Pandemic, Economic Crisis and Class Struggles in India
(«Proletarian»; Nr. 17; Spring 2021)
On November 26th 2020 India experienced probably the most massive general strike in its history: at the call of all the Confederations and trade union organizations (1) with the exception of the Baharatiya Mazdoor Sangh linked to the BJP, the ruling party, peasant and student organizations, etc., 250 million workers were called to a 24-hour “Pan-Indian industrial general strike”. This call was widely followed, although the mobilization was unequal in the 28 states that make up the country. According to the joint trade unions statement :
“The states of Kerala, Pondicherry, Odisha, Assam and Telangana have reported complete shutdown. Tamil Nadu reported complete shutdown in 13 districts, while the industrial strike continues in the rest of the districts. Punjab and Haryana have reported that the state road transport buses have not left their depots in the morning Tamil Nadu reported a complete stoppage in 13 districts, while the strike was in industry in the remaining districts. Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh reported 100% strike, including at BALCO” [state-owned aluminum production industrial complex], etc.
The strike affected banks, transportation, ports, post and telecommunications, the oil industry, steel mills, coal and other mines, automobiles, textiles, plantations, and many other sectors.
The platform of demands essentially included the withdrawal of recent anti-worker laws, a halt to privatizations, the abolition of pension reform, subsidies to the poor and those with incomes below the income tax threshold.
The BJP (far-right nationalist party) government led by Prime Minister Modi has since coming to power pursued a policy of increasing the average rate of profit in the economy through various liberal and anti-worker measures. This liberalization was to lead to accelerated economic growth, in line with the grandiose plan to make India, the second most populous country in the world (1.4 billion people), one of the world’s great powers.
If by the value of its GDP it has climbed to 6th place in the world, just behind Great Britain and ahead of France, this result has been contested by a government statistics agency, the NSSO (2). But above all, if we look at GDP per capita, India ranks around 130th in the world, about the same as Congo (3) – a sign of the persistent weakness of its capitalist development.
India’s economic growth did not match Modi’s promises, so much so that at the beginning of 2020 it was already the worst in 42 years.
Since then, the economic crisis has been unleashed, aggravated in the extreme by the government’s measures against covid-19. The latest figures show a 20% drop in GDP in the second quarter and the IMF, which estimated in the spring that India would be one of the few countries to experience economic growth in 2020, is now forecasting an unprecedented decline of 10 to 11% in GDP for the year.
Protecting the bourgeois from the virus at the cost of the health of the masses
When it became clear that the pandemic had spread to slums and overcrowded neighborhoods in major cities, the government overnight decreed strict lockdown (it lasted from the end of March to July).
Nearly 20 million precarious workers immediately lost their jobs; 90% of the labor force would be employed in the “informal sector” with minimum social security coverage, without the right to unemployment benefits and retirement pensions (4). Since many of these workers were migrants, they had no choice but to return to their region of origin where they could expect at least some family support. Thousands of crowded trains and buses (5), without any of the announced health measures, repatriated millions of workers to the countryside. They took the virus with them, but for the bourgeois of the urban metropolises, what mattered was the reduction of the health threat represented by these masses of underprivileged workers.
And never mind if in the countryside the health structures, already precarious in the cities, are absolutely insufficient! In any case, there are private hospital structures available and perfectly equipped for the bourgeoisie...
The official figures of the contaminations and deaths of the pandemic are not credible: 147,000 deaths at the end of December whereas according to some researchers the real number should be multiplied at least by 6 – if only because only a small minority of the dead are entitled to a death certificate. India would then be the country having paid the heaviest price for the pandemic.
The consequences of the crisis on the proletarians
There are not yet any official statistics on current unemployment (the last figures published in June relate to last year), but a study in early April estimated the unemployment rate at 24% (6), a sharp increase following the lockdown. In its June report on the social consequences of the health crisis in India, the International Labor Organization wrote that 350 to 430 million workers could be affected by the lockdown in the form of job losses, reduced working hours, and loss of income.
As a matter of fact, the political authorities used the pretext of the health crisis to redouble their attacks on proletarian conditions; these attacks had long been demanded by national and international capitalist circles who, disappointed by the “too limited” measures of the Modi government, demanded a profound “deregulation” of the labor market, an agrarian and fiscal “reform”.
