Anarcho-environmentalism allegorised

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.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Revolution That Was Not to Be

Yesterday September 28th was the 25th anniversary of the assassination in 1991 of Shankar Guha Niyogi who played a significant role in building up a labour and peasant movement from scratch in Chattisgarh named the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM). His death signalled the beginning of the end of a strong wave of mass mobilisation not only in Chhattisgarh but throughout the country that had raised hopes of a more sustainable and equitable developmental model being established. It is with a wrench in my heart that I write this tribute to Niyogi and the revolution that he initiated but which was not to be as today I find my own dreams as a young man a quarter of a century ago lying shattered about me. 

The CMM had had its beginnings in the fight against some exploitative practices of contractors of the Bhilai Steel Plant at its iron ore mines in Dalli Rajhara. It started as a trade union, Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh in 1977 in the struggles of adivasi contract workers demanding better working conditions and wages. The plant management, instead of employing regular workers and paying them decent wages had adopted the abhorrent practice of hiring labourers through contractors at a cheap rate. A decade long struggle was waged from the mid nineteen seventies till the mid nineteen eighties during which many workers laid down their lives in police firing and attacks by goons of labour contractors while taking part in strikes. Finally the workers got their rights acknowledged by the Bhilai Steel Plant management.
The unique feature of this struggle was that it broke out of the narrow confines of standard trade unionism and encompassed the whole lives of its members. Campaigns were carried out against the two most debilitating problems that beset poor labourers in India - alcoholism and debt bondage to usurious moneylenders. Women were mobilised both to stop the brewing and selling of liquor and to form micro-credit groups so as to alleviate these problems. They also began addressing the problems of patriarchal oppression. A hospital was set up with contributions from the members that apart from providing treatment also developed a community health programme to increase health awareness. On the cultural front, research was conducted to unearth instances of people's struggles in the history of Chhattisgarh that had been glossed over by the mainstream historians. New literature in the form of songs and plays was created and disseminated through repertory troupes to project a positive alternate image of Chhattisgarh that could stand up to the modern urban culture being continually propagated through the mainstream media. The Morcha inspired by Shankar Guha Niyogi began to fan out among the nearby villages and also the ancillary industrial units in and around Bhilai from the late nineteen eighties.
The Morcha was formed in 1982 when the prevailing forms of development and governance were pinpointed as the root causes of all the ills of the people of Chhattisgarh. Not only did these bypass the livelihood interests of the majority but were also destructive of the environment. The industrial area in Bhilai was marked as the local source of most of this mal-development. Thus it was realised that any movement for thoroughgoing change in the Chhattisgarh region could not succeed without involving the labouring masses there. A four-pronged strategy was worked out. The thrust in the industrial regions would have to be to try and get labour and environmental laws implemented. In the villages the stress would have to be on reviving the traditional community spirit and the environment friendly agricultural activities that went with it. Simultaneously steps would have to be taken to get a better deal for farmers in the agricultural input and product markets where traders were invariably cheating them. The third front would have to be against the corrupt and repressive bureaucracy which had been inherited from the British and which was totally insensitive to the needs of the people. Finally an ideological and cultural onslaught would have to be launched against modern industrial and agricultural development by involving the intelligentsia. An alternative vision of a free Chhattisgarh would have to be formulated that was radically different from that of the urban Indian elite. This last was extremely important, as the ideology of modern development had so hegemonised the masses that it was hard to initiate mass action to challenge it.

