China May Drop the Stock Market, but India is in Turmoil

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 9.51.50 AMKiln, Mississippi     So while all the big whoops worry about their 10ks, plummeting stocks on Wall Street, and whether or not the Fed raises interest rates in Wyoming, what are the rest of us supposed to do? We have grown men and women believing in unicorns and giving them billions. What’s up that that? I thought only very small children and Rainbow Brite believed in unicorns?

No one seems to have a grip on China and one report contradicts another. The economy is collapsing, they are laying off 300,000 soldiers even while they are motor boating into international water space when President Obama is hiking in Alaska, and still more people are buying Apple’s gadgets over there. Somehow China owns a big hunk of America, but it’s a daily mystery to most of us. So, let’s take a break and take a look at India. There’s a democracy of sorts and a country maybe we can understand.

Here’s what we know: India is somewhere between topsy-turvy and turmoil!

Prime Minister Modi took office in a rightwing rout as the BJP, a conservative communalist party swept the long serving Congress Party out of office. Modi had been the governor of Gujarat and, pretending it was Texas, he had campaigned on the supposed economic miracles in the state. Others were less sure. There was still the persistent question about his role in not stopping the slaughter of Muslims in the state some years ago which had been serious enough to deny him a visa for entry into the United States up until like yesterday almost. Much of his platform seemed to be economic development or else, and it is hard to ramrod such a program through a country with even a semblance of democracy.

Attempts to gut the nation’s labor laws to pave the way for business were met this week by a general protest strike called by ten unions that organizers estimated involved 125 million workers. Al Jazeera quoted ACORN India and our hawkers’ union organizer, Dharmendra Kumar, saying

The Modi government has turned a blind eye towards the problems being faced by the labor class. The government must rethink its labor policies. Modi has made a mockery of us by telling the world to come and manufacture in India because it has the cheapest labor.

Kumar also repeated the call for an increase in the monthly minimum wage “from $72 to $226 be extended to the informal sector.”

Ok, you say, but maybe this is just us. Well, I don’t think so.

This week the Modi government also withdrew its proposals for seizing agricultural land for either government infrastructure projects or corporate economic development, which had been a centerpiece of his program to jump-start the economy and make the country more business friendly. Land issues have been wildly contentious in states throughout the country. Modi got a reminder that rapidly urbanizing India is still almost half rural and agrarian.

And, then there’s the mess in Gujarat. Friends volunteering in Gujarat’s largest city had offered to help out while in the state, and I’d demurred saying we continued to not be comfortable working in Gujarat, but thanks all the same. We got an email saying that demonstrations of 300000 to half-million people in the city had led to them being housebound for days as the military was mustered and the state feared a return of communal violence. The issue was triggered when one of the major castes totally almost 15% of the total state population known as popularly as the Patels hit the streets demanding either an end to the reservation or quota system of affirmative action in employment and education for long discriminated against groups or that they should be made a registered caste themselves and allowed to compete for the reserved slots. Reading the story in the Times, Journal, or other western sources and you are clueless, but this is the “fire next time” in India, and it is hard to believe that managing such a crisis is Modi’s strong suit given his history in Gujarat.

Good luck with figuring out China and believing in unicorns, but keep an eye on India. There’s a reason that Obama has established a “hotline” to Modi in India now. Something big is boiling there!

Make No Mistake, India’s Modi is Not a Progressive on Any Score


Vinod Shetty of ACORN Foundation of India and the Dharavi Project

New Orleans    In one of those rare and marvelous coincidences, I had foregone my annual trip to Mumbai, because Vinod Shetty of ACORN Foundation of India and the Dharavi Project was amazingly going to be in New Orleans when I returned, giving us days to catchup on events there and elsewhere in India.

Invariably at the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse Dialogue and elsewhere, the subject would come around to Prime Minister Modi’s first year in office and the prospects for the country in the years to come.  Shetty could not have been more pessimistic or clearer in his continued warning of the dangers to come under Modi as his increasingly rightwing, conservative BJP party continues to consolidate power.

As a lawyer or advocate who practices still before the Bombay Labor Court, Shetty said that in meetings he had attended to discuss the Modi proposed labor law clawbacks of union and worker rights, even HMS, now the country’s largest union, and the union traditionally allied with the BJP as their patron, has been strident in arguing its case in opposition
to the changes.  Shetty was convinced that not all of the package will be approved, but also believed that Modi and the government will be relentless in trying to erode these rights.The primary example is the state of Rajasthan, where many of these so-called reforms have already been implemented in modified ways where the state could act in areas not preempted by the central government.  There, in order to allow layoffs in enterprises with 100 workers or more, Rajasthan had extended the severance payments from 30 to 45 days in exchange for eliminating the state approval of the layoff.   The Modi proposal is to eviscerate protections for workers from redundancy below 300 in a workplace.

