days without being referred to a Standing Committee. In the Rajya Sabha (Upper house), several members moved motions to refer them to a Select Committee. These motions led to a commotion, amidst allegations that a demand for division (recorded vote) was ignored, and the Bills were passed amidst pandemonium."

Further this review states, "Thus, an opportunity to discuss and debate the bills with stakeholders was missed… It was important to address the concerns of various stakeholders, including farmers and State governments. The absence of proactive engagement with affected parties has led to the current crisis. Three States, all with Opposition governments-have passed their own laws to negate some of the provisions of the central laws. And a large number of farmers are protesting against the laws."

The three controversial legislations, which received Presidential assent on September 27, are known by very impressive looking titles-The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 (FAPAFS); the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 (FTPC); and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act ,2020 (EC). However protesting farmers' organizations quickly looked beyond the facade of impressive bureaucratic jargon to find a rather thinly veiled agenda of big corporate interests gaining increasing control over farming and marketing at the expense of the farmers and government-regulated marketing.

Vijoo Krishnan of the All India Kisan Sabha criticised the creation of new trade areas without appropriate regulation and price intelligence as the government effectively abdicating its responsibility.(R3) Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) criticized the last bill as effectively legitimizing hoarding of essential commodities for earning big profits and ridding it of its illegality tag.

The coming together of farmers' organisations and trade unions added to the strength of both the movements to oppose new labour laws as well as the new farm laws, the entire effort culminating in the joint action on November 26 and 27. The labour strike on November 26 claimed to have a participation of as many as 250 million workers and supporters, including sections of government services, banking, insurance, steel, ports and docks, telecom, mining, manufacturing as well as nutrition scheme workers and informal sector workers. (R5) The strike was reported to be most effective in Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu followed by Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Telengana and other states.

As the workers' strike ended, centre-stage was taken by the farmers' movement. Farmers from Punjab (highest number), Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh and to a lesser extent from some other states came in large numbers to occupy vantage positions on the border of Delhi. While several demands were voiced, repeal of the farm laws emerged as the most important demand. The government has expressed willingness to consider some possible changes in laws but farmers' movements have been insisting on taking back these laws. The demands of farmers and workers have received broad support from social movements including the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), several organisations of youth and women.

At a time of increasing distress of people and the adoption of anti-worker, anti-farmer policies by the government which is also resorting to many undemocratic and discriminative actions and laws in other contexts, this surge in the resistance by workers and farmers is welcome, as also the forging of unity and common cause by them. This gives some new hope to the overall agenda of justice, equality and democracy in India in difficult times.

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Vol. 53, No. 38, Mar 21 - 27, 2021