[Ashok Manohar, General Secretary of the Lal Nishan Party (Leninist), on the new challenges and opportunities before the working class movement in Maharashtra]
SINCE MAHARASHTRA is the industrially most developed state in the country, the industrialists started their restructuring in the state very early, even before the so-called New Economic Policy and the present wave of globalisation. Politicians of all shades in the state naturally helped the ruling class in these efforts. Mumbai, the capital of the state and also the industrial capital of the nation, was the first city for these restructuring experiments. Since late 1980s, the character of Mumbai started changing from an industrial city to a commercial city. There were two reasons for this. One was the assertiveness of the working class of the city and the second was the very high price of land. There were also two obstacles for the required changes: one was the working class movement, mainly led by textile workers, and the second was the prevailing urban development rules. Since before independence there was an urban development regulation for Mumbai, which stipulated that the land used for industrial purposes could not be used for any other purpose, even if the industry were to be closed. Because of this rule the industrialists of the city were very unhappy. They pressurised hard to get this rule revoked.
In 1988-89, Sharad Pawar, when he was the Congress chief minister of the state, proposed revoking of this rule. Interestingly, Chaggan Bhujabal (the present Deputy Chief Minister) was the mayor of Mumbai then and he was a Shiv Sena strongman at that time. According to law, the urban development rules could not be modified without the approval of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation, but as soon as Pawar proposed the changes Bhujbal supported them. This cleared the obstacle before the industrialists. Dr. Datta Samant led the resistance against such a change. But he was soon murdered.
The State Government also helped restructuring in other ways. They built the required infrastructure through Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC). They acquired the land, developed it and also provided water and electricity for the industries. With this development many industries in Mumbai, and even Pune, started shifting their factories to the rural areas. The State Government also gave them tax concessions under the pretext of backward area development. So the industrialists got double advantage: on the one hand, they got crores of rupees through selling the land in Mumbai and, on the other, also got the advantage of tax cuts in backward areas. Another advantage for them was the cheap and unorganized labor in these areas. In these new places they could start with contract labor because of the high level of unemployment. In a way, restructuring in Maharashtra started with re-location of the factories from traditional to new areas. With this they thought they could also avoid the strong, organized working class movement.
In many cases, because of the huge money they got from the sale of their properties, they were able to give very attractive VRS packages to the existing workers. That is why in Maharashtra the compensation for the VRS is higher as compared with other states. In some cases the amount ranges from Rs.8-14 lakh and still it does not affect their balance-sheets.
Because of these changes two things are happening. One is that, the composition of the working class in the traditional areas is changing. In Mumbai, and to some extent in Pune, the nature of jobs in industries has changed from permanent skilled employment to unskilled employment through contract. The organized workforce was reduced as compared to the unorganized workforce in these traditional areas. The outcome is that a new working class came into existence in rural Maharashtra. Maharashtra has the largest percentage of urbanisation, i.e. about 40%. MIDC centers are there in all districts, cities and in many tehsil towns. With the birth of a new working class in these areas, the possibilities of organizing them are opening up, though in the initial stages this working class is of unorganized and contractual nature.
With all these changes there are new possibilities emerging for the working class movement in the State. Firstly, the emphasis needs to be shifted from the traditional areas to these new areas and, secondly, an attempt should be made to organise this new type of unorganized workers.
We have had some experiences in this regard, which are very encouraging. In Mumbai, and very recently in Pune, we started organizing security guards. Because of the changing nature of these cities there is a large contingent of these workers. Secondly, because of the increase in city population, the number of self-employed workers like maid servents, hawkers, auto rickshaw drivers, rag pickers etc. is also increasing. These self-employed workers are also trying to get organized. It is necessary to help them to get organized through our established organizational structure. With the changing situation this section is going to be an important force within the working class movement.
Secondly, the new working class emerging in newly developed areas has some very important characteristics. The industrial development in these areas is taking place at a time when poor peasants are unable to fend for themselves on their lands. Hence, when they get the opportunity to work in industries they look at it as the only opportunity of livelihood. Because of this they are quite keen to get a better deal for their work. In a sense, the process of their proletarianisation is proceeding fast.
