Left Strike at Indian Airports
The television reports were perhaps just about as bad as the grumbles of my
bourgeois friends. They complained about the inconvenience of the strike, the
long waits experienced by passengers, the garbage strewn in and around the toilets,
the barricades of the angry workers, and what not. For them,
the issue was simple: the Indian airports are undercapitalized and rife with
all manner of corruption, and the only way to "modernize" them is
to privatize them. Few dispute the lack of capital in the basic infrastructure
of the Indian State, except that there might be a question about where to spend
the surplus--toward the well-being of the many millions in the rural areas,
or for the few million who ride aircrafts. Few would also dispute the issue
of corruption, for the Airport Authority of India is not an unblemished State
entity that wins admirers from Right or Left. To reduce the idea of modernization
to privatization is not anomalous to India; indeed it is the root premise of
neo-liberal thought. The Left (that is, the Communists) and the trade unions
took a strong position against the privatization of the two fiscally sound airports
(Mumbai and Delhi) on several grounds--to wit, that the private firms would
not be accountable to many of the State's laws, that the private firms would
not honor the long years of service of more than half of the employees (who
are over 35), that the private firms will leverage these national assets to
their own ends rather than toward those of the employees or of the people at
large. It was the basic showdown between the neo-liberals and the socialists,
with the former arguing that any curtailment of their agenda was anti-modern
and the latter arguing that any fire-sale of national assets makes of mockery
of the broad goals of modernity (which should, in theory, include the idea of
popular, rather, than corporate sovereignty).
All this is commonplace in political discourse. These battle-lines have been
drawn deeply since the dawn of the age of neo-liberalism: which I date, in non-materialist
fashion (unfortunately), to the 1974 joint award of the Bank of Sweden prize
in Economics to Gunnar Myrdal and Fredrich von Hayek. The former earned the
prize as a nod to the waned authority of Keynesianism, and the latter to the
emergent hegemony of neo-liberalism. It was a poetical gesture. The joke was
on us, as the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences informed the public that these
two men had the prize for their "penetrating analysis of the interdependence
of economic, social and institutional phenomenon." Yes, except that while
one of them found the entry of the State salutary to economic affairs, the other
found it abhorrent. Hayek argued, since at least 1944, that any State intervention
would lead to economic chaos, or at worst to the growth of the big-bad State.
By the 1970s, Hayek's dyspeptic view of State power had come from the margins
to the center, as the global corporations went into the world unfettered by
State regulation and by inter-state controls (the United Nations Centre for
Transnational Corporations began in 1974 to try to study the role of these new
transnational behemoths; its role was hampered; in 1993 it was effectively shut
down). The prejudice of the bourgeoisie toward the Market (as ideology if not
as practice) is well known. This is what drives its ideas about the "modernization"
of Indian airports.
Equally routine is the manner in which the bourgeoisie conducts privatization.
Professor Marshall Goldman studied the fire sale of Russian State assets in
the 1990s and concluded that its privatization was actually a form of "piratization."
He quotes Anatoly Chubais, head of the State Privatization Committee, who complained
that the Russian oligarchs "steal and steal and steal. They are stealing
absolutely everything and it is impossible to stop them." The deflation
of Russian civil society made any resistance impossible, whereas in India, as
we shall see, civil society is as yet engaged.
To "steal" is to strip assets. The best assets in the public's
arsenal are to be sold off to raise revenues, while the public sector is to
continue to own and run less fiscally profitable concerns. The removal of the
fiscally productive divisions further cripples the public sector, and validates
anew the view that anything owned and run by the State is inefficient. This
is an immense political advantage for the bourgeoisie. Delhi and Mumbai airports,
both profitable ventures (they earn 65% of the revenues of the Airport Authority
of India), are to be given over to the South African firm, GVK-ACSA, and the
German firm, Fraport AG (which has been in some hot-water over its Manila airport
work, but which has its claws from Lima to Belgrade airports and elsewhere).
There is no incentive to auction off fiscally less sound assets. And besides,
a Parliamentary commission found that the "modernization program"
promised by these firms would become redundant by 2012: hardly a long-term approach
The media reports on the destruction of property at the airport and of the
trash that has piled up as a result of the strike. The indignation is contagious.
The outrage, however, is restricted to all that which is inconvenient for the
bourgeoisie itself, not that which is unbearable to the workers. Those who do
not fashion anything with their hands cannot appreciate that those who do don't
destroy their handiwork happily. They built and maintain the airports, and they
will be the ones to clean it up as the demonstrations die down: industrial actions
of this kind are not the carnival that one imagines. The workers come to them
out of anger for their conditions, not out of a kind of jouissance towards destruction
(recall: the adjectives most often placed before "destruction" in
this context are "willful" and "wanton"). The larger context
of the workers' anger is muted, as the press and the politicians of the middle-class
flog the view of worker indiscipline.
