Concentrate on Helping the Poor and Avoid Introduction of Controversial Privatization

Bharat Dogra

Media representatives who had gathered in Delhi for a press-conference by the Finance Ministry on May 16 were in for s surprise. This was supposed to be a press conference largely on government steps for helping the poor to tide over the great disruption of COVID times but they were instead informed about a series of controversial privatization or corporatization measures. These are controversial steps which could have easily waited for normal times as a great deal of debate including parliamentary debate was needed on these. Steps like big opening of coal mining to private companies, with 500 mining blocks to be offered through the open auction process; FDI limit in defense  manufacturing  to be raised from 49 per cent to 74 per cent and privatization of power distribution in union territories are all controversial measures which should not have been introduced in a hurry under the cover of broad measures which are needed for helping the needy sections and for protecting the overall livelihoods base in the country.

Millions of people and households are facing nothing less than a survival crisis. The unprecedented sufferings of several hundred thousand migrant workers, walking hundreds of miles on near empty stomachs with children and women, have been widely reported and very moving images have been seen time and again on newspapers and TV screens. Despite this adequate help for them , or other highly vulnerable sections, has not even been announced yet. What has been promised so far is glaringly inadequate keeping in view the widespread and deep impacts of the prolonged lockdown. The need just now is to concentrate on helping these sections by providing an adequate, to use the words of Prof. Arun Kumar, survival package for them. Perhaps the task of greatest immediate urgency just now is to make travel safe for migrant workers in transit and to meet their basic food needs.

Unfortunately, at a time when workers need the most support several anti-labor steps been announced by several governments. These have predictably been condemned by trade unions but what is most interesting is the criticism offered by Azim Premji, one of the most celebrated corporate leaders of India also known for his wide-ranging welfare and development activities in recent times. Writing in The Economic Times on May 16 he has stated, “ It was shocking to hear that various state governments , encouraged by businesses, are considering (or have already done so) suspending many of the labor laws that protect workers. This includes laws relating to settling industrial disputes, occupational safety, health and working conditions of workers, and those relating to minimum wages, trade unions, contract workers and migrant laborers.”

Premji then regrets workers not having social security and too little worker protection. He then says from his personal experience as a leading and highly experienced employer of a vast work-force, “All my working life I have dealt with labor unions and labor laws. It is not as though over these past 50 years I haven’t dealt with draconian laws and unreasonable trade unions. But over the past few decades labor laws have changed such that they are hardly among industry’s top constraints. At the same time social security measures have not increased thus worsening the precarity of the employed. Diluting these already lax laws will not boost economic activity, it will only exacerbate the conditions of the low wage earners and the poor.”

Further Azim Premji has stated, “The unjust treatment of migrant labor vitiated the social contract between business and labor. This triggered the mass reverse migration of labor, undermining business.” He says clearly that “such measures are not only unjust but also dysfunctional. The interests of workers and businesses are deeply aligned, particularly in times of unprecedented crisis.”

These words of a distinguished and enlightened corporate leader are extremely important for understanding how troubled times have been used very unjustly for further inflicting more injustices on workers, and how this will be very harmful not just for workers but also for the entire economy.

The author is Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now and a public-interest journalist of long standing. His latest books are Vimla and Sunderlal Bahuguna—Chipko Movement and Struggle Against Tehri Dam and Earth Beyond Borders.

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May 20 2020

Bharat Dogra

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