Indian workers denounce Modi and unions over COVID-19 pandemic
By Sasi Kumar and V. Gnana
September 15, 2020
Workers’ anger is mounting against the political establishment and unions in India, which, with 4.8 million cases of COVID-19, is currently second to the United States in terms of the severity of the pandemic. With the complicity of the unions, the Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is ordering workers to return to work amid a raging pandemic.
According to the health ministry, India peaked in one day of 95,735 cases, as the total number of infected exceeded 4.6 million. More than 75,000 died. The Indian Medical Association, which represents 350,000 doctors across India, estimates that nearly 200 doctors have died from COVID-19. Yet the Modi government regularly relaxes lockdown rules, and metro trains and road bus transport are operating again in major cities across India. As a result, the pandemic is spreading and public hospitals are increasingly overwhelmed.
World Socialist Website Journalists interviewed workers in Tamil Nadu state in southern India, where the state government led by All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is abandoning measures to contain the virus. The state has seen nearly half a million confirmed cases and more than 8,000 deaths from COVID-19.
Sivakumar, who is 50, told the WSWS: I work as a permanent worker in a railroad car. I will also work on the risk of coronavirus. There are Hindi speaking contract workers at my workplace who didn’t even have a face mask; we, the permanent workers, received free masks from the administration.
Sivakumar denounced the herd immunity policy of Indian regimes and his desire to further enrich businesses: Modi has already written off 600 billion rupees [US$8.2 billion] in corporate debt. But it did nothing to help those affected by COVID-19. People over 55 have been told not to come to work for two months due to the impact of the coronavirus. But now everyone is welcome to come to work.
Sivakumar also criticized union complicity in Modis’ policies and the corrupt role of the Southern Railway Mazdoor Union (SRMU). He said: The SRMU is the main union here. Its secretary general is Kannaiya. He will make demagogic threats from time to time, that if the workers’ problems are not resolved, there will be strikes and the trains will not run. Nevertheless, the strikes did not happen, because he had accumulated enormous strengths. That’s why he’s scared.
Sivakumar accused SRMU of blocking strike attempts by workers against the deadly official handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said, the workers want a strike. But the union gave notice and then withdrew it. In public statements from the unions, he threatens the rail wheels will not turn in the south if workers’ grievances are not addressed. But such talk only serves to contain the workers.
About 12 million Indian workers lost their jobs in the April-May lockdown, including 1.89 million regular workers. The remaining 10 million belong to the informal sector. The Modi government is calling for an end to social distancing, cynically claiming that people are tired of staying in small spaces during lockdowns, and that people want a return to normalcy. And so the AIADMK adopted a murderous back-to-work policy in the interests of the banks, without any opposition from the Stalinist Communist Party of India or the Maoist Communist Party of Marxist India.
Last April, the Chief Minister of the State of Tamil Nadu, Edappadi Palanisamy, claimed that COVID-19 only affected the rich, not the poor. He asked: Where are the poor people affected by the coronavirus? Only the rich are infected. He then said: If you see the poor, you can speak freely, but you are afraid to see the rich. It only underscores that the ruling elite and their political minions live in another political world made up of hundreds of millions of Indian workers struggling to avoid infection.
Saravanan, 35, works as a security guard. He told the WSWS: They only pay me Rs 7,000 per month for security work. If you want to rent a small house in Chennai, you need 10,000 rupees. Three people like me work daily on the construction sites without renting a house, relaxing in the parks at night. We were not given a face mask or disinfectant to stay safe. Some apartments do not even have a toilet. You can’t keep your hands clean in houses like this.
Saravanan, who is from a small town, spoke about the conditions workers face in Indian villages and towns: Jobs are hard to find. We are angry with the way Edappadi handled the problems faced by workers during the pandemic. Edappadi says he is proud to have brought the disease under control. But the severity of the disease has increased in the villages.
Visalam, 50, is a domestic worker. She told the WSWS, we went to work even during this coronavirus pandemic. I didn’t even receive a mask at home. I am afraid of getting infected when I go to work in four households.
Visalam pointed out the lack of basic equipment and facilities she faces: Four of us live in a small room in the Otteri slums. We are not even able to keep our hands clean due to the lack of running water. Company officials came to our home but did not provide us with the disinfectant and masks needed to keep our homes clean. Politicians only come when they want to campaign for electoral votes.
In fact, the official response to the pandemic in India and around the world amounts to a conspiracy against workers. Washington post Journalist Bob Woodwards’s report revealed that US President Donald Trump had deliberately misled the public about the pandemic. He told Woodward on February 7 that he was downplaying it despite dire warnings from Chinese President Xi Jinping and US intelligence briefings claiming COVID-19 was the greatest threat to national security.
Trump visited India in February 2425, met Modi, and arguably discussed COVID-19. However, Trump, Modi and broad layers of Indian officials have since relentlessly sought to downplay the virus, force workers back to work and minimize mortality from the pandemic.
Gajendran, 45, is a day laborer. He underlined the workers’ deep disillusion with the political establishment: I cannot tell you the hardships I endured from May to today. I buy and eat food packages donated by pantries, charities and others. I know the DMK, the AIADMK, the Communist parties and other parties. I don’t have a home, no matter who comes to power. There are no permanent jobs, not even ration cards. I did some painting work, some lifting work.
He added that parties like DMK, AIADMK etc come hitting me when I complain about the holidays, so I keep in mind not to say anything out loud.
Speaking of the workers’ desire for a political alternative, Gajendran said: Now no one is talking about socialism. I’m glad you said that. It comes from the Communist Parties themselves. They didn’t talk about socialism either.
Showing his face mask to WSWS reporters, he said: They didn’t even provide a good mask, you see? That in itself is dirty. It would be nice if the workers came to power, as you say. I shared my concerns with you: if the coronavirus isn’t eliminated but the government lifts the restrictions, I don’t know what’s going to happen.
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[9 September 2020]
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