Building a Union of Street Vendors in Bengaluru

1149163_743188589067481_1407106341_oBengaluru   I had a long list of things I needed to get done on this trip to India, catch up with Dharmendra Kumar in Delhi on our progress at blocking multi-brand retail in Delhi and stopping foreign direct investment, state by state, and evaluate our growing, alliance with hawkers, and my coming visit with Vinod Shetty in Mumbai will focus on our progress in Dharavi and see the developments in the sorting system for our wastepickers were vital.  But, none ranked higher than visiting with Suresh Kadashan and seeing if we had finally succeeded in forming official, registered unions for the informal workers we were organizing in Bengaluru.

            The organizing was certainly not new.  We had been plugging away at it for about five years with wastepickers, hawkers, domestic workers, and others, but eighteen months ago our decision had been to bite the bullet and register formally as an independent trade union under the laws of the state of Karnataka, where Bengaluru with about 5 million people is the capital and largest city.  The rest of the world may know Bangalore by its old name and its reputation as India’s tech center or as “silicon” city, as some of the boosters are saying now, but that’s another world from our organizing with slum dwellers and informal workers.  1614525_743188425734164_1782074469_o

            But every month we would try to register and could get no decision, and this went on, frustratingly, for over a year until this last December, when finally a deputy labor commissioner agreed to a path forward.  Winning the registration was a matter of signatures from members and producing a minimum number (150) at a meeting of the street vendors.  We now have organized the vendors in 25 different street markets throughout the city and once the process is finalized in coming months Suresh expects we will find ourselves with 6000 new dues-paying members.  I was with Suresh yesterday as we bussed and auto-rickshawed to various street markets to meet with the officers of local branches of our new union in several places.  1782537_743188469067493_1394852361_o

I also got to watch him have an impromptu noon meeting with 35 vendors on a side street market that needed to come into the union in order to fight for space under the Metro since a bridge was about to displace them once construction began.  It was exciting to watch a small plastic tarp spread over nearby dirt transformed into an organizing meeting!  Already our fledgling union has successfully filed cases against police harassment of vendors based on protections for sellers that are included in the state constitution, giving hard pressed hawkers some spring in their step.  In the meeting as well, Suresh dramatically pulled out the application papers for a national pension scheme that could provide small retirements for our members after 60 based on a 2:1 match annually that, importantly, has to be certified by the official seal of our union.1956692_743188309067509_1196393137_o

Registrations for a wastepickers union floundered, when the city privatized wet and dry garbage pickup, but we’re watching that situation closely.  We’ve also now filed for a local union of street food preparers which could yield another 2000 members, once approved, and, yes, India is the home of the craft union, more than the industrial model, as you can see. 

Opportunity within the informal sector abounds.  Leaders estimated 130000 street vendors ply their wares in Bengaluru and perhaps a million-and-a-half are vendors among all of Karnataka 61 million people, but in this huge state, that’s still a bridge too far perhaps since 10 of the 15 districts would have to organize in order to win a statewide union charter.

            Big dreams and hard work, yield big dividends, and finally our new union is alive and growing in Bengaluru, but that also means even bigger dreams and harder work lie ahead of us in the future.  It was thrilling to be a part of it all!



The Mixed Blessings of Globalization

_68305314_india_middle_classDelhi    When I first flew into Delhi, it was a wild experience.  Three or four long lines of people in dilapidated, entry hall waiting forever on hard concrete floors.  My first trip was with a delegation of organizers and many of the women regaled us with stories of coming off of a 14 hour flight and not knowing what to make of the squat toilet as an only option.  Now only a dozen years later there’s a gleaming airport here with newly carpeted concourses, a bank of twenty or more customs agents, speeding everyone through.  Well, maybe not exactly speeding since there was a computer breakdown, but what’s a five minute delay, when from touchdown to home base was hardly an hour-and-a-half, when that used to be just the time through Customs. 

Part of the difference is the huge, and controversial, expenditure and graft of India’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games two years ago in Delhi, but the other part is reflected in the chock full nonstop plane from Newark to Delhi.  Sure there were the usual tribe of businessmen in first class, but compared to the past, it was a mixed crowd with the majority Indian, and in the other seats a milk run for Indians visiting relatives and children in the United States or vice versa to India.  This was the great, emerging middle class of India on the move.  In a country with over a billion people, an emerging middle class of 150 million and growing is an economic power.  And, with the impending elections and the rise the Common Man Party and the newly found concerns about public corruption, they are force to be reckoned with, even if they are still a long way from power.

Eduardo Porter of the Times reported on studies of the last twenty years of globalization and the good and bad news.  The good news is that globalization has reduced inequality worldwide by creating a middle class in China and India, and that’s what I can see in the airports in India, and in neighbors like Greater Kalish II, where I have now stayed in a rooming house off and on over the last decade as I visit.  A traditional sweets shop in the marketplace is now a Benetton clothing store for example.  Two convenience stores are now one as prices have risen.  

