Plucking courage


September 23, 2015

Insensitivity to the aspirations of the working class has been the bane of India’s trade union movement and its failing leadership. Now, the women plantation workers of Munnar appear ready to nail the coffin.

Apparently, it was just waiting to happen. Women plantation workers had just decided enough-was-enough. And they delivered a remarkable message to the entire leadership of the organised trade union movement in the country: That they (the leaders) were irrelevant to the cause of the working class. Nothing else, perhaps, could have pushed the already declining trade union movement in India further down than the courageous move of the women who pluck the leaves that make your morning cup of tea.

Without doubt, the women of Munnar, a famous tourist spot in the southern state of Kerala, aka God’s Own Country, have displayed to the country that they know how to fight their own battles, and when necessary, initiate one. Even the veteran orators of the Communist movement fumbled for words and some continue to do so even after a fortnight of the shock treatment they have received at the hands of the women. The actions of a fairly large group of women was, from all accounts, a covert operation before they began a sit-in strike before the office of the tea estate company which, incidentally, has the unique distinction of being partly owned by the workers.

The small group went on to give courage to over 5,000 other women to join in and push for their demands. The most interesting part of the story is that they won what had been lost by the established trade union leaders belonging to both the Communist and non-Communist unions. The women wanted one per cent more bonus than what the plantation company had given last year. That is 20 per cent. The trade union leaders had only done what many other comrades of theirs have done before - agree with the viewpoint of the management that the tea industry was in that cyclic bad state and accepted ten per cent as bonus.

But, clearly the aspirations of the workers, an overwhelming majority of whom are women, were riding high. They were just not in a mood to listen. Not when their working conditions had not improved over the years, a factor that has been the bane of the country’s trade union leadership which has focussed so much attention on wages and bonus that it has consistently forgotten working conditions which, most often than not, is pathetic. Unlike some other sectors, the plantation industry has the legal responsibility to provide housing, health and education. Whether it is the tea estates in the northeastern states or the southern states, the law is more breached than upheld.

And, the bureaucratic trade unions also shut their eyes to the dismal and unhealthy living conditions of the workers. To add tablespoons of salt to injury, some leaders have also been accused of corruption. The loss of dynamism on the part of the organised trade union movement over the years has led to workers deciding to seek independence from their so-called representatives. The women of Munnar decided to do what they knew best, determine their future themselves. But, more fascinating has been the remarkable impact it has had on others in the tea industry. Cudgels were immediately taken up in another big plantation company. And, it is spreading to other sectors as well.

Insensitivity to the aspirations of the working class has been the bane of India’s trade union movement. Its decline began even before the economic liberalisation process in the early 90’s. Technology overtook the movement so quickly that it was left gasping. It somehow managed to hold on in some sectors like the plantation industry. Even here, it appears to have gone downhill leaving the workers to stand up to the challenges of modern times. The struggle of the women of Munnar has only begun. Issues of wages, working conditions and living conditions are still to be negotiated. But, their struggle, thus far, would go down in the history of the trade union movement as a battle for independence from the organised trade union movement as well as its all-male leadership. It’s a different matter that this red mark comes from a state that was the first to have a democratically elected Communist party government in the middle of the last century.

Clean air

Competitive politics has proved to be helpful to people in many ways. It is most evident among the southern Indian states. For example, compulsions of competitive politics in Tamil Nadu created the norm of an egg a day to all school children under the free mid-day meal programme. Or the traditional rivalry between the cities of Bengaluru (better known by its old name of Bangalore) and Hyderabad to become the number one in information technology though the former has remained in the top position for decades. Now, the same two cities appear to be locking horns in fighting pollution. It’s a problem that affects every metropolis or the big cities in the country. The inadequacy of a public transport system to meet the demands of the rising population has seen almost indiscriminate registration of cars and two-wheelers. The number of two, three and four wheelers

has just doubled in less than a decade. Even a drizzle in any of the southern state capitals could get the city traffic choked with the pressure on infrastructure rising as migrant population moves from northern states for education or employment.

The serious issues of governance, regardless of political affiliation, have led to travel time being decided not in terms of distance but the time taken. It is but natural for all those petrol and diesel vehicles to add volumes of pollution to the quality of air. It is in this context that two interesting developments in the two cities have to be noted. An experiment in car-free Thursdays and use of public transport, bicycles has helped the hi-tech region in Hyderabad come up with a result that seems to have been quantified by the Hyderabad Software Enterprises Association. 

The number of vehicles that did not hit the roads in the region was 10,000 resulting in saving of 100, 000 litres of fuel and, more importantly, prevention of 273 tonnes of greenhouse gas emission.

In Bengaluru, last Sunday was declared as ‘Open Streets’ day in one of the most sought after localities. The concept entailed that from 6am to 9pm there was to be no movement of two, three and four wheelers and people who needed to enter the locality or move around had to take public transport at a fee that was cheaper than purchasing peanuts. The trial, perhaps, the first in the country for 15 hours, was quite a success. To many families, it was a picnic. Children were out roller-skating, cycling (including the tiny tots with their tricycles), playing traditional games on the roads and generally having a gala time. Many families got into the buses, possibly, for the first time.

Businesses, of course, suffered with sellers of vegetables and fruits, departmental stores and restaurants reporting losses.

But, overall, it was an effort that made people breathe fresh air. It will, however, take some more time for people to realise it is better to slowly try out various concepts not so much to prevent choking of traffic but to stop citizens from getting choked.

Tailpiece

The leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seem to continue to be in a tearing hurry. They want to change everything. From language to be taught in schools to what people should or should not eat to reducing or cutting off influence of western culture. It does not seem to have dawned on some of these leaders, obviously assigned with specific tasks by their masters, that the young have a mind of their own and mentally far from, at least, this maddening crowd. India currently has the largest number of young people in the world. Last week also saw the emergence of the federal Culture Minister, Mahesh Sharma, as a headline in the media.

His quote is worthwhile being repeated. This is in the context of the changing the name of a road in the country’s capital, New Delhi, from Aurangzeb Road (named after the Mughal) to Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, the former president, who died a couple of months ago. In response to a question in a television interview, the Minister said: “The name of Aurangzeb Road has been changed to the name of a great human being who, despite being a Muslim, was such a great nationalist and humanist - A P J Abdul Kalam, we have named it after him.’’

The emphasis on ‘despite being a Muslim’ when discussing Kalam is not just an insult to the country’s truly peoples’ president, but is clearly an insult to every citizen irrespective of the religious faith that he or she follows. But, then, who is to tell this minister that his oath of office did not include bigotry?

[The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Muscat Daily or Apex Press & Publishing]