The message being sent by the attack on NGOs from the Modi government is essentially, shut up or starve.The clear objective of the government is to silence opposition to development and business wherever possible.  The exceptional inclusion of action against the Ford Foundation is a signal in Shetty’s view to one and all that the government will only approve grants that are pristinely free of anything remotely like advocacy.  Toe the government line or else!

Shetty predicts that underlying some of the government initiatives will be special emphasis on curtailing NGOs and other efforts by religious organizations of all stripes other than Hindu. The Modi record from Gujarat is frightening, and Shetty believes more is coming.

Meanwhile The Wall Street Journal accuses Modi of not moving quickly enough to force the coal industry to be more productive and efficient, citing numerous business interests throughout India, contrary to the hopes of environmentalists around the world who had thought they were seeing something different in the early signs from Modi.  Others are
clamoring for a change in tax rules, a cutback in subsidies to the poor, and other radical changes.

Modi probably thinks that opening a front against NGOs and labor will be enough red meat to quiet his business backers demanding more radical changes, but for the Indian people none of this seems like good news to come.


The Street Vendors Act 2014

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 9.47.54 AMDelhi               After eight days on the ground in India and two days in the air and endless discussions of the formally named THE STREET VENDORS (PROTECTION OF LIVELIHOOD AND REGULATION OF STREET VENDING ACT, 2014, which has become our primary organizing tool since formal passage and enactment on May 1, 2014, it was clearly time for me to read the full Act and understand the handles completely.   This is where the promise and problems with the Act become clearer.

At most levels the Act is everything we had hoped – and said – in one market place after another and used effectively in the first year of its enactment.  Where the licensing of street vendors had largely disappeared years ago leaving the vast majority of vendors technically operating illegally, the Act allows them a path to legalization.  Key in paving this road is something the Act calls the Town Vending Committee, which is responsible for putting together the plan, surveying the spaces, monitoring the whole operation, and hearing potential grievances.  These committees were to be appointed with some permanent members like the area’s medical officer and other governmental officials, but also members of the nonprofit community, local unions and associations of vendors.  Most importantly the published bill specified that forty percent of the committee, including thirty percent women, would be composed of vendors themselves to be elected through a locally created procedure by their comrades.

The vending committees were all supposed to be up and running within six months of the Act’s implementation and have their work ready for primetime within a year after passage, and here is where we start to find the rough edges dragging.  A year later most of the town vending committees have not been established, and the draft bill’s protections and process for forty percent vendor representation may not have emerged in the final form of the Act, leaving even more confusion and more responsibility in local Indian states and cities to freelance the process within the overall guarantees of vendor protection.   The Act is also murky on what point the central government steps in to assure the rights if local authorities fumble.

The protections are real.  There will be vending areas.  The vendors will have a right to the streets, sidewalks, and other areas.  There is a guarantee of a licensing process and some flexibility allowing there to be a number of licensed vendors up to a ceiling of 2.5% of the population of the ward, city, and so forth, which would allow legalization, identification, and protection against harassment.

The problems though are equally real.  There is no definition of “public purpose” that would allow removal, even though there is a guarantee of alternate locations.  The vendors’ protections are mainly familial on license transfers and the definitions require the vending be the primary income for the vendor, some of which doesn’t align with the realities on the street.  The grievance procedure is silent on whether the vendor can be represented by his or her union, which is critical to us obviously.

In short, we have a rough handle which seems certain to force us into innumerable fights in order to translate the general protections into realistic and workable safeguards at the local level.  The Act at best is a skeleton that needs to be fleshed out.  It’s no wonder our union has been growing so rapidly in south India over the last year.  Vendors can see the future with hope, but are realistic that without a union their chances at getting there in one piece are close to zero.   To make this work for the vendors in any way, shape or form will take years and years of difficult battles place to place, space to space, town to town, city to city, and state to state.

India Notes for My Father

IMG_3096Bengaluru     Every trip is an education.   Every trip to India is a contradiction.

The Chennai train station had free wi-fi for one hour, but so few seats that most people sat on the floor.  The Bengaluru airport is almost new, build by a French company on a 20-year concession before it will be claimed by the government, so in the city that bills itself the Silicon Valley of India, there’s no wi-fi, or basically none, since the promise of something comes from the giant Indian monopoly, Tata, for 45 minutes, accessible by a text message to your nonexistent local phone. Perhaps worse, flying from Bengaluru to Delhi to journey home a bag checked in Bengaluru would have to be reclaimed in Delhi, because the domestic and international terminals are a 20 minute or more bus trip apart.  Let’s not make it easy to come or go in India.

