Tehelka - - A HARD-WON VICTORY -

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

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