By K Hemalata,
New Delhi: EVEN as the Congress led UPA-2 government was trying to come to terms with its humiliating defeat in Delhi assembly polls at the hands of the Aam Aadmi Party, the national capital had another glimpse of the power of the common man, just a few days later. Lakhs of workers, common men and women, thronged the Parliament Street from all over the country on December 12 to warn the government and the party leading it that it would have to face the same fate in the ensuing elections to the parliament, unless concrete measures were taken on their demands. The gist of their ten-point charter of demands is the reversal of the present policies.
Workers started reaching Delhi from December 8 itself. All the streets near Jantar Mantar in the heart of Delhi became the venue of the many demonstrations and dharnas organised by different unions since December 9. There were scores of tents all over the place with thousands of bank employees, employees of regional rural banks and the Grameen Dak Sevaks from all over the country demonstrating on their own demands. In addition, the workers from Anglo French Textiles from Puducherry, the workers from various factories from the northern districts of Andhra Pradesh held demonstrations on their issues. The electricity employees organised a convention nearby on the ‘Right to Energy’ of the people. There were demonstrations demanding adequate allocations for the SC/ ST sub plan in the budget.
The workers and employees from the organised sector, both public and private and in various state and central government departments participated in large numbers in the ‘March’. Insurance and bank employees, state government employees, postal employees and those working in other departments like defence, audit and accounts, income tax etc, steel workers, coal workers, mines workers, railway employees, telecom employees marched along with automobile, textile, electronics, sports goods, garments and other workers in the private organised sector. Transport workers from both state road transport corporations and the private transport sector participated in large numbers. Thousands of ‘scheme workers’ – the anganwadi employees, ASHAs, mid day meal workers, teaching and non teaching staff in the special schools under the National Child Labour Project etc as well as the construction workers, brick kiln workers, domestic workers, safai karmacharis, village chowkidars, panchayat and municipal workers, fishers, plantation workers, rickshaw pullers, auto drivers, loading and unloading workers and others from many more trades and occupations in the unorganised sector also participated in the ‘March’, carrying their different flags and banners. Flags and banners of different colours – red, tricolour, saffron and blue fluttered alongside, displaying the urge for unity among the workers irrespective of their different trade union affiliations. As has become a regular feature now, large proportion of this trade union rally comprised of women workers who came from all over the country surmounting many difficulties and hurdles. The unique unity in diversity of the country was in full display with the workers from different states in different attires marching together shouting slogans and carrying banners in their respective languages and styles.
Delhi’s December cold could not dampen the determination of the workers to ‘March to Parliament’ and give vent to their anger against the policies of the government that led to the price rise even when their wages remained the same, that denied them minimum wages and social security benefits. They wanted to express their fury at the denial of their statutory rights including the right to organise themselves under the banner of the trade unions of their choice. They wanted an explanation from the government on why nearly 150 workers of Maruti Manesar were made to languish in jail without even being granted bail when no single employer was given even a simple punishment for gross violation of labour laws. They wanted to know why the government did not implement the recommendations of the last few Indian Labour Conferences on minimum wages, contract labour and ‘scheme workers’ even when it exhibited so much initiative and enthusiasm to please the national and multinational corporations by fast tracking decisions on disinvestment and allowing FDI. And they came to demand an answer from the prime minister about what prevented him from taking concrete action when he himself publicly acknowledged in the 45th Indian Labour Conference that ‘the trade unions focussed on a number of issues relating to the welfare not only of the working classes but also the people at large. These include demands on which there can be no disagreement. For example, demands of concrete measures for containing inflation, for generation of employment opportunities, for strict implementation of labour laws, are unexceptionable’. The workers came to Delhi in lakhs to remind the prime minister that the spirit of unity and struggle among them which was demonstrated in the two day countrywide joint general strike on February 20 – 21 this year continues to propel them and they could not be expected to rest with empty promises.
Determination to fight to achieve their demands was writ large on the faces of the workers who came even from far off places like Bihar, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha etc. They were not ‘brought’ in comfortable coaches and provided with food, drinks and other things on their way. They came in jam-packed compartments, many barely able to sit and several standing all the way, carrying their small luggage on their shoulders, some women with their small children along with them. Many carried food – dry jowar rotis, chutney powder, or muris with them to avoid spending on food. CITU and AITUC organised camps for the participants in Ramlila maidan from December 10 where around one lakh workers stayed. However the majority reached Delhi on the 12th morning. By early morning, workers started to throng Jantar Mantar.