            The other side of globalization though is the increased inequality in the United States and some other developed nations.  Porter quotes Damon Silver of the AFL-CIO though saying,

If there are hundreds of millions of people that were in abject poverty one generation ago and are not anymore, that is an important and positive thing.  But I don’t think we should accept radical inequality as a necessary corollary of equal development.

            But, it’s not just the United States, because as easy as it is to notice the emerging middle class here, it is also impossible not to also notice how little the areas where we organize in Delhi, Bengaluru, and Mumbai have materially changed.  When I get to Mumbai at the end of this visit, undoubtedly in Dharavi I will see some improvements in our organization, but in the slum itself, I will also see the continuing encroachment of development moving to eliminate the jobs and homes altogether as the clock keeps ticking.  Here in Delhi over the next couple of days, I’ll hear about the progress of the shelters we assist in running for the city for migrant workers, and their miserable existence, helping fuel this growing middle class will perhaps feel a bit better, but be fundamentally little different over the last decade.

            Porter also mentions the fact that even as some level of global inequality is being relieved by globalization the American problem of increased efficiency of production with a decreased worker share is also being exported to China and elsewhere exacerbating inequality between the rich and workers even as a middle class is built.  Whether the issue is globalization or not, development without equitable distribution is not only unacceptable, but a tinderbox for the future on a worldwide basis as well.


Unspeakable Crimes: Delhi, Dakar, and Newtown

protests in New Delhi

Dauphine Island         In an editorial in the Times mourning the gruesome circumstances of the death of the 23-year old Delhi woman in a Singapore hospital where she had been taken for treatment, they called it an “unspeakable crime,” which seemed the perfect phrase for so much of what we are living through these days on so many fronts.  I know men and women who are now on the streets of Delhi protesting this gross injustice and demanding that there finally be a seismic cultural shift around the role of women.  Sonia Gandhi, the head of the ruling Congress Party, has said that this is important to her “as a woman” and “as a mother,” but she and thousands of others need to demand and deliver change from their homes to the streets to the halls of government and the desks at the police stations.

There was more on the tragic spin game that Walmart continues to play around worker conditions in factories they fueled with cheap, hurry-up orders regardless of fire conditions.  Their international president reportedly was in Bangladesh meeting with suppliers, government, and other industry officials but his work was so opaque and obviously duplicitous that sources indicated that they would not allow “cell phones” or “fountain pens” to enter the meeting so that no notes, pictures, or record of any of the conversations could be reproduced.  To believe current CEO Duke’s claim to the Council on Foreign Relations that they will demand better fire safety standards for their suppliers is ludicrous in the face of the hundreds death through negligence where they cannot escape some deep level of responsibility for “unspeakable” crimes.

Even in the wake of the slaughter of children in Newtown, Connecticut in the United States, every day seems to bring yet more heinous reports of killings of firefighters, murders of police, and more slayings of innocent civilians in the armed camp that has now become our country.  No matter the NRA’s dissembling, these too are “unspeakable” crimes.

The problem is that to finally confront these crimes and force change, they in fact have to become “speakable” crimes, rather than “unspeakable” crimes.  They have to dominate the discourse in country after country and throughout the world until we have the change that must come to eliminate these crimes against women, workers, children, and others.

We need to speak in shouts about all of these crimes, rather than allowing silence to shield in its shadows the men, companies, and gun toting killers that continue to make this a world a horror everywhere around us.


Foreign Direct Investment for Walmart and Friends Coming to Critical Vote in India

protest against foreign retail gaints in India earlier this year

Quito   Though I could find no information in the US-based press, the stalemate in the Parliament in India was finally broken yesterday after a week long stalemate centered on the parliamentarians’ opposition to the Government’s action to unilaterally modify foreign direct investment restrictions in multi-brand retail, allowing Walmart and other big box operations to enter India on their own steam potentially.  The India FDI Watch Campaign, supported by ACORN International since its inception, has been deeply embedded in this effort.   ACORN’s FDI campaign director in Delhi, Dharmendra Kumar, filed this report with me last night on the evolving situation and the potential vote breakdown.  Needless to say, it’s very, very close with street protests also planned within days!

Govt. strength over FDI in retail issue will be on trial in Parliament next week, with the Lok Sabha (Lower House) deciding to have a discussion on December 4 and 5 on the issue under rule 184 that entails voting. “I have received 30 notices for discussion on FDI in multi—brand retail under Rule 184. “I have admitted the motion to allow the discussion,” the Speaker Meira Kumar said. Rajya Sabha (Upper House) will also have a similar discussion, the date and timings for it will be decided later. The nearly week-long deadlock gripping the Lok Sabha as well as the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) over the issue of allowing foreign superstores is thus broken with the government conceding the Opposition’s stringent demand for a debate on the issue in both Houses of Parliament under rules that entail voting.

