Newsclick interviewed Harsh Mander, a well-known social activist, about the first year of the Narendra Modi regime and how it has affected the working people of India
PRABIR PURKAYASTHA (PP): Hello and welcome to a joint programme with ‘The Real News’ and ‘Newsclick’. We have with us today Harsh Mandar and we discuss one year of Modi regime, particularly with respect to how it is affect the working people. Harsh, good to have you with us. We are going to discuss what has been a media hype. One year of Modi, what all things have happened, good things and so on. What has its’ regimes been impact on the working people. The agriculture workers, the peasantry as well as the workers in the urban areas. HARSH MANDAR (HM): See for workers, for farmers, for farm workers, for the unorganized sector overall it’s been a grim year and I think we have just seen a beginning of a set of policies which cumulatively, if we hurl down the same direction, it’s impacts are going to be very very far reaching for India’s impoverished and oppressed millions. We have had a government led by Manmohan Singh in the UPA for the last ten years which certainly also believed that markets will ultimately be a solution for problems of the poor, but will have to wait long enough for it to unfold. But the UPA government, especially in the first 5 years because also of the influence of the left, but even in the remaining 5 years had begun to build a very imperfect, incomplete but very significant globally, an infrastructure of legally enforcible rights of the poor for them to mediate and ensure some basic life of dignity even while markets played out. So we had the right to information, a qualified right to work in NREGA, the right to education, the right to food, with all it’s imperfections is still a very significant right. What I see happening in this regime firstly is the demolition by stealth of all of these. PP: The labor rules will be enforced only by the corporates certifies that they are okay. That the are not violating labor laws. That the environment laws will be observed with the corporate sector saying they are okay with this, they are not violating it. So in fact removing corruption into structural inequality. In that sense that’s the one part that the Modi government is doing. Do you see that this is really the trajectory they are following in terms of the various laws that had protected environment and the labor rights and other rights for the people? HM: If you see your primary client as formal big corporations, as government, what do big corporations want? They want cheap and submissive labor. They want cheap land without any kind of resistance. They want to not be bogged down by the environmental laws. They don’t want to pay taxes. That’s the kind of regime that they dream of and which under Mr. Modi’s leadership, Gujarat did accomplish to a fair degree. So we had actually the largest number of labor unrest, very low wage levels, depressed, highly depressed, suppression of any kind of dissent around land acquisition and so on, and huge public subsidies to the corporate sector which are mind boggling to the Tatas, the Adanis and the Ambanis, and very low public investment in health and education. So within this unpack a little bit ‘labor reforms’. You know, what are called ‘labor reforms’. Firstly, the word reform is so disingenuous because reform seems to suggest you are getting to something better. Whereas the labor struggles over most of the 20th century were around building protections for workers against capital, which is much more powerful. And the last 20 years have seen us rapidly demolishing all of these in the name of reform. And we have been told that is in the interest of the labor because they will get more employment. I find that particularly amazing in the Indian context because you know, 9 out of 10 workers are outside the protection in any case. They are unorganized workers. You have less than 10 percent of the workers in the formal work force of which 6 percent are in government. So you are talking about 3 to 4 percent of the work force which are controlled by a set of laborless legislation which is very weakly enforced by a very under-equipped and under-motivated corrupt labor department. So actually you are not really controlled at all. And yet that is what they want further demolished. And so the result of what Rajasthan will do is that and told the right to form unions. 4700 units I am told that almost 4000 units will fall outside, and also standards of health and safety of workers and other protections fall outside the purview now of even the very weakly enforced labor protections that the labor movements have fought for so long. So we are seeing this, I mean looking at the agriculture you have about, directly or indirectly, about 60 to 70 percent workforce still in agriculture contributing just 15 percent of the GDP. So already very very low levels of productivity. And in the UPA government an average of about 5 percent of public spending alone on this 60 percent of the population, and much of about 5 percent is also subsidies to big farmers. So the large mass of the working small and marginal peasants in rainfed areas are seeing less and less public investment. Now, even those public investments have been brought down further in the last year. The MSP was one of the most important protections that for better or for worse the last government at least was able to ensure that the minimum support price, because we don’t have other income protection for farmers, the minimum support price for wheat and rice and have constituted a certain kind of framework of some protection, that if the markets collapse, if global markets have a problem. But the M.S. Swaminathan committee had said very clearly that the MSP should be fixed at 50 percent above the cost of production. Now, what we are seeing that the cost of inputs have been rising but the government has actually not increased the MSP. It’s been very weak in incentivising the states for MSP. So if you go into the countryside, actually one of those biggest, the anger of the farmer is about the minimum support price. So we have seen that demolished. We have seen the NREGA being weakened. The amount of the wage days created is on the 60 percent below. So again it is a killing by stealth. They are not going to close down the programme. You start delaying your releases to the state so much that, if I have worked, I don’t get my wages for three months, six months. So a point comes when I can not rely on the NREGA any longer. So over the next year or two what we are going to see is people might go back into distress migration, abandoning the protection that NREGA provided. And then the government will say there is no demand for NREGA. If you also talk about food security act which is another protection. The food security act is actually was required to be unruled by the act within one year which was September 2014. The government has without going back to the parliament extended the date, which is completely illegal. You can’t do that just by administrative orders. You don’t