Remembering Comrade Shankar Guha Niyogi

Shankar Guha Niyogi 1
Shankar Guha Niyogi with family

Today, September 28, is the 30th death anniversary of Comrade Shankar Guha Niyogi (February 14, 1943 – September 28, 1991). He was murdered by the agents of the capitalist class. He was just 48 years old! In spite of the efforts of good lawyers like Kannabiran, his murderers went unpunished because of the collusion between the state, bureaucracy and judiciary on behalf of the capitalist class. This fact alone shows how much a threat he was to the capitalist class and what an asset he was to the working class movement.

Unique features of comrade Niyogi and his movement

Unlike many other trade union leaders in our country, comrade Niyogi was a trade union activist from the working class itself. He had jobs ranging from a day labourers in the mines to being an employee of the Bhilai Steel Plant in Chhattisgarh. His trade union, Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS), embraced different sections of the contract mine workers in the region. He also had a political organisation CMS (Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha) which worked on a regional basis embracing all the working classes – peasants, artisans and labourers of the region.

Apart from the immediate needs of the working class struggle, comrade Niyogi had a vision of a future socialist society. He also had the ability to translate this vision into the daily struggle of the working class. His slogan was ‘Sangharsh aur Nirman’, that is, ‘Struggle and Build’. His work and vision attracted a large number of professionals from prestigious universities and colleges across the country.

The story of Shaheed Hospital, the workers own hospital, at Dalli Rajahara, a mining town near Bhilai, is well known. It attracted doctors from Vellore (Dr. Binayak Sen) and several doctors from Calcutta (Dr. Asheesh Kundu, Dr. Punayabrat Gun, Dr. Shaibal Jana and many others). Binayak Sen and his wife Dr. Ilina Sen (a sociologist from JNU) made Chhattisgarh their home. Many other professionals like Sudha Bharadwaj (IIT Kanpur and a lawyer) also made Chhattisgarh her home. Many came, stayed for a few years and went. They included Vidyadhar Gadgil and his wife, Mariette Correa, of TISS, Bombay, Arvind Gupta of IIT Kanpur and many others. Well known trade union journalist, Sitaram Shastri edited his journal Mitan. Dr. Anil Sadgopal, a microbiologist and educationalist interacted with him on a continuous basis and after his death wrote a book about his work and life.

Very few trade union movements attracted so much support from middle classes and professionals. The reason was Niyogi’s vision and his ability to relate with so many different people and with their ideas on politics, health care, education and appropriate technology

Shankar Guha Niyogi was not alone with new ideas on trade union movement. Many others like A. K. Roy in Dhanbad, Thangappan at Bombay and Subbu at Chennai were also trying out similar ideas. But Niyogi succeeded more than others because of the situation in Chhattisgarh, his abilities and support that he received. But by nineties neo-liberal ideas had gripped the rulers at Delhi and the Indian state gradually became openly pro capitalist, under the leadership of Narsimha Rao and Manmohan Singh. It eroded the space for civil society, looted the country’s wealth and provided sops to the middle class. The computer technology also provided a large number of new jobs. This enabled the capitalist class to go on the offensive and kill comrade Niyogi.

Current Situation

However during the last decade the situation has again changed in favour of people’s movement.  Neo-liberal policies are failing and there is a huge crisis in the capitalist system. Since 2008 the world has been going through a deep economic crisis. Whatever recovery occurs, it does not take us back to pre crisis level and newer areas have come under crisis. It began with the USA (though Japan has been facing it for two decades), and it spread to Europe and this year China and India too are facing it. No one is predicting a quick recovery and there is a feeling that it will not go away in near future. The current pandemic has further aggravated the situation.

Two crises have come together – Global Warming and Peak Oil. Global warming has been caused primarily due to burning of fuel, particularly fossil fuels. It has been affecting climate and some of the warmest years have come in the last decade. This year’s hot summer may lead to a global famine, like which we have never seen before. Many scientists fear that unless we reduce consumption we may cross the tipping point. That is, when global warming itself will cause further global warming. Then there will be no hope for life on this planet. This is causing a worldwide demand to reduce carbon emission which is being resisted by the industry.

Peak oil represents the resource constraints that we are facing. Many products which we mine, like coal, oil, metals are finite in their quantity. If we take out more than half of it, a peak in production occurs, thereafter the production falls and its price goes up. That is what happened to petroleum products. Now oil is central to the industrial society and decline in its production leads to an economic crisis.  As can be seen none of these factors are going away in any foreseeable future and we are in for a permanent crisis leading to a collapse of the present system.

This has given a tremendous rise to people’s movement in India. Millions are opposing the rapacious projects of thermal and nuclear power plants, refineries, SEZs, big hydro projects etc. Newer classes are joining the movements. Peasants and other rural working classes who are affected by these projects have joined hands with environmentalists and other professionals. The world’s biggest peasant mobilisation has occurred in Punjab – Haryana region against the anti farmer laws. Once again professionals in various fields are helping the people’s movement.

Trade Union Movement Today

Dying capitalism has become even more rapacious in its loot and anti worker policies, On one hand factories are closing down, partial and full lock out are coming up, land acquired for SEZs are being returned; on the other the capitalists are demanding newer projects and concessions from the state, easy environment clearance and anti worker policies. Their policy seems to loot and run away. Attacks on workers have increased as it happened in Yanam (Ceramic factory) and Manesar (Maruti car factory). The working class too is fighting back. The trade union movement too has responded. Not only are they responding to these attacks with vigour they are charting new paths in the tradition of the path blazed by the Niyogi era.

