When the first shocking news of the sufferings of migrant workers came out, most of the country and the media was taken aback by the sheer misery of the workers. However, for an observant Marxist, this would have been no surprise. The migrant workers, particularly the overwhelming majority employed in the informal sector, had been left extremely vulnerable and exploited.
By Adhiraj Bose / Mazdoor Inquilab
For an emerging capitalist power like India, with enormous resources and potential (more than a metropolis, a sub-imperialist nation) the fullest exploitation of its domestic market is the basis for further expansion. Of key importance in this, is the destruction of petty capital to fuel the growth of big capital. In the Indian countryside today, we are witnessing the organized destruction of the peasantry, and their conversion into often landless proletarians, forced to find work in the cities often as casual or contract workers, or ending up with an even worse alternative, finding work on large farms as farm hands or share-croppers.
Millions of farmers, most of whom have small landholdings or mid-sized landholdings, have been forced to take up work in the cities in the construction sector or in India’s bloated informal sector in small industries with little to no labour protection. The alternative is starvation, and the choice of suicide. So far nearly 300,000 farmers have committed suicide in India since 1995, and it is presumed many more incidents of suicides go unreported.
According to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, about 122 million of India’s workers, nearly a quarter of the total workforce, are migrant workers. This massive workforce contributes 10% of India’s GDP, yet they are “invisible” to the public eye. No mainstream media reports on them, no political party ever fights for them. Organizing the workers becomes difficult owing to the informal nature of work many are involved in, as well as the temporary nature of their work. Job security does not exist for these workers. For Indian capitalism, the intense exploitation of this layer of workforce is critical to the accumulation of wealth. It is only now that the general public is seeing their role exposed, in the most shocking manner.
Proletarianization, what it is and how it affects us:
When dealing with the question of the migrant workers and those in the informal sector, we must be guided by an understanding of how capitalism works. The impoverishment of the peasantry and small producers isn’t a new phenomenon in India, but in the last forty years its pace has increased immensely. Most importantly, every peasant and petty bourgeois household that is thrown into poverty is left with no choice, nothing but to find a living working as a wage slave – or suicide. This is the effect of the process we call “proletarianization”.
The peasantry like their urban counterpart, the petty bourgeoisie, are owners of property, usually meagre and only enough to sustain themselves. In many cases, they rely on exploiting their own labour rather than that of a worker employed by them. A farming family relies primarily on themselves. The same goes for a petty bourgeois, owning a corner shop or a small workshop. The capitalist system works to suck out value (labour put into a product) from less productive labour-intensive sectors of production and transfer it to more efficient, capital-intensive areas of the economy. The effect of this blood-sucking system leaves the masses of small producers impoverished and broken and turned into proletarians, the working class, owning nothing but their labour power. Left to find a place in the slums of cities or wander from town to town finding work, or working on the farms or in the workshops and sweatshops of capitalist farmers and businessmen.
Globally, this has been visible in the rapid pace of urbanization throughout the developing world after the second world war. In India, the rapid pace of proletarianization went hand in hand with the greater penetration of capital into the countryside and its expansion into areas of business previously the exclusive reserve of the small producers. These processes have gone hand in hand with the change in economic policy from the 1980s, otherwise called ‘liberalization’.
Bourgeois academics and the mainstream media label this process of destruction as ‘urbanization’, but not only is this term misleading, it is outright wrong! The process of impoverishing the peasant and petty bourgeois masses and turning them into wage slaves, may or may not result in their migration to the cities, in most cases they do not settle in one place but migrate to cities to work and return back to their village, or rely on seasonal wages while also continuing their farm work. For the bourgeois press, the only cause of the hardships of the working class is government policy, and is not systemic. The only solutions that come from this misunderstanding are piecemeal charitable efforts like that of Sonu Sood’s bus service, or lukewarm reforms which are as effective as using skin cream against cancer.
The only real solution to proletarianization lies in the overthrow of the capitalist system and the establishment of a socialist system where everyone will get a secure job and a chance to live with dignity! All in accordance with a national democratically decided plan. Moreover, it is not simply a problem that can be singularly resolved within India, it must be part of a wider global revolution to truly work.
Issues of migrant labour:
As we stated above, the process of proletarianization picked up pace in India from the 1980s, while the sustained destruction of the means of sustenance of the small farmer and petty traders in the city continues even now. Indian capital now sits on the single largest pool of exploitable labour in the capitalist world, and it is disorganized and practically leaderless. The Indian capitalist class lords it over them, almost like a master over his slaves.
Of the 500 million people (that’s half a billion!) in India’s total workforce, around 34% of the total ‘non-agricultural regular workforce’ is unionized according to a 2008 study. In some key industrializing states, like Delhi-NCR, Punjab and Haryana, the corresponding percentage hovers around 19%-25% which is lower than even the national standard. This figure of course, reveals nothing about the vast majority of the Indian working class who work in the informal sector, either as domestic servants, in brick kilns or on construction sites. In all of these cases, the ‘informal’ nature of the work and the fragmenting of the work places, makes it incredibly difficult to organize these workers. Migrants also work as contract workers in organized factories where the chance to organize them into unions is much higher, but usually they get the worst pay and worst conditions within these factories.
Equally important is the role of farm labour in capital intensive farming, practiced to a great degree in North West India, particularly Punjab, Haryana and Western U.P. The toil of the migrant Bihari labour has brought great wealth and prosperity to the region, but it is one in which the workers themselves get nothing. So widespread is the use of migrant labour in these regions, that Haryana reported that nearly 80% of its workforce came from outside the state. Another news report stated that 80% of Haryana’s industries rely on migrant labour. No less important is their contribution to the diamond processing industry in Surat. The wheels of Indian capitalism turn on the exploitation of the oppressed Indian proletariat, and it is a reality that this crisis has revealed to us in the most shocking manner.