care about even a law passed by the parliament. Its budgets are not sufficient. There is 50 percent cut in ICDS, there is almost no provisioning for universal maternity benefits that the act was supposed to be supply. Midday meals have been under provisioned substantially. It is a complete lie to say that the states will now, because we have transferred the central taxes 10 percent more to the states they will have the resources. What they are not saying is that the centrally sponsored schemes which were also transferred to the states have been cut back. And the nature of state support, the revenue expenditure support which is largely around salaries is now not to be given in future by the center to the states. So what that means is that in the social sector teachers’ salaries, health workers, and Aanganwaadi workers, a lot of the expenditure in health and education and nutrition is built around salaries which is not going to be protected by the center. PP: One is that your demolishing of rights as you talked about, which is really in different ways the NREGA programme which is basically a labor support in rural areas, you talked about right to food not what was originally planned is not being still implemented, right to education is being cut. The other part you talked about is that given that the states are supposed to do large part of originally the central schemes the resources that are being transferred are really much lesser that what was originally being provided. So a net cut back. HM: What has been calculated is just about, less than about 0.7 percent of GDP increase in the total quantum of income available to the states, with which they are expected to actually deal with a 50 percent cut in ICDS, 21 percent cut in education budgets etc across the board, health care, which is just impossible. So ultimately what center is going to say, if this whole framework of socio-economic rights is breaking down, it’s the states which are to blame. PP: So that is part of it. That you don’t transfer enough resources and you pass on the burden on states. But at the same time, the other issues that you are talking about, which is the fact that there is no investment made in agriculture. If you look at what has happened in agriculture today, that actually GDP growth in terms of todays agriculture is virtually zero if not negative. It also, the incomes are not sufficient. You can see already negative growth in terms of what are called FMCG, Fast Mode Consumer Goods for which 60 percent is the rural market, but that has also dipped. So you have a situation on top of which you also have what would be called the unseasonal rains which have led to large scale crop damage. So all of that is impacting Indian agriculture very heavily. HM: Extraordinarily so. And to all these litany of challenges I’d add a couple of more. There’s also squeezing on formal credit availability to farmers. And you know from the days of bank nationalization we have seen a continuous contraction of credit availability. So on the one hand your technologies which you have promoted in much of the countryside require high cost inputs which are rising. You squeeze the amount of credit available. You have no income protection of farmer insurance schemes. You have both the uncertainties of weather and climate, but also the uncertainties of a sudden integration with the global markets. So everything might be okay but prices may have fallen in Mexico or something about neither you have knowledge or any control over and your prices crash. So farming has become such an impossible kind of profession. There has been a study which says that about 9 to 10 million people have migrated permanently out of agriculture. On an average about two to three thousand people are leaving agriculture every day. When I travel in the countryside, it is like young people are fleeing in Indian villages. The old and the very young remain because they feel it is, you know, it’s almost like this is a dying civilization and whoever has the strength and the capacity to escape has to escape. But where do they escape? They escape into the cities, into the shanties, on to the streets into unprotected work. You know, and it is a trap on both sides. This is anyway the direction we were going. But this government is much more unambiguous and much more surgical in pushing us in the direction that we are. PP: There is an argument about the Jan Dhan Yojana and also about various insurance schemes that government has introduced. What do you think about it? HM: It is really straightforward fraud on the Indian people. None of the three schemes have any significant public contributions. These are basically, you are giving schemes which you contribute as poor unorganized workers. Now, you think of a context in which majority of our workers, the unorganized workers don’t have a fixed employer. There are continuously uncertain about who and where will they get work. You know, Yon Braman has used a very evocative term ‘hunters and gatherers of work’. So any kind of work in any terms, at any corner of the country. And I have gone to Arunachal and deep interiors in the middle of militancy in Kashmir and you find somebody from Bihar and somebody from Chattisgarh, young boys of 15-16 trying to keep their families alive. Now, in that context where are you expecting that I would be able to contribute, you know, open a bank account, contribute Rs. 1000, which you are going to give back to me as the great scheme. If you look at the fine print of the pension scheme, it is also extraordinary that if you die after 55 years, you won’t get the insurance, et cetera, et cetera. It’s been built around everything to make it profitable for the insurance companies. And based on poor people’s contributions, not the state. And then we are presenting it as social security programme, it’s nonsense. The fact that again it is not being interrogated is to me a sign of the times. I feel particularly about this the trade unions need to really speak out. And that’s why we have been saying that we need, you 90 percent of the workforce in the unorganized workers, we need a tax based on public spending for social protection programme of pensions and insurance. Even wealthy countries like Sweden have gone in for a public funded insurance programme and pension programme. I think in a country with unorganized workers at this scale and footloose workers, it is only a public funded insurance scheme that we can be proud of and we can really call genuinely some kind of a universal social protection. PP: Thanks, Harsh, for this discussion on the kind of assaults we have seen on the social sector, particularly on the working people in India. We will come back to you on another discussion regarding what has happened to the constitutional values in the country. Thank you so much for watching our programme. We will be back with Harsh Mandar on the kind of attacks we are seeing on the constitutional values in the country, on the kind of state we had thought we will build after independence. Keep watching Newsclick and our collaboration with The Real News.