Of course being dropped at the airport in Bengaluru is still the easy road home.  Suresh Kadashan, ACORN India’s director in south India left me at the airport to have the car roll him home for a minute and then to the train station to make a 5:00 rail to a city at the very border of Karnataka and Maharashtra, fourteen hours away on the train, to deal with the threatened closing of a market there for ten days which would
devastate our members.  I’ll be over the Atlantic Ocean halfway to Newark before he shows up at 7AM.

We were both relieved to be on our way to the next ports of call though in some ways, not because of the work or the problems postponed, like this big market crisis, but because for major parts of four days we were joined by various locally contracted crews for two different documentary films in various stages of completion somewhere between help and hope.  Both sets of directors promised faithfully that their interest was simply to follow us around, being virtually invisible so they could capture the truth of our work.  The reality was wildly different, though all were well intentioned, we were organizing somewhere near the theater of the absurd.  In some cases the photographers were clueless, unable to navigate the local languages in either Chennai or Bengaluru, while expecting we would feed and ferry them about.  In others situations they confused documentary for high drama, and we were asked to stage tourist gawking, bus riding, and any manner of other scenes, we politely declined.  We had directors hither and yon that we had to remind repeatedly that we were organizers.  All meant well, and no doubt, all will end well, but what a relief to be free of our one-eyed camera shadows and their various helpers!   What an experience – never again!

On the other hand,  this morning at the flyover market,  I was able to study carefully the process where one of our leaders, and alternately his father, made giant, thin dosas that looked exactly like giant, thin pancakes coming off the grill.  They are made of rice flour though and in many ways the texture is more like a crepe.  It was hard not to imagine cranking them out as a specialty of our coffeehouses in New Orleans with
cinnamon, sugar, and any manner of other treats.  Talking to our vendor, between 630 AM and 1130 when he closes he serves more than 400 breakfasts of idlys, dosas, and more to a steady stream of people, charging twenty rupees for a full place and ten rupees for a half-plate, essentially between a 20 and 35 cents USD for the meal.  They look like hotcakes, and they sold like hotcakes.

Summer in India runs between March and May before the monsoons come. A daughter of one man we met was out of school.  Our vendor’s father was helping during the dry season before returning to his village to plant.   Summer is waiting for me on the other end of this trip once I hit the south again, but otherwise the world awaits, ever changing.



The Law of the Streets

talking to a police harassing us that is in Chennai in the Mint Road market

talking to a police harassing us that is in Chennai in the Mint Road market

Bengaluru       In Chennai and Bengaluru, the issue we continued to hear in every market where we visited with our members was the police.  Every day was a continual battle for space and the streets.   We may have gotten a law passed in Delhi, but without power, literally in the streets, it wouldn’t matter to our members.

Part of the problem is the push-and-shove between the hawkers and the police over every foot in the sidewalk and every inch into the street.  Some of this we can see in the streets of every major city even in the United States where people are rolling out their wares on street corners and bundling them up quickly when they see a cop car on the street in a continual cat-and-mouse game.  The law in India makes this different, because now there are some rights, but a street seller needs to get as close to the crowd of pedestrians as possible, and that’s part of the rub.

And, the reason why the police in India continue to want their palms greased, sometimes up to 100 rupees per day, which many of our hawkers continue to begrudgingly be forced to pay.  For the members, even when they join together and win as a union, if they were forced from their space even for a couple of days, as any small businessperson would realize, that means that they have to rebuild their regular customer base.   A food vendor in Bengaluru who was our leader in the area had worked his particular corner for 20 years, complained to us about having been pushed out for three days by the police, and now, weeks later, was still trying to reconnect to his customers.  He asked Suresh if it would have been easier to keep paying the bribe.  The question wasn’t rhetorical.

In Chennai, we walked a long way up and down the Mint Road Market.  The market runs almost four kilometers.  Some shops and sellers can date their business 80 years.  Under the new Act, any market over fifty years is a “heritage” market and has even more protection from dislocation.  Yet, as we walked towards the end of one terminus of the market with our leaders there, two policemen still, noticing the crowd around us, thought it was worth their time to come over and hassle us about what we were doing and try to edge their way into some semblance of control of the streets, claiming we were blocking traffic.  On Mint Road the streets truly belong to the people, but the display by the police made a point nonetheless.

