By the end of the last decade of the twentieth century, the discussion in India on or about poverty by all mainstream political parties, forums and mediums had almost ended. There was a general consensus among the ruling classes that there is no poverty in the country. The sight of poverty is due to the poor themselves and is not directly related to the (corporate) politics of the country and the (neo-liberal) economic policies of the governments. Therefore, the cry of poverty must stop now. The country is ultimately now on the right track; Everything should be privatized as soon as possible. Almost all the people who propagate this narrative in public domain happen to be the children of those working in the public sector ranking from peons to secretaries.
In the past two decades of the twenty-first century discussion has only been about the rich. Meanwhile, the age-old tussle between poor India and rich India has lost its place in political discussions. Now there is only rich India, governments and political parties spend billions of rupees every year on the advertisement of popularizing the epithets such as shiny, smart, new, super-power, world guru etc. Leaders of the stature of presidents and prime ministershave invariably made use of terms in the past. The fight to capture and retain the power of rich India cannot be cheap – it (i.e. democracy of India) has become a game of trillions. In rich India, there are lousy feudatories of super riches, politicians, bureaucrats. Crores of rupees are spent on weddings even by the common rich families.
Due to the raging attack of corona virus, there was a sudden lock-down in the country on 24 March 2020. The poor India, which quietly carried the rich India on its back, withdrew from the cities and headed towardsthe villages. Bales on the heads of the women, boxes/suitcases in the hands of the men, both carrying the children in the laps and on the sides. A common sentiment resonated in all of them – there is no place to stay and eat in cities, therefore going to villages, and resorting to walking in case of no transport remained the only option. The area of my residence Anand Vihar was the center of the exodus in Delhi. Comrade Vijendra Tyagi called me almost crying, ‘where will these women, while rushing in the crowds, go for public conveniences on the way, where will they spend the night?’ The whole world saw the grim scene of this exodus which spread from the capital Delhi to all the cities and metros of the country. The mentors of the rich India also wondered why these people have come out on the streets and roads? Could the labourers not remain in the settlements, or whatever their hideouts were? If there was such prosperity back in their homes in villages, so why did they come here? The image of the country has been tarnished in front of the world! However, the interior was also happy that if they lived here, it would have spread disease in a more dangerous manner.
Within four-five days of the lock-down, the truth came to the fore that the rich India is lying on the backs of about 50 crore migrant/resident working people mostly of the unorganized sector. Only around 10 percent of them are permanent. The rest mostly dig wells daily and drink water. The sudden postponement of the role of these working people in the epidemic created a crisis of livelihood and they came out before the rich India and its government in collectivity. The incidence suddenly became a big news. The suicides of several lakh farmers in past three decades had never been such a big news. Government and voluntary efforts were started to provide ration/food to these labourers of the unorganized sector who became homeless/unemployed under the lock-down. There were frequent comments on social media about the plight of these toiling masses. Several scholars, experts and leaders presented the reality of the 50 crore labor force in their articles/statements on the basis of statistics. They delineated the subject from various angles and perspectives. Such articles have found considerable place in the mainstream newspapers and magazines. The issue has also reached the Supreme Court of the country, the United Nations and global economic institutions.
In this entire discussion and support efforts for the laboureres, there is an underlying common thread. That is, about half of the country’s population is not considered as citizens in the modern constitutional sense by the pioneers of the rich India. For them, they are subjects (praja) in the feudal sense. The Supreme Court has asked to adopt a humane attitude towards them. That is, even in the eyes of the Supreme Court, they are entitled to be recipients of the grace of the well-off, and not the possessors of constitutional rights. The Supreme Court does not see the need for any policy reason behind their plight. Rather, it finds the petitions filed in their advocacy as folly. Otherwise, the Supreme Court should have said in the first instance only that the reason for this plight of the labourers is the anti-constitutional neo-liberal economic policies.These should be rejected and proper economic policies should be made on the basis of the central tenets of Directive Principlesof the State Policy(DPSP) mentioned in the Constitution.
