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Adding pain to the pandemic

India
Credit: Neil Palmer (CIAT). Women farmers at work in their vegetable plots near Kullu town, Himachal Pradesh, India. 

As India staggers on under the Covid-19 pandemic, the fallout for working people has been devastating. Between April and June last year the economy underwent a massive unplanned contraction of 23 per cent. Millions lost their jobs; farmers and day-wage labourers are looking at years of penury.

Today the employment situation remains dire. Those finding work often have to accept rock-bottom wages. There has been an upsurge of child labour as families get desperate for earnings and employers look for the most exploitable workers. At the time of writing, salaried workers also appear to have bleak prospects with over 21 million such jobs lost.

Meanwhile Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government sticks to its abiding principle of corporations over people, carrying out off-base ‘reforms’ with the impact landing mainly upon middle-class and poor people.

At the time of writing, salaried workers also appear to have bleak prospects with over 21 million such jobs lost

In the midst of a pandemic and a rapidly spiralling rural crisis, the Modi government decided it was the right time to bring in new farm bills and a labour wage code in September – bulldozed through without debate, scrutiny or consultation. Both have the potential of pushing India’s small farmers and informal workers into deeper poverty. The labour bills have at one stroke undone the decades of struggle of India’s working classes.

The new farming bills are bad news for small farmers who will now be able to sell directly to big institutional buyers, thereby putting them at their mercy. Previously, it was mandatory for farmers to sell in more than 7,000 regulated wholesale markets so that small farmers (over 85 per cent of Indian farmers own less than 2 hectares of land) were not exploited by big institutional buyers. Here there were also minimum price guarantees.

The new labour code goes in much the same direction, promoting business interests over the welfare of the worker, making it easy for companies to hire and fire while complicating workers’ right to strike.

The Working People’s Charter, a network of more than 150 local organizations of informal workers, in a memo sent to Members of Parliament ahead of these bills being tabled, called the reforms ‘anti-working class’, saying that they would push ‘India back to the British era when slavery was a norm’.

Even as these bills were being passed, activists and student leaders – mostly Muslim – were being indiscriminately jailed under a draconian anti-terror law for their alleged role in instigating deadly communal riots in February 2020 in the Indian capital, which killed at least 53 people and caused widespread damage to property.

Activists claim they are being punished for taking part in countrywide protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register for Citizens – two measures that were globally panned for being anti-Muslim.

‘This current witch-hunting of anti-CAA protesters is not only an attack on a few individuals,’ reads a statement released by over 1,000 journalists, activists, academics and civil-society representatives, ‘it erodes public faith in rule of law and chokes democratic dissent.’

2020, the year that everyone will remember, is finally over and with it much of our belief that India is still a democracy for the people, by the people, of the people.

New Internationalist issue 529 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2021 issue of New Internationalist.
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