India: Ten million strike against privatisation

Jagadish Chandra, New Socialist Alternative (Nava Samajavaadi Paryaya – the CWI’s section in India) spoke about the struggle against privatisation in India in an interview with Offensiv (newspaper of the Swedish section of the CWI) during the Eighth World Congress of the CWI. In April this year 10 million public sector workers took part in a general strike against the privatisations of the BJP (Hindu fundamentalist) government.

"Disinvestment", not privatisation

In India, open privatisation like Thatcher carried out in Britain is not possible. The Bureau of Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR) oversees what in India is called "disinvestment". The capitalists understand there would be an explosion if this policy was pursued too blatantly. Even the Congress Party (the main bourgeois party now in opposition) never tried that. Instead the approach from government has been long-term neglect of the public sector and state-owned industry. This has been used to create a social opinion against these companies – the idea that "workers there don’t do anything". On the surface this is true, for example, at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, skilled workers sit around playing cards or study for night classes or run businesses. But this is because the company is starved of resources. This strategy pre-dates the 1990s. The long-term neglect of the public sector started in the 1980s, even under Indira Gandhi.

"Sick units"

Today 17 major loss-making public sector industries are classified as "sick units". But at the same time these companies hold huge real estate assets. They occupy prime localities in Calcutta, Kampur, Bangalore etc. In the past [the post-independence period] public industries were strategically placed around the interior of India. For example, Bangalore became a base for the public sector long before it’s rise as a centre for the IT industry.

Some units are being sold outright, but for the "sick units" its impossible to find any buyers. What they want is the real estate, to strip these assets away from the loss-making companies. This is one factor behind a continuing struggle between national and regional governments, which in turn has meant that deals are bogged down. An example is the New Government Electrical Factory (NEGF) in Bangalore, which they’ve been trying to sell for ten years. While it’s still in state hands the workforce has been cut from 16,000 in 1990 to 4,000 today.

"Nine jewels"

The government has selected "nine jewels" – profit-making public corporations – which are being sold and and for which foreign investors have shown an interest. Among these is the national airline, Air India. The minister for disinvestment says this is to "create a platform" for restructuring the public sector. "Disinvestment", they argue, means taking money out of loss-making companies and giving it to "growth areas". But with few exceptions – communications giant VSNL is one – there have been no full-scale privatisations.

Workers’ protests

There has been no all-India anti-privatisation struggle as such. But there have been big movements, for example the general strike of public sector workers on 16 April, the same day as the general strike in Italy, in which 10 million took part. The banking workers were in the frontline of this struggle, and in some states were joined by other public sector workers. In addition there have been important regional struggles such as the NGEF workers in Bangalore and KGF (gold mines).

Lessons of history

The popular perception is that "India became a market economy in 1991", when the Congress government turned towards neo-liberalism and globalisation. We explain that India has always been a capitalist economy, that the ground for the neo-liberal shift of the 1990s was prepared in the 1980s. In the 1970s, Indira Gandhi nationalised the banks and took measures to limit the power of the maharajahs (traditional regional rulers). This gave her government the "aura of socialism". In fact she bailed out the bankers who were bankrupt. The Communist Party fell into the trap of supporting Gandhi, even boasting "we wrote her program". When the government took measures against the working class, the Communist Party leaders were incapable of mobilising opposition.

A Socialist Program

Our organisation is against all privatisations. We call for renationalisation. We also call for democratic workers’ control and management of these companies. If we take the example of the banks, 80 per cent are state-owned, but this has been a sham of nationalisation. Today the government is reducing its role to minority holdings in the banks. On 16 November the government issued shares for a 51 per cent of Kanada Bank. Punjab and Sindh Bank is also in the queue for ’capitalisation’ (bolagisaring). The bank workers union is led by the two Communist Parties, CPI and CPI (M). This is a radicalised section of the working class but unfortunately, under the influence of the CP leaders, they have adopted a sectarian approach, that the struggle is "just about our section". We say we can’t win on a sectional basis. It’s necessary to appeal first to workers in other parts of the public sector and utilities, then to the wider working class. We have raised the demand for an all-India Anti-Privatisation Committee involving all unions and political currents opposed to privatisation.

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