A C 2020: Fire engulfs life at large, flames touch personal lives

DURING the most widespread drought Maharashtra has seen in hundred years in circa 1971-72 A.D. Comrade Bhaskarrao Jadhav of Lal Nishan Party, a communist poet as well, wrote a song which became popular in the movement demanding work in rural Maharashtra. This movement won the Rojgar Hami Yojana (Maharashtra’s Employment Guarantee Act) which was the precursor to the MNREGA. Even today the workers and the employees in Maharashtra pay a portion of their salaries and wages running into crores to finance the scheme. With the neoliberal policy shift, the rich and middle peasantry in active collaboration with the corporates have disrupted and to an extent dismantled the scheme to keep the agricultural wages at the lower level and also to encourage migration from the rural areas to the Industrial areas for cheaper labour for corporates and MSME sectors across Maharashtra’s industrial areas and auto hubs.

The song in Marathi went: “आग चहू बाजूनी लागली संसारा, सवालाचा जबाब दे रं देशाच्या सरकारा!” Translated loosely: “Our life is engulfed by the fire (you lit) all around, we demand answers from you, Government of the country”.

Modi’s cruel and unplanned lockdown has once again brought India to the situation described by the song, in 2020 AC (After Corona).

A Tale of Two Cities: Pune and Mumbai

Com. Dilip Pawar of Shramik Ekta Mahasangh of Pune brought about the subject of suicides in the Number Two metro city in the state – Pune, in the Trade Union Joint Action Committee meeting on the 20th of June.  

Pune: The IT capital, the once preferred city of upper caste retirees, a self-declared citadel of knowledge of the high castes now converted to a market of education by high caste high class merchants of (Indian) Venice, the modern Auto hub, the city of two wheelers, the city of the Peshvas and also the Phules, Gokhale, Agarkar, Maharshi Karve, Javalkar of anti-Brahmin movement. But also the city of Godses. A political playground of Sharad Pawar, Ajit Pawar, Kalmadi, leaders of the Socialist party as well as Javadekar! A city of military cantonments, armament factories, Armed Forces Military College and National Defense Academy. A city actively promoted by the ruling classes for corporates. A city of startups, MSMEs as vendors to the Auto companies and the IT sector. A city intentionally encouraging the culture of “owner driven” economy to expand the base of the capitalist system. A city of mainly intra state migrant workers from the agricultural hinterland of Western Maharashtra as well as the perennially drought affected regions of North and Central Maharashtra-Marathwada. A city earlier known as the bicycle city but after expansion in the years gone by, systematically starved of a public transport system to promote the two wheeler industry of Bajaj and Firodias, the close associates of Gandhiji in the freedom struggle! Continued thereafter by the 4 wheelers from General Motors, Volkswagen and Tatas. A city of crowded pubs and eateries overflowing on Saturdays with young generation geeks. A city of possibly the largest numbers of Indian Diaspora mainly from the higher castes.

A city once known for its salubrious weather now converted in to an ever expanding concrete jungle by the powerful builder lobby. The once agricultural land owners sold their land, made huge money, turned mafia, flaunted kilograms of gold on their selves, entered politics of all hues and also murdered each other.

As in Mumbai about 33.5% population was staying in slums according to the 2011 census situated on about 5 % of the total land used for housing.  Of these, 45% slum households do not have in-house toilet facilities and 10% do not have electricity.

A city once had a vibrant trade union movement. It still boasts a 75 year old municipal workers union led by young communists, and the first union of the domestic workers in the country which led the first strike by domestic workers.

The home of the Film and Technology Institute of India.

This Pune witnessed 10 suicides in the last one week!

Comrade Dilip Pawar spoke to me about this.

A small businessman aged 34, and his wife (30) killed their 2 very young kids by hanging and then committed suicide. They had found no business in the last three months of lockdown, and the debt trap tightened around them. They had fallen in love and married across social barriers – and the social isolation they suffered as a result made matters worse.

A painter, two daily wage earners, a Mandap contractor, two employees of the Hinjewadi IT hub – all took their lives.

The corporates have come out with daggers drawn, slashing salaries between 10 to 30% in the organized sector (contract workers will of course fare even worse). The “techies” too (who once proudly distanced themselves from unions and embraced corporate culture) find themselves on the chopping block of the IT industry.

The “fire in the belly middle class” has started feeling the heat below their seats in private sector as well as state government – a circular is out to terminate the services of employees with co-morbidities.

