The television reports were perhaps just about as bad as the grumbles of my bourgeois friends. They complained about the inconvenience of the strike, the long waits experienced by passengers, the garbage strewn in and around the toilets, the barricades of the angry workers, and what not. For them, the issue was simple: the Indian airports are undercapitalized and rife with all manner of corruption, and the only way to “modernize” them is to privatize them. Few dispute the lack of capital in the basic infrastructure of the Indian State, except that there might be a question about where to spend the surplus–toward the well-being of the many millions in the rural areas, or for the few million who ride aircrafts. Few would also dispute the issue of corruption, for the Airport Authority of India is not an unblemished State entity that wins admirers from Right or Left. To reduce the idea of modernization to privatization is not anomalous to India; indeed it is the root premise of neo-liberal thought. The Left (that is, the Communists) and the trade unions took a strong position against the privatization of the two fiscally sound airports (Mumbai and Delhi) on several grounds–to wit, that the private firms would not be accountable to many of the State’s laws, that the private firms would not honor the long years of service of more than half of the employees (who are over 35), that the private firms will leverage these national assets to their own ends rather than toward those of the employees or of the people at large. It was the basic showdown between the neo-liberals and the socialists, with the former arguing that any curtailment of their agenda was anti-modern and the latter arguing that any fire-sale of national assets makes of mockery of the broad goals of modernity (which should, in theory, include the idea of popular, rather, than corporate sovereignty).
All this is commonplace in political discourse. These battle-lines have been drawn deeply since the dawn of the age of neo-liberalism: which I date, in non-materialist fashion (unfortunately), to the 1974 joint award of the Bank of Sweden prize in Economics to Gunnar Myrdal and Fredrich von Hayek. The former earned the prize as a nod to the waned authority of Keynesianism, and the latter to the emergent hegemony of neo-liberalism. It was a poetical gesture. The joke was on us, as the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences informed the public that these two men had the prize for their “penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomenon.” Yes, except that while one of them found the entry of the State salutary to economic affairs, the other found it abhorrent. Hayek argued, since at least 1944, that any State intervention would lead to economic chaos, or at worst to the growth of the big-bad State. By the 1970s, Hayek’s dyspeptic view of State power had come from the margins to the center, as the global corporations went into the world unfettered by State regulation and by inter-state controls (the United Nations Centre for Transnational Corporations began in 1974 to try to study the role of these new transnational behemoths; its role was hampered; in 1993 it was effectively shut down). The prejudice of the bourgeoisie toward the Market (as ideology if not as practice) is well known. This is what drives its ideas about the “modernization” of Indian airports.
Equally routine is the manner in which the bourgeoisie conducts privatization. Professor Marshall Goldman studied the fire sale of Russian State assets in the 1990s and concluded that its privatization was actually a form of “piratization.” He quotes Anatoly Chubais, head of the State Privatization Committee, who complained that the Russian oligarchs “steal and steal and steal. They are stealing absolutely everything and it is impossible to stop them.” The deflation of Russian civil society made any resistance impossible, whereas in India, as we shall see, civil society is as yet engaged.
To “steal” is to strip assets. The best assets in the public’s arsenal are to be sold off to raise revenues, while the public sector is to continue to own and run less fiscally profitable concerns. The removal of the fiscally productive divisions further cripples the public sector, and validates anew the view that anything owned and run by the State is inefficient. This is an immense political advantage for the bourgeoisie. Delhi and Mumbai airports, both profitable ventures (they earn 65% of the revenues of the Airport Authority of India), are to be given over to the South African firm, GVK-ACSA, and the German firm, Fraport AG (which has been in some hot-water over its Manila airport work, but which has its claws from Lima to Belgrade airports and elsewhere). There is no incentive to auction off fiscally less sound assets. And besides, a Parliamentary commission found that the “modernization program” promised by these firms would become redundant by 2012: hardly a long-term approach to development.
The media reports on the destruction of property at the airport and of the trash that has piled up as a result of the strike. The indignation is contagious. The outrage, however, is restricted to all that which is inconvenient for the bourgeoisie itself, not that which is unbearable to the workers. Those who do not fashion anything with their hands cannot appreciate that those who do don’t destroy their handiwork happily. They built and maintain the airports, and they will be the ones to clean it up as the demonstrations die down: industrial actions of this kind are not the carnival that one imagines. The workers come to them out of anger for their conditions, not out of a kind of jouissance towards destruction (recall: the adjectives most often placed before “destruction” in this context are “willful” and “wanton”). The larger context of the workers’ anger is muted, as the press and the politicians of the middle-class flog the view of worker indiscipline.