Niyogi also realised that it was impossible for the Morcha to fight the state in such a comprehensive manner on its own and so he went out of his way to forge a broader front with other mass organisations. At that point of time in 1989 there were a number of people's movements underway in Madhya Pradesh. The various mass organisations of the affected people of the Bhopal gas tragedy had forced the government to make its welfare activities more transparent and responsive to the needs of the people. Medha Patkar and her colleagues of the Narmada Bachao Andolan were carrying out a militant struggle against the building of large dams on the Narmada River. Rajaji had set in motion the process of mobilisation of adivasis and peasants all over the state to demand their basic rights, which was to later evolve into the mass organisation Ekta Parishad of which Subhadra was a part. Finally the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath in Alirajpur and the Kisan Adivasi Sangathan in Hoshangabad had established themselves as forces to reckon with as adivasi mass organisations that had brought into focus the adivasis' right to a livelihood in accordance with their culturally and economically distinct lifestyles. The mood was very upbeat among all these organisations and together they did hold promise of better things to come at that point of time.
Shankar Guha Niyogi had begun organising the workers of the various factories in and around Bhilai that had been set up to utilise the steel being produced by the steel plant for downstream manufacturing from 1990. There was gross violation of labour laws in these units and so the workers were working on pittances without the mandatory welfare provisions like permanency of tenure, house rent allowance and pension benefits. The struggle had picked up in strength and there were widespread strikes in most units in the area demanding the implementation of labour laws. The mobilisation spread like wild fire and workers of almost all the units that employed labourers on an ad hoc basis were unionised. This was when the owners of these units decided to gang up and they hired a professional assassin from Uttar Pradesh, Paltan Mallah, to kill Niyogi. This man shot Niyogi dead in sleep at night in his residence at Durg on 28th September 1991. The immediate response of the BJP government was a negative one in that it did not even acquiesce in the legitimate demand that the police register the names of those being accused by the CMM in the FIR. However, there was a countrywide furore over this and under pressure from the central government it had to order an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Meanwhile the agitation of the CMM continued for the implementation of labour laws in the units in and around Bhilai. The government under pressure from the factory owners was not prepared to implement the demands of the workers that they be made permanent and given proper benefits. Finally the CMM workers sat in dharna near the Powerhouse railway station in Bhilai. This movement for regularisation of workers in Bhilai was taking place at a juncture when a whole new era of globalisation characterised by off-shoring of manufacturing to low labour cost locations was just taking off worldwide. The new watchword for global capital at that time and ever since has been that of  "labour market flexibility" involving the right of the employers to hire and fire labourers at will, pay them subsistence wages and not provide any accompanying benefits that the regularisation of employees entails under labour legislation. These labour laws had been put in place as a result of more than a century of trade union struggles and a clear realisation by the capitalist states in the wake of the Great Depression of the nineteen twenties that unrestricted capitalism without welfare measures for the labouring class would lead to demand collapsing and leading to markets being flooded with goods that no one could buy leading to the collapse of the economy altogether.
Marx had pointed out that this situation arises from a fundamental contradiction that has plagued capitalism right from the beginning - that of falling rates of profits due to increasing competition and technological advancement. To keep the profits rolling in, production and sale of commodities have to be expanded continually with the introduction of newer and newer technology while the wages of the labourers have to be suppressed. But there is a limit to how much of this can be done within one country and so a stage comes when there are too many products to sell and too few buyers with the wherewithal to buy them. In the early stages of capitalist development this problem was solved by imperial control, which allowed the European nations to export their excess labour and goods to the colonies. In the immediate post World War II years too the capitalist firms of the developed West could provide good wages and considerable benefits to their labourers at home and thus keep demand high by extracting super profits from the exploitation of the labour and natural resources of developing countries and get around the contradiction. However, as these developing countries too began to catch up and develop industrially competition grew to the extent that it became uneconomical for companies in the developed world to employ regular labour with good wages and side benefits. This forced the shut down of manufacturing units in the developed countries and their relocation in locations closer to cheap natural resources and labour.
Thus globally China in particular and Asia in general was becoming the favoured destination for the off-shoring of developed country manufacturing units and within India an exodus of manufacturing had begun from the traditional centres like Mumbai and Kolkata to places like Bhilai or even less developed locations in search of cheap and unregulated labour markets. Under the circumstances the industrialists in Bhilai would have to cut down on their profitability and global competitiveness considerably to accommodate the demands of the CMM. So they put pressure on the government to crush the movement once and for all instead of negotiating with it. Even after a few days when the demands were not met the workers went on to the rail track and stopped the running of trains on the trunk Howrah-Mumbai rail route on 1st July 1992. The government was in no mood to find a solution through discussions and so suddenly in the evening armed police began firing on the protesters killing seventeen of them. Then a severe crackdown followed in which anybody connected with the CMM was arrested and beaten up in the police station before being sent to jail. A false case of murder of a police inspector was foisted on the major leaders of the CMM and so they all had to go underground. The whole process of mass mobilisation in the Bhilai region was set back greatly and never recovered from this body blow.
This had its effect on the Dalli unit of the CMM also. The deposits of iron ore in Dalli were slowly coming to an end. So the Bhilai Steel Plant management wanted to introduce machines and mine out whatever was left. They proposed to the CMM that they would give a golden handshake and lay off most of the workers and retain some as permanent BSP staff. The CMM sensing that in the changed global environment there was little possibility of a successful mass agitation against this proposal agreed to it and so over the years the main Dalli mass base of the CMM too has become dissipated.  Finance and Technology, which have considerably increased the repressive and cooptive powers of the state, along with the control of the media and academia has helped capitalism to dissipate not only CMM but also the other mass movements that were bidding bold to challenge it in India with an alternative development model. We have to face up to this reality and seek to counter it with some new means of mobilisation because the old ones that were pioneered by Guha Niyogi are not tenable any more. Unfortunately there does not seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel. 

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