The call for the ‘March to Parliament’ was given from the joint platform of all the eleven central trade unions – CITU, AITUC, BMS, INTUC, HMS, AIUTUC, TUCC, UTUC, AICCTU, LPF and SEWA, which have been spearheading the campaign and struggle on the ten point charter of demands since the last four years. The call was endorsed and supported by almost all the independent national trade union federations. A country wide campaign both jointly and individually by the central trade unions and their affiliated federations and unions was conducted from the first week of August when the decision was taken at a joint national convention of trade unions. The call for state level demonstrations and rallies on September 25 too was met with magnificent response from the workers all over the country. Lakhs of leaflets, pamphlets and booklets were distributed. In some states, jathas were held to take the message to the workers. Gate meetings, group meetings, and street corner meetings, general bodies preceded the mobilisation in Delhi.
In several states ‘scheme workers’ defied the orders of the administration that they have to take permission before participating in any dharnas or demonstrations. The Anganwadi Mulajam Union, Punjab held a massive rally in Chandigarh as a culmination of their one month long state wide jatha defying such an order from the government. The anganwadi employees who participated in that rally decided that they would participate in the ‘March to Parliament’ as well in equal strength.
The national leaders of all the central trade unions including AK Padmanabhan and Tapan Sen, president and general secretary of CITU, Gurudas Dasgupta, general secretary of AITUC, Abani Roy from UTUC, and leaders from INTUC, BMS, HMS, and other trade unions led the ‘March’ which started from Ramlila maidan at 10.30 am. By the time the procession reached Parliament Street, thousands of workers who could not reach the starting point of the procession were waiting there filling up the entire area. The tail end of the procession was yet to leave Ramlila maidan at that time. The ‘March’ was converted into a public meeting in front of the Parliament Street police station as the workers were prevented from proceeding further. Even as the public meeting was coming to its end, thousands of workers were pouring in into the Parliament Street from different sides.
The public meeting was presided over by a presidium comprising AN Dogra, president of BMS, KK Nair, treasurer of INTUC, Ramendra Kumar, president of AITUC, Sharad Rao, president of HMS, AK Padmanabhan, president of CITU, RK Sarma from AIUTUC, GR Sivasankar president of TUCC, Lata from SEWA, Harisingh from AICCTU, Manohar Tirke from UTUC, and Natarajan from LPF. BN Rai, general secretary of BMS, Ashok Singh from INTUC, Gurudas Dasgupta, general secretary of AITUC, HS Sidhu, general secretary of HMS, Tapan Sen, general secretary of CITU, Satyavan, secretary AIUTUC, SP Tiwari, general secretary TUCC, Shiksha Joshi, secretary SEWA, Santosh Roy, secretary, AICCTU, Aboni Roy from UTUC, and M Shanmugam from LPF addressed the rally.
All the speakers emphasised the need to continue the joint struggle on their genuine demands till they are achieved irrespective of whichever Party comes to power at the centre. All of them reiterated the fact that it was only the united struggle that forced the prime minister to acknowledge the genuineness of their demands. However, as no concrete action was taken joint struggle would continue.
Tapan Sen said that the joint struggle should continue till the present neo-liberal policies are reversed. He strongly criticised the UPA-2 government for leading the country to disaster. He appealed to all the workers irrespective of their affiliations to unite at the grass root level and intensify the struggle for pro-poor and pro-worker alternative policies.
A joint trade union delegation met AK Antony, chairman of the group of ministers constituted to examine the demands of the trade unions followed by the prime minister. Antony said that the Group of Ministers had a meeting to discuss the issues. The finance ministry has responded favourably on the issues of EPF pension and minimum wages and some positive outcome was expected on these issues. The prime minister reiterated that he still admits that the demands raised by the trade unions were rational. He assured that he would advise the Group of Ministers to expedite the resolution of at least some of the demands.
The trade union leaders insisted that the government should act with due seriousness and speed as the workers were getting increasingly impatient and restless against government’s inaction in taking concrete measures on even the demands which it itself admits to be genuine.