Last week, operations at Maruti Suzuki India Ltd, the country’s biggest car maker, came to a halt, following industrial unrest. Significantly, the agitation also turned violent after some of the protesting workers attacked a few supervisors. It was not the first time that industrial strife had assumed violent overtones. Mercifully, there were no fatalities; more importantly, it will not be the last and is frighteningly becoming a habit.
Also Read | Anil Padmanabhan’s earlier columns
What it points to is the rapidly shrinking space for political dialogue. The conversation tends to be adversarial, and given the rapidly deteriorating economic climate—nearly three years of double-digit inflation, jobless growth and a visible rise in inequalities—patience is at a premium.
This adverse turn of events is coming about gradually and because of a host of reasons.
First, the country has transformed structurally—agriculture has declined and services forms the most dominant sector in the economy. Even industrial places are no longer the same as newer industries have replaced traditional mass-employment hot spots such as textile mills—the defining character for cities such as Mumbai.
New employment is far and few and at the same time demands far more skills. Growing up, one remembers how the profession of steam-engine drivers (my personal heroes) was restricted to a few communities and relied on hand-me-down knowledge. Today’s diesel locomotives are far more complex machinery and require a semi-engineer at the helm. In the case of oil refineries, the bulk of the work is automated and the few workers that are needed are highly skilled.
What this also does is create segregation among workers and preclude the possibility of class action. Think back to the epic strike of textile mill workers in the early 1980s. It eventually failed, but it was possible because the blue-collar workers had lots in common. Today, if there is anything that binds the workers, it is anger—a glue that can only be disruptive. As Mint reported on 13 June, the last strike by workers at Maruti was part-inspired by their angst at their aspirations being denied even as they had to visually absorb the ostentatious lifestyle of Gurgaon.
Second, companies too have reordered their pattern of employment. They do not prefer tenured workers and are beginning to outsource a lot of their work to outside agencies. Two things are happening here. At one level, the company is reducing its obligatory overheads towards personnel and thereby reducing its wage bill—no doubt helping their bottom line. At another, the agencies that are undertaking the jobs hire only on daily wages—creating a tremendous amount of financial insecurity and, consequently, vulnerability to pressure.
Thirdly, some of the companies are beginning to take this to the next level. Maruti is a case in point. It nudged workers to sign a so-called “good conduct bond”. This required workers to guarantee against any interruptions at work; this includes generic terms such as “intermittent stoppage of work”—all of which empower the management to take inclement action on even subjective grounds (your boss may simply not like your face).
Before we beat up the management for what seems to be a very retrograde measure, we must understand that this is the key to assembly line business—captured so well in the Charlie Chaplin classic City Lights. Obviously, both sides have a point. There is surely a midpoint, but in the absence of dialogue, it is simply impossible to discover.
This brings us to the final reason. Traditionally, the Left movement, both organized and unorganized, often provided the medium for dialogue between the two sides. As Mint reports elsewhere in the paper today, the organized Left is facing a decline—some would welcome it, no doubt. However, it has created a vacuum. It has not been filled up as yet. And going by the manner in which organized polity is alienating the populace, it is unlikely to happen in a hurry.
The pace and width of change that has happened in India in the last 30 years have been breathtaking. It took off at a slow pace and then gradually gained momentum as policy unshackled large parts of the economy. Most of us were not readied for this change. Those lucky to ride the wave of change are doing well.
The story of India’s transformation is much about those who could not benefit; unfortunately, few are willing to listen. The strike at India’s largest car maker is a grim reminder of the complex challenges that face the country. It would be easy to dismiss it as an aberration. That would be a mistake. It could potentially jeopardize the very changes that we have come to embrace.
A warning was delivered by Christine Lagarde, the new managing director of the International Monetary Fund, at her first major speech in Washington on 15 September. Warning of social tensions bubbling over, she said, “I see a number of interweaving strands here—entrenched high unemployment, especially among the younger generation; fiscal austerity that chips away at social protections; perceptions of unfairness in ‘Wall Street’ being given priority over ‘Main Street’; and legacies of growth in many countries that predominantly benefited the top echelons of society.”
Food for thought?
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com