While the Govt. is confident of required votes in the Lok Sabha, the Opposition is hopeful of defeating the Govt. in the Upper House. Govt. is sounding confident after its second largest constituent, DMK reluctantly decided to vote for the Govt. “with bitterness” on this issue. The Govt. is also hoping its key allies SP and BSP who stand opposed to foreign superstores will bail it out through abstention from voting. Though SP and BSP continue to give mix signals and are keeping everyone guessing. To muster a simple majority mark in the Rajya Sabha, the Govt. requires votes from the 15-member BSP and abstention by 9 SP parliamentarians.

The likely parliamentary position is as follows:-

Lok Sabha Position

For FDI Retail-257

Undecided-43 (In principle all opposed to FDI Retail)

Against FDI Retail-244

Simple majority mark-272

Total Seats-545

Effective Strength-544

Rajya Sabha Position

For FDI Retail-95

Undecided-24 (In principle all opposed to FDI Retail)

Against FDI Retail-113

Nominated Members-12

Simple majority mark-123

Total Seats-245

Effective Strength-244

This will be the first such trial of strength in the 15th Parliament.  There has never been a parliamentary discussion of this sort on executive decision.

Another opportunity-The Opposition could get another opportunity to show its strength when the government later brings RBI’s amendments to Fema in the form of Fema (Third Amendment) Regulations, 2012 notification for the approval of both Houses to facilitate FDI-retail’s implementation.

Street Action-Independent retailers and street vendors would organize protest against FDI Retail at parliament on 3rd December.



Fight Over Foreign Retail (Walmart!) Entry into India Enters a New Stage

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

New Orleans      Desperate to hold onto power with national elections coming in 2013 and beset by crises over coal, telecom, and slowing growth, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, announced modifications in foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail, potentially paving the way for Walmart, Carrefour, Tesco, Metro, and other multi-national companies to enter the growing Indian market directly with 51% control rather than as secondary partners.  Singh was quoted in the Times saying “The time for big-bang reforms has come and if we go down, we will go down fighting.”  ACORN International’s affiliate ACORN India and the Indian FDI Watch Campaign, which have been fighting for accountability before modifications for the last half-dozen years, believe Singh’s remarks could be prophetic, if in fact these changes are now implemented.

Make no mistake, we and others have issued a press release yesterday in Delhi and have joined the call for nationwide protests on Monday (see below), so the fight is on, but as we enter this next stage of this long campaign the skepticism in the financial press about whether this will all now come to pass is not only passed on the political difficulties which led to a parliamentary crisis last fall, but also about the significant concessions we won over time and during the “suspension” of the government’s earlier action.  Reviewing briefly, they include the following:

  • 30% of products have to be Indian sourced.  We have argued that without such a provision, India was going to be flooded by Walmart’s Chinese sourcing.
  • 50% of investment has to be infrastructure within 3-years that supports better sourcing from Indian farmers and others.  We have argued that community benefits were essential.
  • None of this applies to anything other than cities over 1 million people and their suburban rings within 6.2 miles of the town center.  We have argued that the character of the Indian economy and its existing employment had to be protected.

There’s more including the trump card that none of this can happen without being approved by the state governments and the individual localities.   In a number of major states, like West Bengal with its mega-city, Kolkata (Calcutta), the governor has already rejected these modifications.  In some of the most populated states, there have also been indications of rejection.  In short, were this to emerge from Parliament, this is the beginning of the new fight, just moving to another stage, a more local stage where we are stronger frankly and one that will play out over coming years.  Even the Times and the Wall Street Journal, both of which were quick to embrace the government’s proposed actions last fall as fait accompli were restrained this time and noted that this might still not come to pass even at the national level.

In a country of small shopkeepers, traders, hawkers, street vendors and others employing more than 10 million as workers, this change has significant impact.  This campaign has long legs and continues to move quickly.

Below is the press statement of Dharmendra Kumar and the India FDI Watch Campaign:

New Delhi 14th Sept. 2012

PRESS STATEMENT                         

Immediately Stop the removal of the suspension on FDI in Retail

Leaders of mass organizations of street vendors, workers, small shopkeepers, small manufacturers, joined by civil society organizations, consumer activists, environmentalists strongly condemned the Govt. of India decision to remove the suspension on FDI in multi-brand retail.