The dress rehearsal for privatization is in the sphere of "sub-contracting."
It tells us what privatization portends. Fifteen years ago, when "liberalization"
(or, reforms of the IMF variety) came to India, an early victim was the workforce
at the Delhi airport. Liberalization had been hard to workers across all sectors.
In 1992-93, six million workers lost their jobs in India, while the next year
another eight million joined them. Industrial disputes, in this period, fell
to about 50% of their 1970 level. The chill among workers was clear, and their
hardship increased (inflation in the basket of goods for workers rose by 14%).
The most vulnerable sectors of the workforce entered the twilight world of
contract labor. I first met Ram Pyari in late 1991. She was a sanitation worker
at New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport. Ram Pyari, like the other
sanitation workers and loaders, had only recently come under the sway of a sub-contractor
who ran their fief-firm under the radar of the unimpeachable laws of the Indian
Republic. Long hours, no overtime, minimal equipment to clean the toilets and
vicious supervisors--this was the condition at work.
Then, because the contractor bore no responsibility for it, the workers had
to walk a long distance to their homes (airports are frequently far from habitations,
and because of the clientele who fly there is only sporadic bus service). The
State used to provide transport for the workers, but that was before liberalization.
What was most shocking, according to Ranjit Singh, a courageous trade unionist
and Communist, is that the sub-contractors had begun to force their employees
to help operate their smuggling rings. He recounted how the smuggler-contractors
would use the trash removal vans to carry out contraband of one kind or another.
One afternoon he took me on a reconnaissance mission to see how the contractor's
vans would leave the Cargo area without even a perfunctory search. The contractor,
Ram Pyari said sadly, lives in a big house, and we live in hovels. We
make the world, she says, and yet it is not made for us. If this is
the condition of the worker under the regime of the sub-contractor, what will
it be like when the State has utterly withdrawn? What will be the condition
of the unions under these new conditions? Will they survive?
In India, unlike Russia in the 1990s, the trade unions and the Left are strong.
Over the last few years, there have been several nation wide general strikes
against the economic "reforms." On September 29, 2005, about fifty
million workers went on strike against liberalization (this was the tenth national
strike since 1991). Organized and unorganized workers, peasants and bank employees,
State employees and private sector workers--all went out in a combative mood.
Importantly, the workers of the Airport Authority of India joined the action
against the privatization of the Mumbai and Delhi airports. All the talk of
"civil society" by NGO intellectuals means little; their bromide is
worthless because their vision of civil society is absent the workers' organizations.
It is the organized working-class that makes Indian society bearable. Otherwise
the hierarchies of money and power would be much more brutal than they are.
The workers have representation, but they are not represented in the media.
In Krishan Chandar's short story (Kalu Bhangi), the narrator despairingly asks,
"I have often wanted to write about Kalu Bhangi, but what can one write
about him?" Kalu Bhangi, the representative sanitation worker, who lingers
in the shadows of Chandar's story, is unable to shine in a story named for him.
His life is seen as so ordinary that it does not merit a narrative. The reality
of worker's lives is boring; neither does it make good copy, nor does it do
more than make the bourgeoisie uncomfortable. Discomfort does not sell newspapers,
and nor does it appeal to advertisers who would like the pages to transform
the reader into a buyer. Reality has to be occluded in the world of commodities,
so it is the inconvenience that needs to be highlighted over the everyday struggle
of the working class.
A four-day strike in February 2006 paralyzed air transport. The 22,000 striking
workers concluded a deal with the government. A commission was to be set up,
and the government had pledge to protect the workers' jobs. These parts of the
deal have been discarded. In early April 2006, the government went ahead with
privatization. It violated the Common Minimum Program (the principles by which
it won election in 2004 and by which it is supposed to govern); the CMP says,
"Generally profit making companies will not be privatized." The airport
workers are outraged, as are their representatives, the Communists. The Indian
government, led by the Congress, trots to the Right, further and further from
the dreams and hopes of the Indian people. This innings of the struggle is over,
but the match is unfinished. Punters have put their money on Money. Others are
Vijay Prashad teaches at Trinity College, Hartford, CT.
His latest book is Keeping
Up with the Dow Joneses: Debt, Prison, Workfare (Boston: South End Press).
His essay, "Capitalism's Warehouses", appears in CounterPunch's new
Worth of Difference. His most recent article is a review of Kathy Kelly's
book in the December issue of Monthly Review. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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