With new dispensation in Delhi, the scope for expanding social entitlements by government seems to be getting restricted

Disater-ManagementDiscussions on August 5, 2014 at the Ram Mohan Roy Memorial (Brahmo Samaj) Hall, Delhi, co-organised by several NGOs — Right to Food Campaign, National Alliance of People’s Movements, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, Rashtriya Mazdoor Adhikar Morcha and the Pension Parishad — provided the context for inviting other mass organisations, unions and networks to join efforts in coming up with alternatives to some of the key concerns regarding the current socio-political situation in India. A note*, based on shared concerns, on what was discussed and what is the way forward, was prepared. Excerpts:

A number of points were shared regarding the changed context that has emerged with the results of 2014 general elections and a BJP led national government coming in power.  What has changed in the recent period?  Many ideas were shared as to why there is serious concern among all of us regarding developments in the recent period, linked with the victory of BJP at the national level.

Some negative / problematic aspects include:

  • Shift from ‘social-liberalism’ or neoliberalism with a Nehruvian heart to ‘majoritarian neoliberalism’ or neoliberalism with a Hindutva heart. It was discussed that even under the UPA government, economic neoliberal policies were being implemented, but these were combined with some social programmes and entitlements to maintain wider legitimacy of the system. However under the Modi-led government, we are seeing emergence of aggressive neoliberal policies combined with a majoritarian agenda based on Hindutva, which would divide and divert people from the negative consequences of economic policies.
  • This shift may be correlated with a change in the macro-economic context. There was an era of higher rates of economic growth and increasing public revenues until roughly 2011-12, when some additional funds for social entitlements were available even while the ruling classes pursued a larger neoliberal framework. This enabled ‘giving something to the poor as long as it does not take anything from the rich’. However, with the global economic recession affecting the Indian economy and other factors leading to economic slowdown, now there is less scope for expanding such finances for the social sector, while maintaining the larger neoliberal framework.
  • Overall in the emerging scenario, the scope for expanding social entitlements by the government appears to be getting restricted. Linked with this, the positive space that some activists had for ‘advising’ the government on designing and implementing social programmes and entitlements, which was there under UPA Govt., has also now closed down. At the same time, due to the imperatives of aggressive ‘growth’, attacks on people’s rights to natural resources (land, forests, water etc.) and on labour rights are now likely to accelerate.
  • Serious concern was also expressed about growing inequities, and the fact that growing economic inequities are being accompanied by growing social inequities (around religion, caste, ethnicity etc.)
  • The influence of high rates of inflation (and rising prices of essential goods) has been that real wages of working people in rural and urban areas, especially of unorganised sector workers, have been declining.
  • Overall, in the new dispensation, the space for protest and dissent, especially by various sections of working people is now under serious threat, which we definitely need to address. Very specific targeting of community organisations, NGOs, and social movements challenging corporate resource grab in the name of foreign funding and branding them as threat to economic security through the leaked IB report is just one of the first steps in a larger game-plan to silence all types of ‘inconvenient’ dissent.

Need for critical reflection in the current situation

Along with such shared concerns, some ideas were also expressed about what we need to learn from our experiences during the UPA regime. It was opined that in the last few years, we were often preoccupied with specific issues and demands, while there was less emphasis on working together for broader socio-political goals. Some of the broad alliances formed in the early 2000s tended to become preoccupied with sectoral concerns, our language was more focused on ‘demands’ and less on socio-political assertion and challenge to the system. In this sense, we had not put in adequate efforts for broader united action, however now the situation would induce us to work together in a more concerted manner.

It was also opined that the results of 2014 general elections are not only a defeat of the Congress party, they are also a defeat of various progressive forces which were unable to provide any coherent alternative. Even as we discuss the changes at the national level and rise of BJP, the politics at state levels have not changed much. The dominance of regional parties in many of the states and their significant win in the General election needs to be taken in consideration when we formulate our larger political strategies. Overall there is need to collectively provide a broader popular ideological counter to right-wing forces, which is a challenge for all of us.

Some ideas about coming together

Why do we need to come together? Based on various concerns about the current situation outlined above, it was strongly felt by all the participants that we now need to develop greater convergence of our movements and efforts. Without basically re-shaping the socio-political discourse and launching broad based movements that would reach out to very wide numbers of people, we may not be able to defend even existing rights and entitlements, and would definitely not be able to expand these. We also need to develop our political understanding through discussions linked with action, and ensure that the grassroots activists and people with whom we work also develop a deeper and wider socio-political perspective.

Any such convergence should not just be an ‘arithmetical aggregate’ of specific demands in each sector, rather all participant organisations would be expected to appreciate the common concerns and themes that are relevant for various people’s rights and entitlements. The value of programmes like ‘Jan Sansad’ where activists working in various sectors come together and exchange regarding various movements was appreciated. The need for ‘cadre-building’ or developing the perspective and capacities of frontline activists was expressed. It was felt that this would enable our movements to deal with various issues and emerging challenges in a robust manner.

What might be some broad themes and dimensions for convergent action? A very wide range of people’s issues were reflected in the discussion, which would be difficult to summarise. However, some broad themes for shared action as a first next step, and key cross-cutting concerns shared in the discussion are outlined here.

