In India, Are Strikes Worth It Anymore?

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In 2016, 180 million participated in the largest strike in history. Despite this, their demands were not met. Is the era of the strike over?

It’s a telling analogy for the state of the strike in India, that when sanitation workers in East Delhi went on strike in January, 2017, residents observed that it hadn’t made much difference – garbage had always been piled up on their streets.

There are many strikes happening at any one time across India, but there’s one type of strike that has a stronger ring to its name – the Bharat Bandh, a call for the entire nation to shut down.

India has a proud history of shutting itself down on demand. Large scale movements were key to the freedom struggle, and famous ones like the Non-Cooperation Movement set a precedent for non-violent protest against the state. The state did not always respond peacefully.

Following independence, strikers found that the old methods of protesting against the British had to be employed against an Indian government – not always with peaceful consequences. The 1974 Railway Worker’s Strike led by George Fernandez was violently repressed by the Indira Gandhi government – with thousands arrested.

The phenomenon of the Bharat Bandh has been a hallmark of Opposition parties in the last decade. They are always followed by an expert report stating how many thousands of crores had been lost.

Take the 2013 Bharat Bandh called by the BJP-led Opposition – which the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry in India (ASSOCHAM) estimated had cost 26,000 crore ($3.81 billion) in losses to GDP in a single day. That’s four times the budget allocation for the Ministry of Labour and Employment. Or, roughly, 25 Mars missions for ISRO and four Shivaji statues for Maharashtra.

For 2014’s bandh, the figure was Rs. 25,000 crore ($3.66 billion) and for 2016 – Rs. 18,000 ($2.64 billion). These numbers work both ways. For opponents of the strike, they’re used to show that these acts damage the economy. For the strikers themselves, they’re a sign that they’ve made their mark on the corporate world.

That these strikes cost the state money and work hours is doubtless. But what does it say that so many people choose to forsake a day of earnings at a time?

Striking History Every Year

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Earlier in 2016, India had held what’s called the largest strike in history. Union leaders claim 180 million workers participated in it, primarily demanding a higher minimum wage. According to Gautam Mody, General Secretary of the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) every major worker’s strike in India becomes the world’s largest – a consequence of a large demographic of working class citizens.

Their demands were many, spelled out in a 12-point agenda. Broadly, it was against neoliberal policies of public sector disinvestment, job loss, privatization  – and it called to hike the minimum wage to Rs. 18,000 a month ($265). None of these demands were since met.

For Gautam, the strike was a symbolic act of working class power:

We don’t go into a general strike thinking it’s going to get something tomorrow or day after tomorrow. With a government like this, it’s important for us simply to be able to stall and to be able to fight another day.

The Communist Party of India announced that it was the ‘most successful general strike’ and that a bandh-like situation had prevailed across the country. A day or two after the strike, all media mention of it began to cease. “Normal life went unaffected” according to many newspaper reports. Buses and trains ran on time, and only in Left-ruled states like Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura was there a semblance of shutdown. Life moved on, though history had been made in the form of a footnote and a record.

The continuing tradition of the strike in India is an expression of the people’s ability to affirm dissent with existing policies. However, their lack of success with triggering long-term political change has reduced their efficacy. For now, they frighten investors and embolden union leaders – even as zero demands are met on paper.

Returning to Delhi, a section of sanitation workers called off their strike after receiving part of their demands in the form of two months of unpaid salaries. Dumping the garbage in front of an MLA’s house might have done the trick. Unless strikes can affect the everyday, we run the risk of letting them go unnoticed. The question as to what options remain to dissenters once they have exhausted non-violent means remains unanswered.

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