On February 28, millions of Indian workers participated in the biggest general strike since independence in 1947. For the first time since 1970, the 11 main trade union organisations came together in protest against “neo-liberal economic and labour policies.”
It is the fourteenth general strike since the introduction of neo-liberal economic reforms in India in 1991. The strike shows that India, far from the popular image of a society composed of peasant farmers and the very poor, has a huge working class that is capable of exercising its collective power.
The strikers demanded the establishment of a minimum wage, the end of temporary contracts and the recent trend of privatisation of state-owned services, and attempts to privatise India’s old-age pension. The soaring cost of living was another key rallying point.
The impact of the strike was uneven across the country. But Kerala, Bihar, Rajastan and Tripura were effectively shut down. The strike was strong in the banking and financial sectors, and postal workers, dock workers and transport workers were all heavily involved.
The ruling Congress Party came down hard on strikers, enforcing the Essential Services Maintenance Act to force workers in industries like power generation back to work. In West Bengal and Kolkata workers faced police attempts to break up strike demonstrations and pickets.
This display of class anger in India exposes the Western praise of the country’s “economic miracle”. High economic growth rates have brought wealth to a few but come at the expense of the rest. There has been a huge expansion of the Indian underclass. The city of Mumbai, known as an economic powerhouse, has been nicknamed “slumbai” because more people are living in sprawling urban slums than houses. Agricultural reforms have punished farmers, who, suffering poor harvests and indebtedness, are committing suicide in mass numbers—15,000 last year alone. A mass flight of farmers to the city, desperate for work, has also been used by employers to drive down wages across the board.
There will be challenges ahead for Indian workers in their battle against neo-liberalism.
Many of the trade unions are affiliated to the Stalinist and Maoist organisations, who have implemented neo-liberal policies themselves when in power, much like social democratic parties in the West. They will only be prepared to take the struggle so far. They have also struck an alliance with extreme right organisations for the strike, like the fascist Hindu nationalist organisation Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who have a history of stirring up communal hatred. They supported the strike on an opportunistic basis.
But whatever challenges lie ahead, the strike is an important step forward in challenging the ravages of neo-liberal reform, and an example for workers everywhere fighting the same battle. That was exemplified in a protest held by 30 Indian nurses in New Delhi in solidarity with Victorian nurses facing an attack on nurse-patient ratios.