Comrade Dilip Pawar feels that this is only the beginning of a crisis unfolding in Pune. Unless we demand work and sustenance allowance with immediate government intervention the situation is likely to deteriorate.

Mumbai: Ai dil hai mushkil hai jina yahan, jara hatake, jara bachake yeh hai Bombay meri jaan!

Anyone who has listened to this old song along with Cheeno Arab hamara, Hindostan hamara can much accurately visualize the City of Mumbai – then Bombay - even today.

Mumbai: A city born out of 7 islands given as dowry to the British by the Portuguese! A city built, nurtured, brought to glory and fame by migrants from many a provinces of the colonial India. From the merchants from Gujrat to the Kamathi construction workers from Telangana. From Parsis, Memons, Bohras, Shias, Sunnis, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Buddhists to East Indians flocking to this city of colonial opportunities. From Mathadis, textile workers from rural Maharashtra, migrants from Tamilnadu, Bombay, Karnataka, Bengal, UP, Bihar, Rajasthan. Shipbuilders for opium trade with China to textile mill owners. The Pathare Prabhus, who were the original inhabitants with Aagris and Kolis - agriculturalists and fisher folk.

An all-weather port. A city well connected by rail and road with rest of Maharashtra and India. A city of social reformers, educationists, trade unionists, freedom fighters.

A city with glorious working class history from reformists to revolutionists. From martyrs in the cause of the motherland and 107 martyrs to the cause of democratic linguistic state in the federal framework. A city of glorious revolt of the naval forces against the British which was the last nail in the coffin of British imperialist rule in India. A real united revolt with flags of all colors green, red, tricolor flying high, flying together!

A city of humid hotness with ferocious beauty of the much loved and much hated monsoon.

A so called melting pot of cultures, religion, castes, sexes, with all fault lines wide open just beneath the surface. The most unequal city for the masses. A city of huge dehumanized existence of more than 60 percent of the population in slums occupying just 5 % of the habitable and not so habitable land mass. A city of dilapidated buildings, high rises existing with the slums.

A city of local trains – the life-line of all the economic activity- with more than 50 lakh commutors per day travelling by rail and another 20 lakhs by the famous BEST buses. People spending on an average 3-4 hours in daily commutes.

The Finance and Industrial Capital breathing down on every soul 24 x 7 in this city.

A city which somehow keeps ever growing reserve army of labour just alive by selling dreams and vada-pav!

A city of neo liberal monuments like Metro 1, Coastal roads encroaching on the sea, New International Airport, Nonfunctional mono rail and “redeveloped buildings” converted to towers, horizontal Slums “redeveloped” in to vertical ghettos.

A city of mafia dons, gangsters in a nexus with builders, politicians, government and municipal authorities, the film industry.

A city of old, overcrowded but humane public hospitals like KEM, JJ, and Nair versus swanky five to seven star private hospitals set up on public land, treating the masses like trash.

A city of medical tourism, tourism, hospitality industry, the Udupi restaurants, 5 star hotels, PG accommodations…. (Out of the total work force in India the hospitality, hotel and tourist industry provides a whopping 12.5 % direct and indirect employment. Closure of these avenues has led to and likely to lead to a significant unemployment).

A city of working women who occupy public space with much greater assurance, perhaps, than in any other Indian city.

So what is it like to be in this city 2020 AC?

Archana Shelar hails from Konkan. A third daughter conceived in the search of a “lamp of the family” (a son), a cancer-affected father (a textile worker from the oil extractor Teli caste). In 1982, during the textile strike, nine of her near family lost jobs. She started working from the age of 9 to help the family to meet two ends. At 15 she started selling vegetables during the textile strike.

The husband, a rickshaw driver had to take up a job on contract for 25 years. She has been working as a work from home tailor to domestic worker starting with sweeping, washing clothes and utensils and slowly graduating to cooking – a “career” of 27 years! And to crown it all she took up the role of an activist in organizing domestic workers.

Her son lost his job. He is a skilled hardware IT technician working on contract for 7 years. After the pandemic broke, he was asked to work for half the salary or quit. Her daughter is at home presently getting salary in lieu of surrendering leave. They live in a slum locality in a middle class suburb. Both the son and daughter are past the usual “marriageable age” and this year also seems an impossibility. The 2 auto rickshaws used to give some additional income are idle. She has been asked not to come by 2 families and not paid for lockdown.

And today she is selling vegetables again!

