India

Manesar Incident Sign of Breeding Discontent due to Economic Policy

Dr. Sandeep Pandey

The mass violence at Manesar plant of Maruti car company on 18 July, 2012, was mind boggling. It is unbelievable that what started as a petty tiff over tea time between a supervisor and a worker Jiya Lal, during which supervisor also allegedly used caste based slur, would snowball into one of the most gory incidents of recent times. When Jiya Lal was suspended and the management refused to revoke his suspension the same day the workers staged a sit in after the shift got over. During the sit in iron rods, which actually fit into the car door, were distributed to workers silently and secretly. When there was a signal from the leadership which was engaged in failed negotiations with the management the workers out-poured their wrath over 90 members of the executive including a couple of women and three Japanese nationals. The managers were severely beaten and one of them Ashwin Kumar Dev lost his life when he was also burnt. About 65 of them had to be admitted to the hospital including 3 in ICU.

Nobody can support this kind of mindless violence. But arresting and punishing the workers is not enough. The question needs to be asked why were the workers driven to such extreme that they took the risk of losing their jobs, their prime reason for being here, and indulged in mayhem?

In the last one year this was the fourth time the operations of the plant have been halted and workers have organized movements thrice. There are 2000-3000 employees in this plant and about a thousand contract employees. The company has announced a policy of not regularizing the contract employees which it used to do earlier. Whereas a regular worker might get Rs. 17,000, a contract worker gets only Rs. 7,000 per month. The employees of the Manesar plant were not even being allowed to form an independent union. The Gurgaon plant has a union, Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union, but it is widely believed to be a company run union. Even this union is not allowed to associate with any of the national level recognized unions. The workers could see that the increase in profits because of their hard labour was going only to increase the salaries and perks of executive level employees.

This is a common trend all over the country – in government and private sector both – as a result of the economic policies of liberalization, privatization and globalization implemented about two decades back. The salaries at the top, which was already better off, have gone up many times whereas wages at the bottom have marginally increased thereby increasing the gap between the rich and the poor. The salaries in government sector have gone up by more than fifteen times at the higher levels compared to about three times increase in minimum wages of daily wage workers. The nature of job is also changing. From hiring regular employees now contract employees are preferred at the lower end. Para teachers, panchayat workers, health workers, etc., is now the norm. In UP the new CM has offered Rs. 1000 per month as unemployment allowance but almost allowed MLAs to buy Rs. 20 lakh car for themselves from the LAD funds. It is somehow believed that the poor can make do with much less than what is required for dignified living. Another example is the BPL criteria of Rs. 28 and Rs. 32, in rural and urban areas, respectively, justified by Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

PM Manmohan Singh had once said in a CII meeting that if the gap between the rich and poor would widen then it will increase social discontent. He had said this in the context of problem of naxalism. But it applies in general, although, there are efforts to see naxal hand behind Manesar violence too. Just as treating naxalism as a law and order problem will not solve it, treating the Manesar incident merely as a criminal act will not solve the deeper problem.

The questions that need to be asked in Manesar are why were the workers repeatedly resorting to movements, why was the company not listening to their valid demands, why did the management not deal with the problem in a more unbiased way (for example, the supervisor too should have been punished for using caste based slur) and finally how did they fail to gauge the discontent among workers?

There are two ways forward. The Maruti management and other managements around the country can increase the security of their executives and make life hell for workers. The workers everywhere will now be seen as threat to management. The other way is to build a relationship of trust with workers and allow them more participation in the running of companies. They could own shares and there could be equitable sharing of profits above the salaries fixed for different levels. It will good to follow the socialist leader late Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia’s criteria that the difference between the lowest and highest incomes should not be more than ten times.

The worker-management conflict arises because the private companies are run in highly undemocratic manner in a democratic society. The problem will be fully resolved only when we move from private operations to public sector or cooperative kind of arrangements. Just because these models may have failed in some places doesn’t mean that the idea itself is flawed. Actually, most of our better managed systems, like the Indian Railways are still in public sector.

The government should not abandon its social responsibility. It should not allow attempts to privatize services within its fold or allow private sector to take over certain sectors of economy. It should improve upon its performance. Only then people’s interest will be served best. Profit motive alone cannot be allowed to rule our lives. Social welfare should be the objective of any government. Let us remember that our commitment to socialism is inscribed in our Constitution.

(Article is written by Magsaysay Award Winner Dr. Sandeep Pandey after visiting the Maruti plant. He may be contacted at ashaashram@yahoo.com)

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