Thu May 30, 2024
May 30, 2024

On the protests by government workers in India

On March 14, 1.7 million government workers in the state of Maharashtra began protests with threats to go on strike. Their agenda was to reverse the new pension scheme. The strike was called off after an in-principle approval was given by the state government to extend the monetary benefits of the old scheme to the new pension scheme.  

At the same time, tens of thousands of government workers in the state of West Bengal have been in protest, and on March 10 they went on strike throughout the state. The protests are still raging, with the matter having gone to the high court, and a direction given to the government to sit down and come to a settlement with the protesting workers. 

During the same month, state electricity department workers in the state of Uttar Pradesh struck went on strike as well. On March 17, about a hundred thousand government employees of the electricity department struck work. One of the key issues was changes to the pension scheme and irregularity of promotions and pending salaries. The strike was withdrawn after 3000 workers’ termination was reversed, and 22 workers who were jailed under the essential services maintenance Act (ESMA) had the charges withdrawn. 

These protests are symptoms of rising anger against the government, and the imposition of austerity measures, which have destroyed the job security granted by government employment. From Maharashtra to West Bengal, though the agendas differ, the dynamics are the same. 

Factors leading to these protests : 

While the specific grievances in each of these cases may be different, the underlying causes are essentially the same, and the effect has been on the national scale. On the one hand, we have a government which has been diluting labour laws, and diluting protections which were previously seen in generally more secure government work. At the same time, the Indian economy is experiencing inflation in essential commodities that directly affect the income and living standards of most of the working people. 

The combination of factors leads to insecure Jobs and lesser savings. In West Bengal, workers protested over the payment of pending Dearness Allowance, while in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, the key issue was pensions and salaries. Pensions are one of the only secure means of sustenance after retirement, and it is one area where various state governments have been implementing austerity measures. The reaction is obvious with government employees marching on the streets in protest. 

As was visible from protests in West Bengal, there was widespread sympathy for the striking government workers, as they not only raised issues that affect all working people but also in their attacks of the hated TMC government in West Bengal. This did not stop the government from trying to crack down on the protest and strike action, relying on the police or even imposing Essential Services Maintenance Act. These efforts in West Bengal were mirrored in Maharashtra, where counter-protests were attempted to be organized in defence of the new pension scheme. 

Despite these, the governments in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh had to concede to the protesting workers, while the government in West Bengal was forced to sit to negotiate. 

The position of the government employee : 

The term government employee and government worker broadly encompasses both lower-level bureaucrats as well as those employed in certain government enterprises. The workers in Uttar Pradesh for instance, were those employed in the electricity department, while the government employees who were on strike in West Bengal can be described as part of the bureaucracy, in other words, they are not employed in productive work. 

Regardless of this situation, these protests highlight the discontent among the people. In so far as these protests have challenged the worsening conditions of work, and in so far as they have challenged the government’s austerity measures, these protests are progressive in character and deserve our broad support. 

At the same time, we must understand the limits of the protests. While they undoubtedly raise the issues of pensions, salaries and pending dues, there were no visible efforts to raise the question of the ‘contractorization’ of the workforce. Government jobs are one of the most secure areas for employment in India when we are witnessing increasing unemployment, and especially youth unemployment. With government jobs also come benefits like assured pensions and better pay, these are areas where the present governments, both at the central (federal) and state level are focusing their attacks in order to reduce these benefits and turn the workforce increasingly towards contract-based work. 

Solidarity with contract labour and with nongovernment workers would have also strengthened the protest and added a wider dimension. This was especially the case when the Labour Codes were also attacked. 

The way forward 

The government workers’ protests come at a time when we have witnessed the farmer’s protests and numerous strike actions by workers both in the public and private sectors. There is a general mood of dissent in the country, especially so in the aftermath of the unpopular laws like the Labour Codes, and the farm laws (which have since been withdrawn). The grievances are many and varied, and while each issue might seem different, the underlying causes all come back to a crisis in capitalism. 

India is a developing capitalist economy, experiencing proletarianization and primitive capitalist accumulation. This means that any crisis it faces is responded to with greater efforts to expand capital into the countryside. This comes, for instance, with attacks on agriculture (like the farm laws), a big infrastructure push (which often comes at the cost of rural land ownership) and increasing the exploitation of the workforce. The previous Congress-led government in India had initiated this but the present right-wing BJP government is pushing it more aggressively on all fronts. 

The government workers’ protests are a reaction against worsening conditions of work, and imposed austerity measures, in the name of ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘freeing up funds for development.’ These are just euphemisms for supporting policies which favour the big capitalists in place of the workers. While most working people have to bear the brunt of inflation and job insecurity, the rich will have the full freedom to grow richer. 

The answer to these attacks is building links and building solidarity between workers, farmers, and within different sectors of the working class, and even between sectors of the lower bureaucracy who are making common cause with the workers. This united front, led by militant revolutionary leadership, can do more than just force the government to give concessions, but force them to a full retreat and change the system itself! 

We have seen with the farmers’ protests that the Modi government is not unstoppable or invincible, they were forced to take back the farm laws after months of militant agitation. It is just as possible with the new pension scheme and four labour codes! 







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