I interviewed her about her experiences:

“We all get up at 2.30 am and go to the wholesale vegetable market. Come back home. Following precautions against Covid the entire family sets out to sell vegetables from 6.30 am to 1.30 pm. Back home, a bath and a quick lunch. A quick nap and I set out to cook for a family from 5.30 pm to 8.30 pm.

“I am selling vegetables in a predominantly middle/ higher middle class area. I found that these families have been buying very small quantities. I asked many of them. They told me that they are eating a full meal only once in a day. Night time is for some rice or upma.

“I was approached by an auto driver of around 65. The couple is on their own after the 2 daughters got married. He requested me to give him vegetables but has no money to pay. He said he has not eaten vegetables for weeks and could not restrain himself. I gave him vegetables worth Rs.100.

“On the same day a taxi driver in a similar age bracket came to purchase vegetables. The taxi business has been already in doldrums and he does not venture out due to age. He purchased vegetables worth Rs.185/- but could only find Rs.85/- and paid that…….”

Our work amongst the migrants tapered off as they left the city. But suddenly in the last two weeks we have been approached by several hundred families from Kurla – Chembur area and some Bihari Muslim families of Jari workers from Mumbai central area for ration and jobs. Most of these are work from home “karigars” like Jari workers, Chappal top makers, safety pin makers, tailors etc. They shared their angst with me while requesting for ration kits.

“Sir, for last three months we have no work. The family has spent whatever it had. The main outsourcing industries have clearly told us that they cannot give work as they have no orders. And you know for the next 4 months no one will buy leather chappals…. Everyone will buy cheap PVC stuff for rainy season….. Can we get some loan or a job…. At least some ration?.....” This was repeated by almost 60 % of the callers.

Many were followers of Sant Ravidas (so, Dalits), staying on rented houses near the Ravidas Temple in the Kurla/ Chembur area. They are migrants from Nagour in Rajasthan, who came 15 years ago and now have nowhere to go back to! Some others from the same area are in tailoring, making pins. Some of the men are alcoholic. The entire families have, even pre Corona, “worked from home” in these piece-rate jobs.  Some sons and daughters are educated or are still students, but education is in a shambles now. A list of 430 such families was shared by an NGO.

During the earlier phase we had helped migrants from Bihar employed in the Jari Industry in the Mumbai Central areas. Some of them approached us again for kits as they did not have the money to go back to Bihar or maybe did not wish to face the aftermath of journey back home. All of them are Muslims. Saba, a 16/17 year old, 12th standard pass girl called me to request for ration kit. I asked her why she did not approach us earlier. She said so many people got it but no one shared the information. Now I got your number and so I am asking. When she got the ration in the afternoon through the good offices of an enlightened and ever helpful official, she called to thank me. She said I should have asked for a job as well and broke out in to a laugh laced with a tinge of sadness.

The number of cases are rising across the region and the much maligned public hospitals and their under-protected doctors, nurses and support staff are heroically holding the fort against Covid 19. The private hospitals are busy in looting the patients. The most affected are the common people bereft of proper housing, proper nutrition, proper sanitation, proper access to good health care and services - and now jobs and salaries.

This is a glimpse of the ground situation unfolding across the entire MMRDA region.

I am sure many a cities will have similar tales with some variations across the country.

Though the industry has started up again in Maharashtra, the jobs, salaries are under threat for both permanent and contract workers. Cash flows are severely affected for the families, individuals as well as the MSMEs. Job losses and salary cuts are severe in IT and service sectors. Industry is starved of workers as the migrants have left.  The shopkeepers, small home and individual businesses have and are suffering. The lower and the middle class has started feeling the pinch. The EMIs are like the vetal on the back of the Vikramaditya!  The young and the middle aged middle class youth also needs jobs now.

So the song of circa 1971-2 AD “आग चहू बाजूनी लागली संसारा, सवालाचा जबाब दे रं देशाच्या सरकारा!” has become even more relevant almost 50 years later! We must demand answers from this government. We must prevail it to turn back on selling of assets of the public sector, intervene with investments across the spectrum to create assets to build a real Atmanirbhar India not a FDI centric phony sold out India. We immediately demand:

  • Urban MNREGA for semi urban and urban areas including all metros.
  • Dignified and secure employment to all the educated and the undereducated unemployed based on skilled sets and experience.
  • Immediate Direct transfer of sustenance allowance till employed.
  • Dovetailing the Urban and Rural MNREGA to create tangible national assets in the service of the masses at large like hospitals, water supply, housing, drainage and irrigation. Use the skills of the migrant workers by paying higher than minimum wages in the rural MNREGA.

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