The name Anaarkali in the present context has many meanings - Anaar symbolises the anarchism of the Bhils and kali which means flower bud in Hindi stands for their traditional environmentalism. Anaar in Hindi can also mean the fruit pomegranate which is said to be a panacea for many ills as in the Hindi idiom - "Ek anar sou bimar - One pomegranate for a hundred ill people"! - which describes a situation in which there is only one remedy available for giving to a hundred ill people and so the problem is who to give it to. Thus this name indicates that anarcho-environmentalism is the only cure for the many diseases of modern development! Similarly kali can also imply a budding anarcho-environmentalist movement. Finally according to a legend that is considered to be apocryphal by historians Anarkali was the lover of Prince Salim who was later to become the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this romance of his son and ordered Anarkali to be bricked in alive into a wall in Lahore in Pakistan but she escaped. Allegorically this means that anarcho-environmentalists can succeed in bringing about the escape of humankind from the self-destructive love of modern development that it is enamoured of at the moment and they will do this by simultaneously supporting women's struggles for their rights.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
A Costly Lesson
"Nearly 50,000 workers of 300 brick kilns spread over Central and North Gujarat went on a strike on January 14, 2010, seeking enhanced wages, regularization of terms of employment and improvement in working conditions. The significance of the action can be estimated by the fact that workers are divided across categories of work (paatla workers preparing the bricks from the mud, kharkan workers, bharai workers who load the baked bricks onto the trucks for transportation, nikasi workers who take out the bricks from the kil and the jalaiya workers who arrange the bricks in the kiln for baking) and state of origin (Chhattisgargh, Rajasthan, UP, Gujarat, Maharashtra). While there exists a history of collective bargaining in the brick kilns of Gujarat, this has been confined to specific work types/brick kilns and has been mostly contractor led. For the first time, workers across all categories of work and all states struck work together. The massive strike did not last long. The employers adopted a hard line, preferring to sustain losses rather than negotiate with a new Union. The strike started losing momentum in the second week itself and by the end of the second week, most workers had resumed work. Employers announced wage hikes for some sections of workers. However there has been nothing for paatla workers who form up to 60% of the workforce."
As always it is primarily the non-functioning of the state agencies responsible for ensuring that labour laws are implemented that is to be blamed for the failure of the strike. From past experience this was to be expected. Thus from the outset the strike was to be a straight battle between the brick workers' union and the brick kiln owners' association. On top of this the brick kiln owners' association by virtue of its political connections with the ruling government whose election expenses it had funded was starting with an advantage. While the labourers were starting with a serious disadvantage in that they did not have economic staying power given the fact that they were dependent on the kiln owners giving them the weekly subsistence payment called "kharchi" to be able to survive. The clamping down of preventive provisions by the administration, use of the police and goons to repress workers and activists and the refusal to give kharchi together proved a fatal cocktail for the strike. Matters were compounded by the fact that the press coverage was scanty.
Not only were some of the demands unrealistic as stated by the PCLRA in its early analysis of the failure but so also was the strike itself. There was an inadequate assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the contending adversaries. Now the two main options being thought of by PCLRA too are fraught with problems. The option of bargaining at source areas itself by the workers before coming to the kilns in Gujarat will not yield much because various kinds of stratagems will be used by the brick kiln owners to buy off powerful sections in the source areas. After all it is much cheaper to buy off a political agent than to increase the daily wages of thousands of workers. The second option of legal cases in the higher courts also do not yield much in the end. The KMCS along with others has been fighting for compensation for those migrant workers who have died due to silicosis from working in stone crushing units in Gujarat but even after more than five years and a judgment in their favour from the Supreme Court nothing concrete has materialised.
Thus there is a need to devise realistic action programmes instead of getting carried away by emotions and the funding support of institutional donors. So even if the strike was a historic one in that fifty thousand workers took part in it spread over a large area and thus through it they showed a higher level of political consciousness than earlier, nevertheless more thought should have been given before undertaking it. The costly lesson learned is that the state is not going to tolerate unionism that can come in the way of capitalist economic growth. This lesson has already been given many times before to trade unions by the state and there was no need to take it again! The way forward is going to be more difficult now.