It has also revealed how vulnerable the working class is in the wake of the lockdown. Unable to find work, unable to find shelter, migrant workers have been seen attempting to walk home, often to far eastern states like Bihar and Jharkhand. Distances of over 1000 miles, on foot! Many have simply died from exhaustion along the way. Under ‘normal’ conditions the migrant worker are denied basic rights, but under conditions of crisis they have been utterly humiliated. Pictures have emerged of police on the streets ‘enforcing’ the lockdown by making workers crawl on the streets, and beating them with sticks to drive them away, in the words of one migrant worker “we are treated like stray dogs”.
The Indian lockdown:
On the 20th of March the Indian government began the largest lockdown in the world. At one stroke a billion lives were disrupted across India. Trade and business came to a screeching halt, public offices shut down, and mobility became restricted throughout the country. The suddenness of the move left no time to prepare for the most vulnerable sectors of Indian society, the informal workers and migrant workers, and most of them were left stranded in the cities where they came to work. The wheels of the Indian economy came to a screeching halt throwing millions out of work and into a quagmire of uncertainty and misery.
While there is a consensus among the scientific community that a lockdown measure was necessary, the Indian government dragged its feet on imposing necessary restrictions on travel and movement, most importantly on foreign travel. The first cases recorded in India came from outsiders who were returning home from their places of work or returning students. The Indian government were forthright in dealing with overseas students and residents, far more than they were in providing relief to internal migrants at home. Without adequate development of infrastructure and preparedness to track down potential carriers of the virus, however, the returning migrants became the cause of a much wider outbreak. The major coastal cities of the country were the first epicentres of the outbreak in India and from where it spread to smaller towns.
It was clear when the first big rises in case numbers started to come through, that the Modi government had no real plan to deal with the virus, and sat back complacently when India appeared to dodge the first wave of the virus. The poorest and most economically vulnerable sections of Indian society were the ones who would suffer the most. After months of inaction, complacency and ignorance, the government finally acted with a ‘dry run’ for a lockdown on the 20th of March amidst lots of grandstanding and ‘shows’ of solidarity like beating pots and pans from balconies. In some cases, BJP activists even came out with marches in support of the Prime Minister’s lockdown call. Then the expected announcement came, with only 24 hours to prepare. Over a billion Indians had to prepare for a complete closure of businesses, transports and shops. For the millions of people who relied on public transport, for the millions more who relied on daily earnings to survive, this was a sudden and destructive move, not very different in its execution from Modi’s earlier demonetization.
Suddenly, over a hundred million migrant workers, and many millions more casual and contract workers were left without an income, they had only their meagre savings to rely on. For migrant workers, the situation was doubly bad, because of the closure of public transport. Without the trains and buses to take them home, the migrant workers were left with a stark choice, stay at their place of work and starve, or find another way back. Almost everyone chose the latter often with disastrous consequences. Migrant workers and their families were seen resorting to walking thousands of kilometres to get back to their home states, usually in poorer states of Western and Eastern India. People died along the way from being hit by trucks or trains, or sometimes out of sheer exhaustion. For over a thousand migrants, the long march home became a long march of death.
This disaster crowned their already existing suffering under the Indian capitalist system, which abused and exploited them on a daily basis, and now the very pro-capitalist government in power pushed them into the jaws of death!
It was only after the humanitarian disaster became undeniable that the government took measures to bring the workers back home. Even this was often botched in its implementation. By now, most migrant workers have returned home, but without prospects for employment they continue in peril. With the lockdown now relaxed, many have been forced to come back to work, exposing themselves to a dire health risk. One can only imagine what will happen should they fall sick under present conditions. As India’s healthcare infrastructure collapses under overwhelming pressure, the only certainty is more death and suffering for the most vulnerable.
In the wake of the lockdown and the crisis of the migrant workers, news media, celebrities, and prominent personalities came out against the government’s callous apathy. Some like Sonu Sood started a charitable drive to help them get back home with the help of a bus service. Some comedians even correctly, albeit jokingly, pointed out that this bus service was more efficient than the entire government machinery. Some called for ‘reforms’ and paying attention to the condition of migrant workers while others called out the government for its absence of planned measures to deal with the difficulties which would arise in the event of a lockdown like this. What none of them understand is that this crisis is rooted in the very system of capitalism itself!
The vast gulf between advanced capitalist production at the hands of big capital, and petty capitalist production which struggles for dear life, found in the workshops, marginal farms and neighbourhood grocery stores, creates the conditions for an informal economy and an unorganized working class. None of these celebrities are calling out the system for destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands of peasants, forcing them to survive now as day labourers or find work in the construction sites of India’s overcrowded megacities. None even call for the need of unionizing migrant workers and informal workers, which would at least give them a fighting chance against the system.
Since the Modi government came to power in 2014, it has been focused on weakening and undoing labour laws which protect the employee against the arbitrary greed of the employer. Often, these attacks are most vicious at the state level rather than the federal level with the states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan leading the way. This is the contextual background of the migrant workers’ crisis which we have seen unfolded before us, that mainstream media ignores. The crisis has exposed the cruel machinery of Indian capitalism as well as the incapacity of the system to provide the most basic needs for its people.
The path before us is clear, it is only by organizing the working class, and fighting against the capitalist system that we can secure a decent life for the working masses of the country. The question of overthrowing capitalism is in no way simply an ideological debate, it is a question of survival or death!
DOWN WITH CAPITALISM! LONG LIVE SOCIALISM!
WE STAND IN SOLIDARITY WITH THE MIGRANT WORKERS OF INDIA!