Some possible themes for convergent action

  • Ensuring rights to social services and social security: Food security, health care, education, employment security, pension etc. are basic social rights that must be ensured for all in universal manner. For working people in rural and urban areas, these constitute a form of ‘Social wage’ which is a core entitlement that must be fulfilled by the state and society. Today there are a range of cross cutting issues influencing the social sector such as constricted public finances for social services and entitlements, targeting, privatisation, lack of accountability of services and public systems, and need to significantly expand the content and quality of these entitlements, which could be addressed through combined campaigns. The ‘Movement for Right to Live’ in Maharashtra is one example of such coordinated efforts.
  • Asserting people’s control over natural resources: Today the globalised corporate class has grown tremendously in wealth and power, and with active facilitation by the State is aggressively moving to capture all kinds of natural resources such as land in rural as well as urban areas, forest resources, minerals, water bodies, fisheries etc. With attempts to accelerate ‘growth’ such attacks are likely to intensify in the coming period and proposed modifications in the Land acquisition act is a manifestation of this. The Government has already changed certain environmental guidelines, is bent on easing processes of land acquisition, forest diversion, mining leases etc. Hence there is a need to effectively challenge this by building coordinated responses, and proposing people-centred alternative ways of utilising and managing these resources.
  • Defending and expanding the rights of labour: A key feature of the emerging scenario is increasing share of profits and declining share of wages as proportion of the overall output, which indicates intensified exploitation of workers in unorganised, semi-organised and organised sectors. We are now witnessing attacks on basic trade union rights through modifications in the Industrial Disputes act and other labour laws. Hence broad based challenge to attacks on labour rights, and working to expand these rights by involving trade unions and organisations of unorganised sector workers is necessary today.
  • Challenging the dominant model of development and proposing alternatives – The entire range of issues that we are dealing with are linked with the overall model of development, what is the objective and what is considered the desirable pattern of development. Maximisation of profits for the corporate sector and business class, with increasing levels of consumption of a certain kind for some sections of the population is on one side, and a people-centred model which asserts the fulfillment of basic needs for all and enhancing human development, while ensuring a sustainable relationship with nature, is on the other side. Various movements and organisations need to come together and based on broad consensus, challenge the dominant model and re-define development, including people’s aspirations in this regard, while proposing alternatives in each sector and for every dimension of life.

Generally speaking, all organisations that come together in a proposed convergence may not work with equal intensity on all of these themes, but there should be broad agreement and solidarity on key themes and shared concerns. While working together and developing convergence, some cross cutting concerns may include – challenging all forms of majoritarianism and communalism, while asserting the need for a genuinely pluralistic society; defending democratic spaces for dissent and expanding democracy; questioning growing inequities in all forms and reiterating the need for an egalitarian society; confronting corporatisation and growing corporate power in various spheres of life while asserting people’s rights; working to eliminate all types of hierarchies based on gender, caste, ethnicity / tribe, region etc.; transforming the relationship between people and the state in a people-centred framework.

A commonly expressed reference point was the Indian constitution – regarding which it was felt by many that we must draw upon its progressive and inclusive features, while resisting majoritarianism, threats to democracy and growing inequities.

What may be some of the main forms of working together?  Many of the participants expressed that processes for joint mass based action and exchanges to develop broad, shared political perspective should be combined. In this sense, practical combined action and political discussion with refining of concepts should both be developed together. This would be closely linked with deepening the understanding of grassroots karyakartas and the people involved in our movements in various forms.

One of the urgent necessities expressed was of defending existing entitlements such as NREGA, labour rights esp. related to ID act, certain positive provisions in land acquisition act, food security entitlements etc. which appear to be under threat by the new government. Combined with this is also a need to send out a strong message that the manner in which the new government is moving to stifle dissent will not go unchallenged, and that there are significant forces in Indian society which are going to resist any attack on people’s rights. Hence the need is felt to organise a large mass programme in the capital within a few months, as one of the first steps in building this convergence.

It was also expressed that ‘Delhi-based’ activism will not be sufficient, we need to develop processes for developing joint action and shared perspective in various areas, states and regions across the country, which will require intensive efforts. Local and state-specific demands will also need to be articulated through actions at various levels. In states where assembly elections are due in next few months, attempts should be made to raise key demands and carry out campaigns on people’s issues in combined manner, which would be visible and could positively influence the socio-political discourse.

It was widely expressed that there is need to involve existing campaigns and movements, various kinds of mass organisations, organisations of unorganised sector workers and trade unions, political parties and groups, social movements, rights based civil society organisations and active citizens in this process to make it genuinely inclusive and broad based, this would require efforts on behalf of all those who are participating in this convergence.

Decisions on next steps

  • In continuation of healthy democratic traditions, the processes for developing and organising this convergence must be democratic and inclusive, involving collective decision making based on consensus. There needs to be adequate space for differences and debate, yet despite any ideological differences, the attempt would be to focus on planning and implementing commonly agreed actions, the first such being a national mobilization in the first week of December 2014.
  • Many more mass movements, trade unions, social organisations from various parts of the country and working in various sectors would be actively approached to be involved in the process. The framework for this convergence would be worked out taking into account suggestions and inputs from all such organisations.
  • Meetings should be organised at state level / regional level in various parts of the country during August and September to have discussions with various groups, involve wider range of organisations and to develop suggestions and strategies regarding this convergent process.
  • The next national meeting would be held in Delhi on September 26-27, 2014. One objective of this meeting would be to take stock of processes in various states and plan more concretely for the national mobilisation in early December. The other objective would be to work on the demands to be taken up, and to have an initial round of discussion on shared political approach to be developed by the convergence.
  • A major national protest programme would be organised during December 2-3, 2014 in Delhi, where upwards of 10,000 people would be mobilised collectively by various constituent organisations and campaign networks. The range of demands, including opposition to various retrograde decisions and measures being taken by the new government, would be worked out over the next few months based on inputs from all involved organisations.

*Drafted by Abhay Shukla, Anjali Bharadwaj, Anuradha Talwar, Arundhati Dhuru, Ganga Bhai, Gautam Modi, Kamayani Swami, Kavita Srivastava, Madhuresh, Mukesh Goswami, Neeta Hardikar, Nikhil Dey, Rajesh, Rohit, Rupesh, Shankar Singh and Vandana Prasad

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