Suresh’s phone kept ringing as we visited markets in Bengaluru with calls from Mangalore and Mysore, where city officials and police where threatening to bulldoze markets.  We watched a documentary one evening that Dharmendra Kumar had brought down from Delhi over the weekend.  Both he and Suresh had helped explain the situation with foreign direct investment and the hawkers to the Indian-Canadian filmmaker, and were credited with help and translation in the film, but it had taken Dharmendra four years to finally get a copy.  We relished the part that focused on the fight we had waged to protect a 350 year old market in Bengaluru and interviews with one of our main leaders there and the “happy” ending as the film’s postscript when the market was saved.

Like all organizing though, winning a victory one day doesn’t change the fight the next day for other members and other campaigns and other places and spaces.   We may have won a law, but it is enforced in the streets in the constant battle between organized sellers and police pushing the other way for control of the streets and some of the old ways.  This is a battle our union has to fight every day where we have members.   There is no end in sight.

bus transfer station market in Chennai

bus transfer station market in Chennai



Green Street Elite – Stand your ground


Beautification, Fisher Folk, and Coal in Chennai


Suresh and Nity

Chennai      I had met Nityanad Jayaraman briefly in New York and promised to track him down and find out more about his work, so Suresh Kadashan and I began our day traveling across Chennai to find him.  As the auto rickshaw made its way, the police detour took us in a long sweep along the water in sight of the beach where colorful fishing boats were often pulled up on shore, men were still untangling nets, and women were selling the morning’s catch on blankets in the street.  Chennai is New Orleans hot and humid, maybe even more so natives claim, but though I had been here twice before over the last decade, it occurred to me that I had always been running to meetings or dealing with hawkers and others in the streets of the city, and had never actually been along the Bay of Bengal here, and it seemed beautiful in every way.  Suresh punctured the mood only slightly by mentioning that his fear of water was so acute that he was nervous being this close to the sea, even as we motored along.

Our meeting with Nity, as everyone calls him, was fascinating in the special way that you can stumble on someone for the first time and feel you have discovered a comrade for life who has been moving on parallel paths.  Sitting in his office only blocks from the water, he explained that his organization was “somewhat anarchistic” in the sense that it was a “collective” of sorts with a flexible membership over the last twenty years initially begun by him and several others.  They managed to stay evergreen by pulling in young people regularly for years at a time.  They were attached to an NGO that worked on some environmental projects that paid the rent on the office.  The collective defined its purpose as supporting popular struggles and campaigns through media, research, legal, and innumerable other ways, large and small.  He described himself as “an activist and journalist,” and decidedly not an organizer.


We first talked about the campaign involving the government proposed, huge coal-fired plant about 60 miles away that had been the topic when I first met Nity several months earlier.  They had been asked to help by some people in the area and concerned environmental groups some years before.  The plant proposal also involves a coal port that would level some of  the sand dunes that had saved the fishing livelihood of the communities from the devastating 2004 tsunami, and this information, perhaps more than any other factor, was moving local people to participate.  In many ways Nity felt confident that their odds of stopping the plant were very good at this point, and it was a relief to agree.


Asking him what was engaging them most in Chennai now, he quickly replied, “Beautification!”  It seems this city of almost four-and-a-half  million is being pushed by local officials, promoters, and developers – the usual gang — that what it most needs is some kind of urban uplift or beautification, particularly along the waterfront areas along the Bay of Bengal.  Translated into urban policy this is not a tree-planting-garbage-pickup proposal, but the kind of urban renewal/people removal, so familiar from the widely discredited United States experience fifty years ago.New construction would line three story buildings along the beach and wipe out the fishing families.  The first area targeted in fact turned out to be the stretch of beach where our auto rickshaw had been diverted earlier that morning.  Even more importantly, Suresh was immediately able to detail the fact that the Street Vendors Act of 2014, our current primary organizing handle for our union of hawkers and street vendors, would protect the fish vendors as well and their right to livelihood.  This animated the conversation quickly.   Suresh pulled papers out of his briefcase, shared a copy of the Act, and how it could be used in this situation, and our willingness to organize the fish sellers, while Nity and Suresh simultaneously translated the discussion into Tamil for several others in the office as they arrived.


We committed on Suresh’s next trip to beginning the work immediately.  Nity jumped at the chance to write a piece about the “beautification” projects in Chennai for the fall issue of Social Policy.  We grasped the chance at a partnership and the opportunity to be honorary members of this collective, so ready and able, fellow travelers all.



The Waterboys: “Fisherman’s Blues”