So what should be the Trade Union initiative today?

The trade union movement is often accused for demanding wage rise only. This should now be seen in the context of equity. The workers, justifiably, feel they should get a higher share of the surplus value they generate. Why should the bosses/capitalists get such a high share of the produce? In the present crisis, their demand would naturally be: let the employers first take a cut in their earnings – the jobs must be saved. The new society and the new technologies cannot succeed unless waste of resources – either by way of employers taking their undue share or by irrational production and consumption of goods – is stopped.

Today this very correct demand must be combined with the ideas of sustainability. There should be new initiatives based on regional planning for a fossil fuel free socialist society. We cannot plan in vacuum. It has to be in the context of the actual situation of the region and the issues faced by working people.

The movement today is facing six kinds of situations related to the collapse of capitalism:

  1. The capital has abandoned and the units are closed.
  2. The industry is running into losses and is planning to close down.
  3. The industry is running but it has enormous contradiction with the community due to pollution of land and water.
  4. New units are proposed at the cost of tribals, peasants, environment and/or the activity is irrational from a futuristic perspective of a fossil fuel free society.
  5. The industry is running as a part of the natural economy of the region and can easily fit into a fossil fuel free socialist future.
  6. New industrial activity is planned in tune with the needs of a fossil fuel free socialist society.

The Trade Union Response

  1. The initiative should focus on the first problem because the need is acute and a new activity can be planned. One of the first things to do will be to claim the resources of the abandoned unit – land, housing colony, building, equipment and stores and cash compensation. The initiative should be centred towards the most distressed section of the working class and start with mitigating the distress. However it should be done through new initiative of mutual aid which would build a sense of community. It can start with ensuring food and shelter for the working people. Community kitchens could be one of the first things to start. Vegetable, fruit and agricultural activities should be immediately started. At the same time one should enter into a dialogue with the other working people of the region, which includes not only informal sector workers and peasants and artisans, but also professionals, who know the region’s potentials in terms of alternatives. Wherever possible support of political organisations and movements should be sought – like Naxalites, NAPM and others. Slowly a collective alternative should be built up.

Of course there will be repression by the state directly and indirectly. This is where the mass support will play a crucial role. Within the trade union movement regional federation of all the unions may be a new direction that the movement may have to take. Some of the big opportunities we may have probably missed were the closure of Kolar Gold Fields and Sindri Fertiliser Factory. In Kolar, the government offered the whole township to the workers! But, there are a lot many places where the need is urgent

2. In the past, when an industry was planning closure, the unions tried to stop it. Today it will not be advisable. It is better to move in early to bargain for the workers share in the closing procedure. Like in the case above the union can take over the resources and run a new activity in collaboration with regional stakeholders.

3. The most difficult situation is one where the industry is running and the Trade Union movement is coming in sharp contradiction with the local population and environment groups. A classic example is the Coco Cola factory in Plachimada in Kerala. Here the first need is to start a dialogue between all the stakeholders. One should first come to an agreement on the long-term goals. Then, work towards a path where all the stakeholders’ needs are satisfied as well as the goal (closure of factory and alternative ‘green’ employment generation) is achieved.

4. In instances where new irrational industrial activities are coming up, the path is quite clear. We have to join other movements which are opposing them and initiate alternate regional planning for a green fossil fuel free socialist society. For example the present struggle against thermal and nuclear power plants, against big dams and against SEZs.

5. In cases where the industry fits in easily with a fossil fuel free socialist future, the effort should be to save the industry. One can then move towards, a greater share of worker participation in running the industry; better conditions of work; making the industry ‘greener’ etc. For example rice mills, oil mills, textile mills, bicycle factories etc.

6. Finally, wherever new industrial activity is planned in tune with the needs of a future society, the Syndicalist/anarchist approach can be put to full use. The workers can own the activity in some form of the cooperative run with full cooperation of regional stakeholders.

This, contemporary interpretation of the slogan, ‘Sangharsh aur Nirman’ (Struggle and Build), in the author’s opinion is the true legacy of comrade Shankar Guha Niyogi and a tribute to his memory.

T. Vijayendra (1943- ) was born in Mysore, grew in Indore and went to IIT Kharagpur to get a B. Tech. in Electronics (1966). After a year’s stint at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, he got drawn into the whirlwind times of the late 60s. Since then, he has always been some kind of political-social activist. His brief for himself is the education of Left wing cadres and so he almost exclusively publishes in the Left wing journal Frontier, published from Kolkata. For the last nine years, he has been active in the field of ‘Peak Oil’ and is a founder member of Peak Oil India and Ecologise. Since 2015 he has been involved in Ecologise! Camps and in 2016 he initiated Ecologise Hyderabad. He divides his time between an organic farm at the foothills of Western Ghats, watching birds, writing fiction and Hyderabad. He has published a book dealing with resource depletions, three books of essays, two collections of short stories, a novella and an autobiography. Vijayendra has been a ‘dedicated’ cyclist all his life, meaning, he neither took a driving licence nor did he ever drive a fossil fuel based vehicle. Email: [email protected]

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