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Life and Death of Working People in India

The struggle under capitalism is over what is public and what is private. Historically, it is workers who have strived to preserve the public domain.
Working people

According to news reports, the death toll due to the flash flood in Rishiganga is 38, and 204 people are reported missing. Rescue operations for engineers and workers trapped in tunnels of the Tapova-Vishnugad power project are on. A miracle is still possible, but the hope of finding survivors is receding every day.

There is another little-reported tragedy in the making. The exact number and identity of workers killed in the flash flood will never be known. According to newspaper reports quoting employees who escaped, companies building the two affected power projects hired private petty contractors who rarely keep records.

Most of the workers were migrants from poorer and faraway regions of India. For many, their families may not even know that they were employed at these projects. Their families and friends of course will suffer their loss. However, the grief of their families and friends will remain private. There will be no public accounting of their death.

This other tragedy of nameless deaths could have been avoided had employers of these workers followed regulations and recorded their identity and attendance on proper muster rolls. There were other violations too. Workers used to work for 12 hours a day and would get paid only for the days they worked. Also, 7 February being a Sunday, was supposed to be one of the off days, but for some reason, workers went to work.

The labour laws stipulate a 48-hour workweek, with a weekly off. Workers have to be paid at least the minimum wage declared by respective state governments, including extra remuneration for hazardous work. All workers, including contract workers, need to be linked with the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation. It will not be surprising if many such employment provisions were violated.

The Tapovan-Vishnugad project of the NTPC, a state-owned entity, is worth Rs. 3,000 crores. The Rishiganga project is with a private-sector company and may be worth Rs. 80 crores. Workers are only an expense in the cost/profit calculus of capitalist enterprises. Their work-related rights add to the cost. If they die at a worksite, then following up with legal requirements is an extra burden. Enterprises prefer faceless workers with whom they have only the minimal interaction of buying and using their capacity to work. A worker’s life, and possible death, count for little in the logic of capital.

That many routine practices of Indian economic establishments violate labour laws of the land is well known. Yet, these violations do not bother anyone in a position of power. It will not only be lazy but hypocritical to call this state of affairs corruption. Corruption, by definition, is a private crime. It indicates a systemic feature of society when nothing is done although everyone knows the law is violated. At the very least, this indicates a disjuncture between the moral world of society and the established law.

Nor can the situation be explained as only due to employers’ greed to maximise profits. Employers everywhere do try to maximise profits in all possible ways. However, when the Factory Act of 1833 in England prohibited employing children less than nine years old in factories, children’s employment did get restricted. Or, when in his first package to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic the American president recently raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour, all employers, barring a few who employ illegal migrants, did increase wages according to the new stipulation.

Both the laws about working conditions in economic establishments and their widespread violations in India exist in the public domain. The social roots of this contradictory phenomenon can only be uncovered when we appreciate the peculiar relationship between capitalism and public life in India. The distinction between the private and public spheres of social life is an important organising principle of modern societies.

Naïve and simplistic liberalism, including certain readings of Weberian sociology, try to understand this distinction as separation. The relationship between the two is complex, nowhere perhaps as contradictory as under capitalist production. Let us see how Marx, perhaps the most acute observer of capitalism, sees it.

In the sixth chapter of Volume 1 of Capital, “The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power”, this is how Marx frames the moment after a worker’s capacity to work has been bought by the capitalist for a fixed duration: “Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face ‘No admittance except on business.’ Here we shall see not only how capital produces but how capital is produced.”

In this framing, we see that capital as a social relation between the owner of capital and the rest of the society spans both the “noisy” public sphere “in view of all” and a private sphere where even admittance is restricted. With tongue in cheek, Marx declares, “This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchare of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of innate rights of the man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham...”

However, whereas a liberal commentator would be too satisfied with this Eden to bother about anything else, a radical Marx goes on to underscore a fundamental inequality between capital and labour. “On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities... we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money owner now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid, and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but--a hiding.”

It follows from the very nature of an unequal relationship that the two parties react differently to it. A capitalist dominates workers because of his/her private control over the conditions and means of production. Capital wants this domination over workers to remain a private affair. The assistance of public authority is sought only when this domination is threatened. Workers on the other hand react back in public. The first step historically everywhere has been collective organising; workers getting together to form unions. This is not only a matter of leveraging their strength in numbers. Unions are a means to intervene in the public domain of society.

Workers want what goes on within the capitalist production process to become a public affair. They try to make their organisations a public force. Strikes, demonstrations, revolts, and revolutions are forms of this force. Regulations of conditions and hours of work, minimum wage, unemployment benefits, etc. are all results of such public interventions.

Capital’s strategy to maintain its domination by restricting public scrutiny of its actions is most clearly visible under neoliberalism. The transfer of public assets to private ownership is the grossest pro-capital neoliberal policy. The more insidious policy is the change in the workings of state-controlled public institutions away from public scrutiny, and transforming their goals in favour of private capital.

The power of finance capital is based upon such reorientation of monetary institutions of the state. The privatisation of social welfare is another measure. Public institutions such as hospitals, schools, distribution systems for essentials, etc. have been degraded in favour of cash transfers. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led regime, which is the most brazen pro-capital regime India has seen, has taken these processes to new heights. In its first term, it effectively freed enterprises from labour regulations by stopping inspections and accepting their self-certification.

Given the scale at which these regulations are routinely violated, this was like accepting a self-declaration of innocence by a thief at face value. The Industrial Relations Code, 2020, has removed the requirement of having a standing order for all enterprises having less than 300 workers. A standing order in an industrial enterprise is a written public document that specifies the conditions of work, for instance, categories of workers, a period of their probation, rules for leave, shifts, etc.

It seems reasonable that every enterprise should have a standing order just for the sake of orderly functioning. Its removal means that owners can do whatever they please without having to bother about any prior written commitment about conditions of work.

A similar design to free transactions of capital from any form of public regulation is present in farm laws too. The agricultural produce marketing committees (AMPCs) are public institutions with elected and state-appointed officials. They function from a public space and keep a record of every sale and purchase. The Modi government’s farm laws do not allow any such public regulation of the purchase of agricultural produce by private entities.

The conflict between working people, including workers and farmers, and capital over what should come under public scrutiny, and what should remain hidden under private ownership has another dimension that is particularly relevant at present. All capitalist states use public authority to advance pro-capital policies. The Modi regime has taken this to new heights. Not only is it using state apparatuses like the police and enforcement agencies to target opponents of its policies, but it is also vitiating the public sphere of society by claiming they are anti-national, Khalistanis, agents of foreign interference, etc.

The success of Fascism comes from successfully combining the use of authoritarian state apparatuses with a public sphere saturated with suspicion, mistrust, and threat of violence. Democracy on the other hand relies upon a vibrant public sphere in which everyone can participate without fear. It is in this context that workers and farmers struggle to maintain and deepen public scrutiny of capital acquires an essential democratic significance.

The author teaches physics at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. The views are personal.

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