As Parliament debated the 124th Constitutional Bill, which introduces 10% reservation in seats and jobs for “economically backward classes”, labour unions across the country went on strike to protest against the “repressive”, “anti-people” and “anti-worker” policies of the Narendra Modi government. While the government pitched the amendment as a measure to “uplift” the “economically deprived”, thousands agitated for minimum wage, universal social security and relief from rural distress. While the government promised more reservations in jobs, workers protested against the increasing privatisation of the public sector. Far from the bully pulpit of Parliament, the nationwide strike included a range of interests: central and state employees, farmers’ organisations, national trade unions, workers from both formal and informal sectors.
In a way, 10% reservation in the general category was an admission of failure on the government’s part. The ebullient economy that was to bring about “sab ka saath, sab ka vikaas” under the Modi government, pulling all sections of society into greater prosperity, is a dream that has passed. Instead, it is back to the logic of government largesse, distributed from a shrinking pie. This time, reservations have replaced the subsidies and welfare schemes that proliferated in the last gasp of the United Progressive Alliance government.
According to a report by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, 11 million jobs were lost in 2018 alone, with the most vulnerable sections of society being the worst hit. Rural India, which accounts for two thirds of the population, made up 84% of this number. Job losses were also concentrated among women, wage labourers, agricultural labourers and small traders. While gross domestic product growth rates have failed to meet expectations in 2018, data released by the Central Statistical Office suggested a slowing down in farm sector growth and increasing pressure on farm incomes. The effect of misguided policy decisions such as demonetisation, which crippled rural economies and small businesses that thrive on cash, were still playing out when another “disruption” in the form of the goods and services tax, was announced. The International Labour Organisation’s India Wage Report, published in 2018, shows low pay and wage inequality are serious challenges to inclusive growth.
As Lok Sabha passed the 124th amendment bill on Tuesday, it undermined the idea of social justice and affirmative action that reservations were meant to serve. But in doing so, the government also buried its own promise of “achhe din”. A 10% reservation in the general category will do little to address the problems of the thousands who have taken to the streets in anger and desperation this week.