250 million Indian workers and farmers strike, breaking world record
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DELHI—On Thursday, Nov. 26, India witnessed the biggest organized strike in human history. Over 250 million workers and farmers, along with their allies among student, women’s, and civil society groups, participated in the nationwide strike. Now, a week later, farmers continue to occupy the capital city, and labor leaders are vowing this is only the beginning. The work stoppage coincided with India’s Constitution Day, which commemorates the adoption of the constitution in 1949, and came in response to an unprecedented attack on workers’ rights and farmers’ protections by the right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed India into a veritable recession, exacerbating existing inequalities and deprivation. The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) has declined by a record 23.9%, while unemployment has soared to an unprecedented 27%. Amidst such an all-around crisis, the right-wing government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party has implemented new amendments to labor codes and introduced farm bills that have reversed major historical progress made in workers’ rights and farm protections.
“Achhe din (happy days)? This government has pushed us into hell!” said an angry Sukhdev Prasad, a lathe machine operator in one of Ghaziabad’s industrial areas, in advance of the strike. His contempt for the Modi government and his withering comment on the now-forgotten promise of better times to come made by the prime minister is matched only by his simmering anger.
“We are barely able to survive, ground down between price rises on the one hand and low wages on the other. Now, they have changed labor laws so that employers are sitting on our chests,” he added, referring to the new Labor Codes that have relaxed rules for firing workers, introduced more fixed-term contract employment options for bosses, and made trade union activity difficult.
Workers in the capital were joined by waves of protesting farmers from the states around Delhi who are being crushed by Modi’s repeal of price protections for the crops they grow. Thousands of farmers broke through blockade after blockade and marched into the city in the days following the strike. The police used water cannons on them repeatedly but failed to break their spirit. Now, an intense stand-off between the government and the farmers is underway. As of Monday, November 30, tens of thousands of farmers were camped in three locations on the borders of Delhi. They came prepared with months of supplies and say they are determined not to head back until the Modi government relents.
The farmers are currently continuing with the indefinite protest under the banner of Samyukta Kisan Morcha (United Farmers’ Front) until the farm bills are repealed. The three laws are likely to weaken the existing regulation on base prices for agricultural goods, government-mediated produce markets, and will enable a greater corporate role for agriculture. Many have criticized the laws as a neoliberal package made for the agricultural sector that has been in crisis for nearly two decades.
The initial strike was organized by a coalition of workers’ and farmers’ movements, with 10 national trade confederations and the umbrella group, All-India Kisan Sangharsh [Farmers’ Struggle] Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), that consists of over 200 farmers’ groups across India. The strike also received support from left parties and several opposition groups. Some of the key demands contained in the 12-point charter put forward by the organizers include withdrawal of Modi’s labor and farm price protection repeals, a rollback in the recent disinvestment policies in major government-owned enterprises, implementation of existing welfare schemes for rural workers, and expanding welfare policies to aid the masses affected by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The protesting workers and farmers have been met with fierce repression from the Delhi police, who have made repeated use of a blockade, baton charges, and water cannons to stop the march. In similar confrontations with the authorities, workers and farmers’ groups brought major metropolitan cities like Kolkata and Mumbai to a standstill, with sit-ins organized on key transport routes. The industrial and mining belt across East and Central India also witnessed a virtual shutdown.
Organizers have stated that the strike is a build-up to more upcoming struggles in the country. “The workers and peasants will not rest until the disastrous and disruptive policies of the BJP government are reversed. This strike is only a beginning. Much more intense struggles will follow,” said Tapan Sen, general secretary of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), one of the trade union confederations participating in the strike.