Anti-worker attacks have begun in various states administered by the BJP, which have decided to suspend “temporarily” (for 1000 to 1500 days), the regulations of the existing labor code in the formal sector: extension of the working day to 12 hours and the week to 72 hours (sometimes unpaid overtime as in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat), suspension of collective bargaining and various union rights, and, in Uttar Pradesh, suspension of the application of labor rights for all companies for 3 years!
This led to a trade union response in the form of a “national day of protest” on May 22 (with union leaders on hunger strike that day!), in the midst of the lockdown. There had already been a general strike on January 8 to protest the government’s anti-worker measures and to denounce the fact that the “Indian Labour Conference” (class-collaboration central meeting) had not been convened since 2015.
In fact, these ritual days of general strike serve as a safety valve to dissipate the discontent of the proletarians; they have no effect on the determination of the ruling class to accentuate its attacks against the proletarians and the masses: the Modi government thus passed laws in September restricting the right to strike and “reforming” social security, to suppress the benefits of many informal workers, etc.
At the same time it enacted 3 laws to reform agriculture in order to allow for accelerated capitalist development. The most burning issue is the end of state-guaranteed purchase prices for agricultural production, which will cause a drop in peasant incomes and the disappearance of many tiny, unprofitable farms (9/10 of the farms would have less than 0.8 hectares). These laws have provoked a wave of peasant struggles that has been centralized in the “Delhi Chalo” (Let’s Go to Delhi) movement, with thousands of peasants heading to the capital to voice their opposition to the laws. Tens of thousands of peasants are now camped on the suburbs of Delhi. The government propaganda accusing them of being “separatists”, opponents to “ indianity”, manipulated by foreigners, etc., has had no hold on the movement and its support in a good part of the public opinion.
At the time of writing, discussions seem to be about to open up between the peasant organizations that bring together the wealthier landowners and that lead the movement, and the government. We do not know what the outcome will be, but there is little doubt that a possible compromise will be made on the backs of the poorest farmers, let alone the landless peasants. The agrarian issue is of great importance in a country where more than 40% of the labor force still works in the countryside. The Indian bourgeoisie is well aware that an undermining of the countryside would have unfortunate consequences for the social and political order of the country.
The deep crisis in which India is immersed inexorably pushes proletarians to struggle. In addition to these general firebreak strikes, waves of hard struggles have already taken place in some sectors in recent months: notably among teachers, cement workers, auto workers. In this respect, the struggle of Toyota workers in Bangalore against a fighting leadership supported by the Karnakata state government is emblematic of workers’ combativeness; begun at the beginning of November against the intensification of cadences, it is still going on despite the management’s lockout and the order to return to work issued by the authorities.
Indian proletarians have a long history of working-class struggles; but so far they have not been able to have genuinely classist organizations to lead these struggles nor a class party to lead them against capitalism, apart from the inter-class “popular” deadlocks and the communal, religious and ethnic divisions that the bourgeoisie deliberately feeds to paralyze them.
It is a problem that cannot be solved overnight, yet the need for it is becoming ever more pressing at a time when social tensions and class-based clashes tend to become explosive.
(1) The most important is the INTUC, linked to the Congress Party (the main bourgeois party in India) which claims to have 33 million members; then there are confederations linked to various leftist parties which are “ communist “ only in name, having demonstrated their devotion to the bourgeois state, such as the AITUC linked to the Communist Party of India (14 million adherents claimed), etc.
(2) The National Sample Survey Office, which is part of the Ministry of Statistics, found that almost a third of the businesses used for this calculation did not exist or no longer existed! In retaliation, the government decided to abolish the NSSO...
(3) An IMF publication according to which Bangladesh’s GDP per capita will exceed that of India next year shocked the Indian press: 5 years ago it was 25% higher than that of its neighbor generally despised for its poverty.
(4) In 2017-2018, 85% of workers were employed in the informal sector and 5% in the formal sector, but under the same precarious conditions as the former. See ILO brief, June 2020
(5) Some even went home on foot as shown by the media and there were real riots by starving workers.
(6) See Centre for Monitoring India Economy, 7/4/2020.
International Communist Party