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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Labour Pains: The debate around workers and their rights in India

It is like India’s clock stopped in the 1960s, and even liberalisation was the echo of a chime from long ago.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi | Updated: August 17, 2014 1:00:04 am
labour-main Protesters and police during the Great Bombay Textile Strike in 1982

In America, where less than 7 per cent of the privately employed are unionised, a Minnesota Democrat hopes to amend the National Labour Relations Act to make it possible to take union-busters to court. Now, busting is defined as an unfair trade practice and attracts the attention of the National Labour Relations Board. Only reinstatement and back pay can be expected, not the massive damages which charges of sexual harassment and workplace safety deficits attract in federal courts.

Representative Keith Ellison won’t have his way, given the composition of the House. Also, over the last half-century, capital has gained traction at the expense of labour. But his move reopens a debate which is treated as a closed chapter. That’s peculiar, because employment will regain traction as a leading political issue, right behind food, water, energy and land. And there’s no legal way to keep people from organising — neither workers, nor entrepreneurs.

But there’s no keeping people from trying to stop them organising, either. Shortly before I read of Ellison’s brave but doomed efforts, a friend in Kolkata who likes to trawl state archives showed me one of those documents which have lingered on the shelves only because Kolkata’s librarians are overworked, because it’s too hot, because… Well, just because.

This slim volume titled Social Responsibilities of Trade Unions records the proceedings of a seminar convened in 1966 by the India International Centre and the Gandhian Institute of Studies, Varanasi. It was published by the India International Centre (IIC) and printed at the Delhi Press (Caravan is their newest baby), and the list of speakers is, frankly, extraordinary — it is led by Jayaprakash Narayan and Gulzari Lal Nanda, Gandhian cooperative pioneer LC Jain is present, and Jagjivan Ram came to listen but stayed to speak, and his thoughts were recorded by some harassed and unacknowledged stenographer.

Equally extraordinary is the ease with which nationalist ideas about labour were aired, at a time which is fuzzily remembered as liberal and internationalist. Naxalbari would erupt the next year, and teach India’s elite to distrust progressive thought as disruptive, and anti-national by implication. But in Delhi, in 1966, SS Mehta, a reader in Delhi University’s department of business management (yes, it existed in 1966!) was already asking if in securing the interests of labour, unions do not harm the public interest, which includes “the territorial integrity of India and continuing defence preparations”. It’s a familiar, contemporary anxiety.

The observation sinks in slowly — the fears and hopes of half a century ago were no different from our own. It is like India’s clock stopped in the 1960s, and even liberalisation was the echo of a chime from long ago: “We desire intensive economic development and are determined to pass quickly from a predominantly agricultural status to a more advanced industrial existence.” That’s not Manmohan Singh but KN Vaid of the Shri Ram Centre for Industrial Relations, at IIC. Almost 50 years later, Narendra Modi kicked off his election campaign, powered by the hoary old dream of development and illustrated by the even hoarier image of the glass half full, from the Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi. We deride the colonials for being Orientalist romantics, but maybe they were right when they wrote of timeless India.

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