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BAD BARGAIN

What a nationwide general strike aims to achieve for the workers in India remains something of a puzzle. It is easy to predict, though, what can happen during the strike beginning on Wednesday. It will force the closure of some industries, transportation, banking and other financial services and even educational institutions in parts of the country. But a major industrial action like a general strike cannot have only such closures as its goal. If the strike is aimed at forcing the government to change some of its policies, it may have already failed to do any such thing. It is unlikely that the government will roll back the reformist policies under pressure from the trade unions. There are compelling economic reasons as to why the reformist policies, which the trade unions oppose, are crucial to the country’s economy. One of the issues on which the strike has been called relates to the alleged violations of labour laws. The fact of the matter is, however, very different. Outdated labour laws are a major reason for low productivity and low investment rates in India. If anything, the labour laws need to be amended in order to make them suitable for a modern economy. Rising prices are a concern, both for the government and the common people. But those who think that a strike can help bring prices down obviously have rather strange ideas of how an economy functions.

However, the call for the strike raises other fundamental questions. A strike is supposed to be the ‘last weapon’ of the working class. The frequency of strike calls by trade unions in India has rendered this weapon largely useless. The fact that the unions would not change their ways raises questions about their purpose and their claim to represent the interest of the working class. Almost all trade unions are affiliated to major political parties. The unions’ action plans are often tailored to suit the partisan interest of these parties rather than of the workers. The overtly political nature of the agitations sponsored by the trade unions has increasingly made the people too sceptical of the strike calls. Strikes and bandhs have become weapons in the hands of parties to settle their partisan scores. Several court judgments have pointed out that such shutdowns actually violate the people’s fundamental rights. The irony is that workers have less and less to gain from a strike, thanks to mindless trade union militancy.