The dress rehearsal for privatization is in the sphere of “sub-contracting.” It tells us what privatization portends. Fifteen years ago, when “liberalization” (or, reforms of the IMF variety) came to India, an early victim was the workforce at the Delhi airport. Liberalization had been hard to workers across all sectors. In 1992-93, six million workers lost their jobs in India, while the next year another eight million joined them. Industrial disputes, in this period, fell to about 50% of their 1970 level. The chill among workers was clear, and their hardship increased (inflation in the basket of goods for workers rose by 14%).
The most vulnerable sectors of the workforce entered the twilight world of contract labor. I first met Ram Pyari in late 1991. She was a sanitation worker at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. Ram Pyari, like the other sanitation workers and loaders, had only recently come under the sway of a sub-contractor who ran their fief-firm under the radar of the unimpeachable laws of the Indian Republic. Long hours, no overtime, minimal equipment to clean the toilets and vicious supervisors–this was the condition at work.
Then, because the contractor bore no responsibility for it, the workers had to walk a long distance to their homes (airports are frequently far from habitations, and because of the clientele who fly there is only sporadic bus service). The State used to provide transport for the workers, but that was before liberalization. What was most shocking, according to Ranjit Singh, a courageous trade unionist and Communist, is that the sub-contractors had begun to force their employees to help operate their smuggling rings. He recounted how the smuggler-contractors would use the trash removal vans to carry out contraband of one kind or another. One afternoon he took me on a reconnaissance mission to see how the contractor’s vans would leave the Cargo area without even a perfunctory search. The contractor, Ram Pyari said sadly, lives in a big house, and we live in hovels. We make the world, she says, and yet it is not made for us. If this is the condition of the worker under the regime of the sub-contractor, what will it be like when the State has utterly withdrawn? What will be the condition of the unions under these new conditions? Will they survive?
In India, unlike Russia in the 1990s, the trade unions and the Left are strong. Over the last few years, there have been several nation wide general strikes against the economic “reforms.” On September 29, 2005, about fifty million workers went on strike against liberalization (this was the tenth national strike since 1991). Organized and unorganized workers, peasants and bank employees, State employees and private sector workers–all went out in a combative mood. Importantly, the workers of the Airport Authority of India joined the action against the privatization of the Mumbai and Delhi airports. All the talk of “civil society” by NGO intellectuals means little; their bromide is worthless because their vision of civil society is absent the workers’ organizations. It is the organized working-class that makes Indian society bearable. Otherwise the hierarchies of money and power would be much more brutal than they are. The workers have representation, but they are not represented in the media.
In Krishan Chandar’s short story (Kalu Bhangi), the narrator despairingly asks, “I have often wanted to write about Kalu Bhangi, but what can one write about him?” Kalu Bhangi, the representative sanitation worker, who lingers in the shadows of Chandar’s story, is unable to shine in a story named for him. His life is seen as so ordinary that it does not merit a narrative. The reality of worker’s lives is boring; neither does it make good copy, nor does it do more than make the bourgeoisie uncomfortable. Discomfort does not sell newspapers, and nor does it appeal to advertisers who would like the pages to transform the reader into a buyer. Reality has to be occluded in the world of commodities, so it is the inconvenience that needs to be highlighted over the everyday struggle of the working class.
A four-day strike in February 2006 paralyzed air transport. The 22,000 striking workers concluded a deal with the government. A commission was to be set up, and the government had pledge to protect the workers’ jobs. These parts of the deal have been discarded. In early April 2006, the government went ahead with privatization. It violated the Common Minimum Program (the principles by which it won election in 2004 and by which it is supposed to govern); the CMP says, “Generally profit making companies will not be privatized.” The airport workers are outraged, as are their representatives, the Communists. The Indian government, led by the Congress, trots to the Right, further and further from the dreams and hopes of the Indian people. This innings of the struggle is over, but the match is unfinished. Punters have put their money on Money. Others are hopeful.
VIJAY PRASHAD teaches at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. His latest book is Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses: Debt, Prison, Workfare (Boston: South End Press). His essay, “Capitalism’s Warehouses”, appears in CounterPunch’s new book, Dime’s Worth of Difference. His most recent article is a review of Kathy Kelly’s book in the December issue of Monthly Review. He can be reached at: email@example.com