India – a test case for democracy, rights and freedom in 2019

2019 will be a make or break year for democracy. A third of the world’s population go to the polls with nationwide elections in Indonesia, India and Nigeria. The threat to democracy goes deeper than fake news, technology and foreign influence.

What is at stake is finding leaders who will govern in the interests of working people, leaders who will stand up to corporate greed and influence, leaders who will listen and keep their promises.

This is nowhere more true than in India.

India’s proud democracy has always sought to bring together its rich diversity of voices and interests. Not only is it known as the world’s largest democracy, but it also has been one of the most pluralistic and tolerant democracies in the world with more than 20 official languages and five major religions.

Discontent not democracy is what India will be known for in 2019. All across the country there is an unprecedented unity of opposition to Modi and his government – a unity that comes when a government attacks working people and their families, strips them of their savings and wages and threatens to take away the hope that their children and grandchildren will be better off.

Why Indian workers say the Modi government must go

First came demonetisation and the ban on two high-value banknotes worth US$7.27 and US$14.54 which accounted for 86 per cent of cash in a cash-based economy, wiping out the savings of many people and leaving street vendors without pay for months.

Then came the implementation of a massive goods and services tax adding up to 28 per cent to the cost of over 1300 goods including life-saving prescriptions and 500 services.

This was closely followed by the attack on fundamental labour rights, wages and social protection with proposed changes to the labour legislation which will see the return of child labour, growing informality of work, poverty wages and slavery.

Joining Indian workers from all sectors in street protests on 8-9 January – farmers, teachers, port, bank, electricity and transport workers, as well as informal workers such as street vendors and taxi drivers – I was shocked to witness the depths of anger and despair.

The impact of a string of broken promises by Modi and his government is palpable. With more than 200 million people unemployed and the massive exclusion of young workers, people are losing hope. In a country where more than half the population are under 25, this is not a ticking time bomb; this is a jobs crisis of today.

I heard stories of formal jobs being rendered informal by the exclusion of workers from labour laws, in a country where 93 per cent of workers are in the informal economy and only 7 per cent are in decent work. The threat of an informal economy on a country’s tax revenue makes you ask the question: ‘Why?’

I saw the heartbreak of poverty wages on which families cannot live with dignity and where the call for a national minimum wage of just US$270 a month is being denied. It is a clear threat to economic growth if workers cannot afford to buy goods and services and makes you ask the question: ‘Why?’

And there are the escalating costs for farmers in particular, who get less and less for their products, thus threatening their livelihoods. Without these farmers, the backbone of rural India, a food crisis would surely emerge.

Most of all, I saw fear – fear of a future where the destruction and privatisation of existing social protection mechanisms, despite promises for universal coverage, have left people without hope. Why would a government do this to its people and its economy?

India is part of the G20 club, with one of the largest populations in the world, and it is systematically tearing up labour protections, destroying freedom of association and deliberately driving its labour market into informality with slave-like conditions – the only question can be: ‘Why?’

Quite simply, this prime minister has declared himself a friend of the corporations. He has turned his back on his people. Despite the government signing the ILO protocol to end slavery, even the evil of child labour is again sanctioned for children under 14 in family businesses.

Corporate greed has a stranglehold on India.

Rising authoritarianism is evident when a government proposes a law that effectively means they will decide which trade unions are legitimate and which are not.

And the business community is relishing the lack of compliance when major multinational companies sack workers for forming unions in the world’s largest democracy and violently reject paying a minimum wage on which people can live.

Economic stability as well as social justice is in decline at the hands of a government without concern for the struggles of generations of people in India for their democratic rights and freedoms.

That’s why Indian workers say the Modi government must go.