In a press statement issued here today, Mr. Shaktiman Ghosh, General Secretary, National Hawker Federation, said that the decision has nullified the Govt. approval to Street Vendors (protection of livelihood and regulating street vending) Bill 2012. He said that livelihood of hawkers cannot be protected merely by creating vending zones if corporations are allowed to out-compete them in streets. He demanded a complete ban all corporations selling fruits, vegetables, groceries, and daily use goods. He also demanded that no corporate store should be allowed within a 2 km radius of areas with a density of hawkers. He informed that National Hawker Federation would organize protests on Monday and Tuesday in all over India.

Dharmendra Kumar, Director, India FDI Watch said that the Govt. decision is a blow to parliamentary democracy and alleged that Govt. has backstabbed the nation after promising in the parliament to not to take the decision unless a consensus is reached. Mr. Kumar further alleged that India is kneeling down under pressure from US and European governments and their industry lobbyists as it still has no binding commitment on multi-brand retail services in multilateral, regional or bilateral agreements. He termed the cabinet decision for 51% in multibrand retail as letting off wild bulls of giant retailers without checks and balances such as regulations on number, size, location and provision of an economic needs test for opening a store as is the case in many countries around the world.

Kishan bir choudhary, Chairman, Bhartiya Krishak Samaj (Indian Farmers Forum) stated that FDI in retail would lead to monopoly of agricultural market and farmers would be taken for a ride by corporations. FDI backed retailers would dictate terms to farmers under contract farming and would turn independent farming families as bonded labour.

Vijay Prakash Jain, General Secretary, Bhartiya Udyog Vyapar Mandal (All India Federation of Traders and Manufacturers) termed the cabinet committee on political affairs decision as disaster for small traders and micro, small and medium industries.

Mr. Mohan Gurnani, President, Federation of Associations of Maharashtra said that our Govt. is refusing to learn from the experiences around the world and even failing to learn from its own experience of not being able to stop foreign cash and carry wholesalers from circumventing rules. He said that the infamous retail giant of the world Wal-Mart has entered from the back door using Bharti-Airtel as its fig leaf circumventing the wholesale cash & Carry permission. This is a gross transgression of the intention behind Wholesale Cash and Carry Permission. He accused that Bharti is only a thin cover for Wal-Mart’s profit making proclivities as it will only function as a fixed margin operator. The warning bells are dire for our small manufacturers, suppliers, shopkeepers and street vendors.”

street vendors in New Delhi


Big Claims and Baby Steps for Corporate Social Responsibility in India

CSR wall painting at Xavier Institute of Engineering

Mumbai    A week ago in Delhi I read an interesting argument on the op-ed page of the Economic Times by Kiran Karnik in which he argued that businesses in Indian needed to start going beyond the simple limits of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and begin a direct “engagement with the government and, importantly, civil society organizations on matters of social consequence – going beyond the narrow interests of business.”  He mentioned examples including land acquisition (development), environment, mining, and water, but the list could also include sanitation, education, housing, poverty, and more.  Such engagement he reasoned was superior to the simple (and sometimes simple-minded) rupee-based “philanthropy” of CSR because he called on corporations to use the full range of their power and influence, including on issues like human rights, corruption, governance, and even accept “a duty to promote the welfare of all citizens, to democratic and egalitarian values, and to the country….”

Part of the backdrop for such a high-minded call arises from an increasing consensus in many sectors of Indian society that holds that solving some of India’s more intractable problems requires a different level of CSR for its companies.  There is discussion about making CSR a mandatory expenditure for all companies.  As Karnik indicated, “The new Companies Bill may well include a clause on this [CSR] – probably a ‘comply or explain’ provision.”  Heady stuff!

On the ground level we are ready for a lot more CSR to meet the huge needs for support for ACORN’s organizing in Dharavi and elsewhere in India, but our experience with the reality is often with baby steps from smaller outfits, rather than the big claims made by Karnik.  Many of our partners have developed relationships with us that are remarkable, like the Blue Frog jazz club, the Xavier Institute of Engineering, the American School and others.  Sometimes the lessons of CSR are harder.  A bank with 125 volunteers wanting to paint classrooms ended up making the wall around Xavier more lively, but having their eyes larger than their stomachs, we ended up scrambling to pay for the paint!  In other cases companies have met our desperate needs for space by offering to build sheds next to temples, not realizing that a significant percentage of our wastepickers are Muslim!   We hope we’ll get there certainly, but the learning curve is steep and requires a lot of bridge building.

It would be interesting to see if India made CSR mandatory or at least a default that had to be addressed.  The gap between common or community interest proposed by Karnik and the more common first impulses of many business here “to build their brand” or claim they are “doing good” in some marginal way, regardless of the practice, are still mostly “business as usual” for CSR in India.   Of course that’s not surprising really, since that is also the way CSR works in the USA, Canada, and most of the rest of the world as well.

discarded books donated by the American School