Wherever we tried to organize them in trade unions the response was very good. These workers are more educated than the previous generation of workers. Hence they need very little help for day-to-day trade union work. They can do a lot of things on their own. What they need from the communists is ideological orientation. We have seen that we could organize them on area basis also. In some places, they had their own unions at the unit level but if you guided them they were ready to form trade union councils of different unions and were ready to help each other in their struggles.
The second important characteristic of these workers is that they are young and hence the level of militancy is much more. This became evident at the time of 25th April Maharashtra Bandh. In many places they organized morchas and rallies on their own. Again on 14th March, though there was no call of general strike workers in some new industrial estates observed a one-day strike on their own by organizing different unions in a larger body. This shows that if we are able to motivate them, and at the same time, give them the necessary freedom they are more active. But then the existing structure of the trade unions has to be changed for this type of activity. Usually the sectarian attitude in the trade union activist is an obstacle for such type of activities.
Thirdly, these workers are working in places near their villages. They have good links with peasantry. That was not the case with the workers of the last generation because they had come so far away from their native places. These linkages can be used for political purposes effectively. If we can give them the ideological training they can even lead the poor peasantry. We are not yet able to explore this effectively but are trying to do that in certain areas of Western Maharashtra.
Another significant restructuring phenomenon going on in Maharashtra is in the sugar industry. There are more than 125 sugar mills. There are more than one lakh sugar industry workers and more than 5 lakh sugarcane cutters who are connected with this industry. Here again the peculiarities of the industry and the nature of the workers are different. Sugarcane, the raw material for this industry, has to be crushed at the earliest after harvest to get maximum yield. Hence the industries are to be situated in rural areas. So the workers in these industries have close links with sugarcane growers. In Maharashtra, most of these mills were started in the co-operative sector. There are about 15-20 thousand sugarcane growers who are shareholders of the factories. Because of the sugar co-operative movement, the sugar lobby became politically strong in the State. In the initial stage, the Congress made use of their control over these factories to increase their support base among the peasantry. Now, other political parties are also entering this field.
Because of these mills a lot of changes took place in rural Maharashtra. The major change was that of class differentiation in the peasantry. A rich peasant class emerged with the help of the green revolution and these sugar mills. Today, the leaderships of all major political parties in Maharashtra hail mainly from among these rich peasants. In the last 15 years this industry has undergone many changes. The rich peasant lobby, which became powerful through corruption and swindling of these co-operatives, is responsible for the sickness of this industry. On the other hand, some decisions of the state and central governments are also responsible for the sickness. The rich peasants in the state are strong supporters of globalization. Now they are in a position to start private sugar mills on their own. They are no more interested in the co-operative movement. Most of them have already applied for the license to start private sugar mills, cutting across party lines. They have planned to close down the sick mills and then hand them over to private owners.
Recently, the Govt. has taken a decision to close down 14 co-operative sugar mills. Closing down a mill affects not only about 700 workers’ families but also lakhs of people dependent on the mill. Usually, about 65 percent of sugarcane farmers are poor peasants. They are not in a position to switch over to some other crop, that too in today’s situation of general agrarian crisis. Hence they are going to be affected badly. The sugarcane cutters, too, who are mainly from the draught-prone areas of the state, are also going to lose their livelihood.
In this situation, the workers in the sugar industry are planning to organize the sugarcane growers against this onslaught. We have formed our unions among co-operative sugarcane growers with the help of these workers. We fought very militant battles against the corruption of rich peasants controlling the mills and for establishing peasants’ control over the administration of sugar mills. On 9th April 2002, there was a big rally of sugar workers and sugarcane growers in Aurangabad.
We think that these are the different characteristics of industrial restructuring in Maharashtra. Of course, other characteristics seen nationwide are also there in the State.
New problems have emerged before the working class movement because of this restructuring but we also feel that new opportunities, too, are opening up. But conscious efforts are needed to seize these opportunities.