Uttar Pradesh is often in the news, most often for the wrong reasons. Chief minister Adityanath seems to believe that law enforcement is not a measure for ensuring justice but a means to impose harsh punishments for crimes that his government believes have been committed – whether in fact they have been or have not.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, this government, like others including the one in the Centre, is taking advantage of a ‘crisis’ situation to take punitive measures and pass draconian rules and legislation. The lockdown ensures that public protest is not possible and attempts at resistance are severely limited.
In UP, much of the ire of the Adityanath government has been directed against members of the minority community, 300 of which are now in jail, deemed guilty of spreading the dreaded coronavirus. Not satisfied with the existing laws that it has been wielding with such severity, the UP government has amended the laws dealing with epidemics and health measures. Now, if the administration feels that these laws have been violated, not only long jail sentences, but even life imprisonment can be awarded.
The Adityanath government’s attitude towards the minority community has been consistent throughout its tenure. It has also been very harsh on Dalit activists agitating for their rights and against atrocities. Even minor Dalit boys were arrested in the wake of the agitation against the watering-down of the POA by the Supreme Court.
Now the government has gone one step further and exposed its anti-working class bias.
Soon after May Day, an occasion for the working class all over the world to celebrate the victories it has won after great sacrifices, the state cabinet went into overdrive, passing two draft ordinances that sought to snatch much of what workers had gained after decades of bitter, often bloody, struggle.
One Ordinance dated May 8, issued by the chief secretary, changed the existing the norm with regard to the eight-hour working day in an extremely devious fashion. It stated that the new norms would be applicable in UP in all state-owned and other factories between April 20 and July 19. This short ordinance of just three paragraphs does not state anywhere that the eight-hour day is being given the go by. Instead, it says is that no worker should be made to work for more than 12 hours in a day and that he should be paid pro-rata for four hours at the rate of what he earned for an eight hour day. That is, if his wages amount to Rs 80 for the day, he should now be paid Rs 120.
No amount of deviousness can hide the government’s intention of making a 12-hour day the norm without any payment of overtime, which would normally be the case.
This ordinance was swiftly challenged in the Allahabad high court by Dinkar Kapoor of the Workers’ Front. The Chief Justice himself heard the case and refused the government’s plea to be given time to frame its response. The case was heard on May 15 and the government was asked to respond at the next hearing on May 18.
Rather than cut a sorry figure in the court, the UP government issued a fresh order on the evening of the May 15 itself that cancelled its own earlier order and restored the status quo.
While this is a major victory for the working class movement in the state, greater battles lie ahead because the government has has also passed another draft ordinance, one even more violative of workers’ rights and constitutional guarantees.
On May 6, the UP cabinet, through a draft ordinance, suspended 35 of the 38 labour laws being implemented in the state. The period of suspension was to be for three years. The reason given for this was the adverse effect that the COVID-19 crisis had had on both industry and labour. The ordinance stated that only the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1966, the Workmen Compensation Act, 1923, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, Section 5 of the Payment of Wages Act, which enforces the timely payment of wages, and legislation dealing with the working conditions of women and the ban on child labour were being left untouched.
In one stroke, every other piece of legislation that gave workers some rights and security was rendered null and void for a period of three long years. The laws dealing with minimum wages, with safety measures and the health and well-being of workers were all denied to them by executive fiat. What is shocking is that, at a time when sanitisation of workplaces, provision of masks and safety equipment to workers, enforcing social distancing etc. are part of the established protocol to deal with controlling the spread of the coronavirus, the Adityanath government thought fit to free the employers of all responsibility to implement these essential measures.
Some argue argue that, in any case, many workers were being denied benefit of these laws. That is like saying that people are being murdered so why have a law which guarantees the right to life.
After the cabinet passed the draft ordinance, it was sent to be vetted by the labour and law departments. Very reliable sources have revealed that both the departments warned that this ordinance would not stand legal scrutiny of since it would go against central legislation which it could not do. Apparently, the Central government also had serious misgivings about the legality of the proposals and let the state government know.
As a result, the UP administration, in an effort to bypass these possible roadblocks, amended its own Ordinance to state that the new regulations would be applicable only to new recruits in existing industries and to new industries and their new recruits. This amended ordinance has been approved by the governor and sent to the President whose assent is essential since this will amend Central legislation. This is where the matter stands today.
Many in the trade union movement have reacted with strong disapproval of these extremely retrograde steps taken by the UP government. Even the the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh, which is closely linked to the BJP, has opposed these proposals and has announced a protest on May 20. Central Trade Unions like CITU, AITUC, and others have given a call for mass protests and dharnas on the May 22. A big protest is scheduled at the Rajghat.
It is to be hoped that the President of India will listen to competent advisors and legal experts will send back this piece of ill-conceived and regressive legislation that seeks to undo the gains years of struggle and sacrifice of the working class. Justice K. Chandru of the Madras high court, who is also on expert on labour law, has been quoted as saying that any suspension of labour laws would be a serious violation of fundamental rights and directive principles.
The reality of working class lives has been brought home graphically and tragically over the past few weeks. Ever since the lockdown started, millions of workers have been desperately trying to reach their homes from their places of work because none of the promises made to them by the Central government and their employers were kept. They were promised free rations but did not receive them even after standing for hours in endless queues. The were promised wages but, in too many cases, even their earned wages were denied to them. As a result, they set out to cover hundreds and thousands of kilometres to their homes – on foot, on cycles, on carts, on trucks, on trolleys. More than 300 have died on the way but nothing, not even the fear of death, deters them.
Many millions of them have returned or are returning to their homes in Uttar Pradesh. Having witnessed the inhuman misery and privations to which they have been subjected, it was expected that the government would respond to their needs in a humane and sympathetic manner, but the Adityanath government has done the opposite. The government seems to want take advantage of the sorry situation of the workers.
The UP government has promised the workers lakhs of jobs, assuring them that they will never have to leave their homes again in search of work. It is now telling them that whatever work they might get will come with a heavy price attached to it. It will be insecure, unsafe and hazardous; it will be work that will be unregulated; and it will be work where even shamefully meagre minimum wages will be denied to them.
Subhashini Ali is a CPM Politburo member.