I would like to cite a few examples in this regard. Professor Deepak Nayyar, former vice-chancellor of Delhi University, in his article titled ‘Lives and Livelihoods’ (Indian Express 3 April 2020), at one place talked about the need of learning a lesson from the history. I was curious that he would probably suggest the rejection of the New Economic Policies, which has been a historical mistake even on the part of intellectuals. But it was not the case. He cited the example of the Spanish influenza epidemic of1918-1919 from which historical lessons ought to be learned. The Marxist Communist Party (CPM) general secretary Sitaram Yechury,in his letter to the Prime Minister, described the amount allocated to deal with the epidemic as inadequate. But he did not make a demand to abandon the neo-liberal economic policies dictated by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization etc. The Communist Party of India (CPI) general secretary D Raja, in his article titled ‘Revealed by the Virus: The Pandemic Has Exposed the Limits of Capitalism’ (Indian Express 11 April 2020), argued about the limits of neo-liberal capitalism. But he too did not demand from the government to abandon these very policies which convert at least 50 crore work force into cheap labour. The Congress President Sonia Gandhi has also made written suggestions to the Prime Minister in order to deal with the economic crisis created due to corona epidemic. She, in her list of demands, has not suggested to withdraw the New Economic Policies responsible for the un-measurable economic gap. These policies were initiated by the Congress. She did not even promise that the Congress would reconsider these pro-corporate policies when and if it comes into power again.
In this episode, while showing concern about the plight of laborers, someone has stated that they are being treated like second class citizens. Guarantees of certain civil rights and human dignity are associated with a citizen, even if he/she of secondary status. Can a second-rate citizen tolerate the behavior that is being meted out to the people stranded on roads and trapped in labour settlements during the lock-down? Can a second-class citizen-family not eat food respectfully for a week even on the strength of its own financial status? Can second-class women citizens stand in line for hours to withdraw Rs 500 bailout put in the Jan Dhan Yojana? The truth is plain and simple – the people included in this huge labour force are not citizens on any scale – neither in the eyes of the ruling classes, nor in their own eyes. How can a person having a little sense of civility be ready to live on the pieces thrown by the power in crisis? He/she will definitely claim his/her rights at least for the cost of his/her hard work.
This is to say that the political (read constitutional) view point is missing in the present discussion presently centered on the migrant or other labourers. The lives of this vast working population of India are like a double-edged sword: (a) Neo-liberal economic policies have excluded them forever from the economy of rich India; (B) In the excluded state they have to do construction-work and service-work of various kinds in remote areas by selling their cheap labour in the market of rich India. It may be noted that the number of workers in India, estimated to be 50 crore, is more than the total population of the countries included in the European Union or the total population of the US-Russia together. This is an altogether another India within India itself, which Dr. Lohia used to call poor India. But no political leader, scholar, institution, magazine or citizen used political terminology like poor India in the discussion. No one has said that the plight of the toiling masses is an inevitable result of the New Economic Policies implemented in 1991; that it was a mistake; that these policies should be rescinded after 30 years have passed; that a country cannot be called civilized or powerful if 50 crore of its people are kept in pathetic conditions.
The Directive Principles of State Policy provided in the Constitution are not justiciable and binding in the same way as the Fundamental Rights of citizens. But they have been described as fundamental to the governance of the legislature and the executive. They keep alive the pledge of the Constitution to create an egalitarian society at all levels with economic and social equality. Regarding the Directive Principles of State Policy, Dr. Ambedkar, while addressing the Constituent Assembly on 19 November 1948, said, “It is the intention of this Assembly that in future both the legislature and the executive should not merely pay lip service to these principles enacted in this part, but that they should be made the basis of all executive and legislative action that may be taken hereafter in the matter of the governance of the country.” In the light of these policy-making instructions, Ambedkar had suggested that the goal of the Constitution is to establish a socialist system. In 1991 this goal of the Constitution was betrayed. Hence this plight of the labour force we are witnessing!
Socialist leader and thinker Kishan Patnaik was the first person who identified the threat of counter-revolution against the Constitution. He said in early 1994 that with the advent of the globalization, the counter-revolution has started in India. After passing of nearly three decades, one can say that a deep foundation of counter-revolution has been laid in the country. This has not been made possible only by the ruling-class directly supporting as well as benefitting from globalization. It cannot also be attributed, in annoyance, to the toiling masses excluded from the rich India. Capitalism moves ahead by creating not only its intellectuals and leaders, but also its followers in the homes of the general public and outside on streets-roads-squares etc. Living on the leftover of rich India, the public has accepted capitalist system as its destiny. Actually, the section called progressive which belong to India’s ruling classes is responsible for this counter-revolution. It relishes capitalist model of development in its very nature. It has always believed that the path of development passes only through capitalism. It never accepted the Indian socialist idea of prosperity with equality through constitutional parliamentary democracy.
It is undoubtedly a heartening thing that many people and institutions across the country are working to help the labour families in this crisis. It should be hoped that some of them will definitely consider this problem in a political manner. It would be understood by them that even though the corona epidemic attack on humanity could be that of a sudden and invisible force, the food insecurity of such large sections of the country’s population is not due to sudden and invisible reasons.
(The author teaches Hindi at Delhi University)