No Country for the Poor

Wage suppression and the Indian state

Villagers in Rajasthan, India, during a drought in June 2000. Labour policy has come full circle with the ascendancy of neoliberalism, first under Singh and now Modi, as labour laws are being torn up. ROGER LEMOYNE/LIAISON/GETTY IMAGES
28 February, 2022

TREKKING, cycling, hitchhiking, fainting, ailing, scarcely eking out an existence, more than ten million migrant labourers made their perilous journeys home after Modi announced a lockdown in March 2020. The move was as abrupt as it was authoritarian. A mere four hours’ notice was all the republic’s poorest breadwinners had to clear out and hit the road, nine in ten now unemployed, more than half with scarcely enough savings to survive a week, almost all unable to pay their rent. Not all made it. Hundreds, possibly thousands, died, some evading highways to steer clear of police patrols only to be run over by trains. A bailout package followed, generous to business and the bourgeoisie but parsimonious to the poor. Two months on, two-thirds of the urban proletariat was yet to receive any cash, a third any food.

What followed, however, was an altogether different omission. Labour weakened and, with an extra 114 million out of work, the state struck hard, making the US politician Rahm Emanuel’s dictum its own: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Nine of India’s thirty-six states and union territories set about ripping up labour protections. Madhya Pradesh decreed sweeping labour-law exemptions for the next thousand days, Uttar Pradesh the next eleven hundred, Gujarat twelve hundred. The eight-hour workday was expanded. Workers’ rights, safety standards and minimum wages included, vanished at a stroke. Retrenchment became easier, compliance audits less frequent.

Criticism poured in from unexpected quarters. The auto-rickshaw manufacturer Rajiv Bajaj, perhaps fearing that capital, too, could one day find itself at the tender mercies of the government, laid into Modi for “swinging from one end of the pendulum to the other.” Even the president of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh—the trade union affiliated, like Modi’s ruling party, to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—decried the “jungle raj.” Modi certainly wears his business-friendly credentials on his sleeve: “minimum government, maximum governance,” as his mantra goes. If siding with capital means subjugating labour, so be it. Wage suppression, after all, stimulates capital formation.

Gandhi and Patel at the Bardoli satyagraha in 1928. Crucially, not a single hali found representation on Gandhi’s Bardoli committee. Two-thirds of Bardoli’s population, then, was missing from his movement. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS