India’s political economy has a big dead elephant in the middle of the room, which we all try not to talk about. It is the strange set of labour laws that we have. The Industrial Disputes Act, the Bombay Industrial Relations Act and so on, are not only antiquated, but anti-poor and harmful for the country. These laws have been maintained and manipulated for shortterm, political convenience of those in power — they do not exist for the benefit of labour or for the welfare of the unemployed, under-employed, temporarily employed and other marginalised sections of our population.
As early as the 1950s, labour leader VV Giri resigned from the Union Cabinet because the government of the day was not promulgating fair and transparent labour legislation. We never introduced the concept of secret ballots and fair elections for labour unions. Instead, we created an executive Czar called the Labour Commissioner who was required to “verify” union support and membership. This sleight-of-hand mechanism enabled the Congress party and its affiliated union, the Indian National Trade Unions Congress (the INTUC), to gain an upper hand in situations where they would have lost in free elections.
The concept of the padrone-client relationship, the essence of clientelism, was introduced into the labour arena. Unions and union leaders were promised occasional goodies and the protection of an overarching political party, if they adhered to the patron’s wishes. The devil’s pact included a tacit agreement not to bother about the rights and needs of the nonunionised workforce and to bother even less about the unemployed. The result has been the creation of an overpaid, underworked, unionised aristocracy and the systematic denial of employment opportunities for the “excluded”.
Unfortunately, over the years, all political parties have imitated the Congress party. All of them pander to such small groups of unionised employees at the expense of the larger population. In government offices, this unionised aristocracy has been given the special privilege of not working if they don’t want to, and of extracting tributes in the form of bribes from the citizenry. Some 50 percent of the unionised teachers in government schools do not even bother to turn up at work. But their patron “protects” them. Some 80 percent of these worthies send their own children to private schools — the ultimate indictment of the system that they are duty-bound to run efficiently.
Even a leftist union-lover like Amartya Sen has had to concede that government schoolteachers play truant with greater vim and gusto in schools in underprivileged neighbourhoods, where the enrolment of Dalit children is high. A greater travesty of claims to