After Manesar, be prepared for more urban class wars

The violence at Maruti's Manesar plant is not a one-off, but a symptom of the likely radicalisation of India's urban workers.

R Jagannathan July 21, 2012 13:22:20 IST
After Manesar, be prepared for more urban class wars

After caste wars, gender wars, regional wars and religious wars, one can now add the return of class warfare to the overflowing Indian cup of social tensions.

In the land of a "million mutinies", the violence at Maruti's Manesar plant exhibits all the symptoms of class conflict. Even though attempts have been made to suggest that a casteist remark by a supervisor might have triggered the violence, this can only be a proximate excuse for the violence. All reports, in fact, suggest that the attack on supervisors and management staff was pre-planned, with workers stockpiling car parts to be used as weapons well in advance.

Additional proof comes from a statement by Maruti's CEO and Managing Director Shinzo Nakanishi, who clearly said that the violence was unlikely to have been the work of any outside force. Asked to explain the reasons for the violence, Nakanishi told The Times of India: "We have to wait for the police investigations to get over, though I do not see any shadow of an outside influence this time."

It is significant that even as the government is looking for a Naxal link to the Maruti incident - and one need not be surprised if there is one, for the sheer savagery of the targeted violence suggests premeditation - Nakanishi did not offer this as an alibi.

He probably suspects that there are broader reasons for the worker angst.

Actually, there is. It's called Speedy Growth. Whenever economies grow at very fast speeds - as the Indian economy has been doing between 1991 and 2011, and more recently during 2003-2011 - inequality widens.

After Manesar be prepared for more urban class wars

Manesar is a warning. We need to be prepared for more class war - unless India's corporations become more sensitive to worker angst and provide them a ladder to meet their aspirations. Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

It has widened in rural areas, which is why we have seen the rise of Naxalism, which needs a widely perceived sense of injustice to mobilise people against the state and the better off.

Now, it is the turn or urban India to face the wrath of even the traditionally better off sections among workers. The average full-time Maruti worker gets around Rs 17,000 a month, but sees people around him who earn five times as much. Not without reason has the Maruti union demanded a five-fold hike in wages.

In many areas of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh that surround Delhi's National Capital Region (NCR), the rapid expansion of urbanisation has created new rural millionaires overnight (read this story of Kartar Singh). Builders hungry for land have been buying off farmers at whatever price they think they can sell property for. Manesar is no exception.

The workers employed by Maruti have seen their landed neighbours make crores from selling their land. They also view the rapid rise of the urban middle and upper middle-classes with envy and a growing sense of desperation. They think they have been left out of the treasure-hunt, and want to find quick ways of making more money.

In this state of mind, workers become more receptive to radical ideas.

It is not without reason that within a day of the Maruti incident, we saw what could be another worker-related violent act. Nitin Sharma, a Deputy General Manager with Aero Group, the company which produces the upmarket Woodland shoes, was shot dead in Ghaziabad, allegedly for sacking some employees for financial irregularities.

The Maruti and Woodland deaths may have no link, but the violence of the left-out classes needs noting.

The 1991 reforms recalibrated India's growth engines and the country revved up from the old so-called Hindu rate of growth (3-4 percent) to somewhere around 6-7 percent post reforms. During 2003-11, the rate went up even higher to around 8-9 percent.

This is why, as we have argued, despite strong redistributive efforts by the UPA in the form of massive cash transfers and makework schemes, inclusiveness has fallen instead of rising. Inequality has widened during UPA-1 and UPA-2 (read here).

Apart from inequality, the reforms also shifted power away from the unions to managements in ways that could not have been anticipated earlier. The opening up of the economy in 1991 ended the cosy state sector monopolies in most spheres, and competition bloomed. Competition usually brings down labour clout, as managements can always tell their unions that if they don't accept reasonable wages, the company would go under.

The statistics bear this out. In 1991, out of the 1,810 instances of strikes and lockouts reported by the Labour Bureau, 1,278 related to strikes. In 2007, the figures were down to 210 strikes and 179 lockouts.

In short, workers were able to make themselves heard through coercive industrial action in the earlier part of the last two decades. Towards the end, workers were more quiescent, as their bargaining power declined.

Two other sets of figures also show the growing irrelevance of unions.

Between 1991 and 2010, India's real GDP grew 450 percent - or four-and-a-half times its earlier size. But its organised sector employment grew by a meagre 7.4 percent from 26.73 million to 28.70 million. Clearly, the economy and employers are raising output by investing more in capital goods rather than labour.

The government sector - from centre to local bodies, where unions typically have more clout - actually showed a decline in employment even though the size of the state is growing. Public sector employment fell 6.3 percent between 1991 and 2010 from 19 million to 17.8 million.

In both ways, through higher investments of financial capital rather than human capital, and through a reduction of government sector employment, unions have become less and less important in the lives of the average worker.

When unions lose strength, disempowered workers use any means they have to express their growing sense of disenchantment or anger. These are ideal conditions in which radical elements - whether it is Naxals or political buccaneers or freewheeling caste and community leaders - can find traction.

This could already be happening. According Rahul Pandita's book titled, Hello Bastar: The Untold Story of India's Maoist Movement, the Maoists now see the radicalisation of the urban working class as critical to the success of their rural and tribal areas-oriented movement to overthrow the Indian state.

Quoting from Maoist documents, Pandita says the "The urban agenda document urges Maoist cadres to pay attention to organising the workers within the slums and such localities." (Read here)

According to a report in The Economic Times, Naxals have begun moving into the industrial centres of Tamil Nadu, causing concern to industrialists there. A key signature tune is violence. In January, the president of the Puducherry-based Regency Ceramics, KC Chandrasekhar, was beaten to death by workers.

The report quotes a Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) official as saying: "There are concerns that there are Naxalite elements. They are taking law into their own hands. They frequently resort to violence to settle any dispute. That's a concern. Traditional trade unions don't resort to such means."

In fact, the Naxals are also seen to be infiltrating the army, as shown by the recent Nyoma incident in Ladakh, where a small mutiny by some jawans seemed to exhibit signs of class consciousness. Apparently, when a divisional commander visited the unit, the jawans had removed all rank labels, indicating they were united against the officer class.

The rise of inequality and the sudden riches of one segment of India's urban classes is setting the background for a revival of old class wars. Even in the US, we have seen movements such as Occupy Wall Street railing against Wall Street and business. In India, we are seeing this through incidents such as Maruti.

It is worth recalling that Manesar, with its younger workforce, is more radicalised than Maruti's other plant in nearby Gurgaon. The average age of the Manesar workforce is 24, while Gurgaon's is 38. The young are more easy to radicalise than the older, more mature workers. They are more willing to wage class war than older workers with families to support and parents to look after.

While Maruti's CEO may dismiss the involvement of outside forces, the radicalisation of the workforce suggests that at least the ideas of violence came from outside. Some of the Manesar victims called it terrorism of a different kind - which sounds like the handiwork of radical elements, not excluding the Naxals.

Manesar is a warning. We need to be prepared for more class war - unless India's corporations become more sensitive to worker angst and provide them a ladder to meet their aspirations.

One should be prepared for more Manesars.

Updated Date:

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