Sitharaman's Remarks Tell Us All We Need to Know About the Govt's Idea of 'Welfare'

They believe they own everything – and owe us nothing.

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There are many ways to critique the demand made by Nirmala Sitharaman during her recent visit to a ration store in Telangana. It was arrogant and tasteless, and failed to acknowledge the struggle a majority of Indians go through to access a single healthy meal a day. 

But let’s analyse the comment on its own terms. Sitharaman was livid at the absence of a banner with Narendra Modi’s photograph — because a programme funded by the Union government is seemingly a gift bestowed upon the public which deserves gratitude in response. A pat on the back for a job well done. 

Was it a job well done? On her own terms, is this government a gift to be grateful for? Over 20 crore Indians go to sleep on an empty stomach every day. Most are currently struggling to afford food or fuel, as close to every Indian family reported a drastic decline in their earnings during the pandemic.

Fifty-four million young Indians are looking for work – and the latest estimates say half of them will not find it, with the worst unemployment rate on record ever. The spontaneous protests against the new recruitment programme for the Indian military earlier this year demonstrate this desperation. “Bharti do ya arthi do” (employ us or kill us) is what thousands of youth took to the streets to say.

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If there is a place for Modi’s photograph, it is on the hefty gift of lakhs of crores to the corporate sector during the last eight years in government – through waivers, concessions, and forcing public sector banks to write off loans. This is on top of drastically slashing the corporate tax rate and losing an estimated Rs 1.45 lakh crore – ten times the budget allocated to the mid-day meal scheme at public schools.

When COVID-19 hit India, decimating everything in its wake, the corporate sector found itself not just immune but empowered – to make record profits, nearly three times more than the average of any year in the last decade. 

Everything Sitharaman thinks the government “owns” belongs to the people. Farmers that produce the food we eat have been left to face floods and heat waves, and skyrocketing diesel prices – with no minimum support price. Workers that produce everything we consume have been stripped of any ability to fight corporate power. This steady weakening of unions and the rise of contract labour was codified in 2019’s new labour codes that dealt a blow to unionising and fudged the calculations of minimum wage laws. 

“No one will go to bed hungry in India if it becomes a $30 trillion economy by 2050,” declared Gautam Adani in April this year – a rather tone-deaf announcement to make in the same month that India hit record-breaking inflation levels. But this fits the current government’s approach to the economy – one of increased privatisation to chase higher growth.

Billionaire Gautam Adani speaks during an interview with Reuters at his office in Ahmedabad on April 2, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Amit Dave/Files

And to them, it’s working exactly as it’s supposed to. The prevailing justification has always been that corporates turn their record profits into more jobs, competition, and innovation.

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But there is scant evidence to support this theory. As much as 75% of the record profits in the past few years were cornered by just 20 companies, even as numerous small firms suffered and folded. And these firms, we now know, spent these profits on more cash to their shareholders and share buybacks rather than reinvest in business for future growth.

As for the executives at the very top, the number of Indian billionaires soared during the pandemic and so did their collective wealth – more than double, to Rs. 53.16 lakh crore – the same time as more than 4.6 crore Indians fell into extreme poverty, constituting, according to the United Nations, nearly “half of the global new poor.”

It is clear: this is a direct transfer of wealth from the many to the few. Returning to the debate over “freebies” from a couple of weeks ago, while we turn blue in the face debating free televisions and sarees, the most alarming state handout goes unnoticed – the labour, sweat, and savings of the working class as a giant freebie to the government-corporate alliance. 

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It is undeniable that we have a food crisis. The prices of essential food items have increased by 50% in seven years, whereas the real wage rate has risen by 22% – this means that millions of poor cannot afford to eat, to survive.

It is undeniable that we have a jobs crisis. Caste and class keep children out of classrooms in astonishing ways, and those that somehow do make it to and through college discover that only one in five college graduates finds a job.

It is undeniable that we have a cost-of-living crisis. Inflation has forced households to dip into their savings for mere essentials. Each of these issues should be alarming to any political leader worth their salt. 

But Sitharaman’s comments prove precisely why we cannot wait for this government to find a conscience.

We need a broad alliance of progressive forces that can bargain from a position of power. When farmers demand control over the crops they produce, like the transnational peasant movement Via Campesina, they reorganise the trade system, disabling the power of large agribusiness to set exorbitant prices. When workers in strong unions demand better conditions of work and pay, it has knock-on effects that benefit the precariously employed and the unemployed too. 

The only solution to this crisis is to organise to take back what is rightfully ours – our land, our labour, our wealth. And to this, I hope Narendra Modi bears witness. 

Varsha Gandikota-Nellutla leads the policy wing of Progressive International, founded in May 2020 to unite, organise, and mobilise progressive forces around the world.