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.



Pro-Development Modi Government Attacking Unions and Workers

IMG_2967Bengaluru       Suresh Kadashan, ACORN’s head organizer for South India based in Bengaluru, and I started our day as usual at the India Coffeehouse, run by the national Coffee Board.  Even before we left for the series of buses, the G8 and the K2, that would take us to meet with some of our street vendor leaders in market places we were still trying to organize as well as ones where we had won big victories, Suresh began briefing me on some of the one-year old BJP conservative Modi government’s attacks on labor in order to curry favor from business and big developers.

In short, Modi’s so-called “labor law reforms” are a direct attack on millions of workers in the name of more efficiency by consolidating various labor laws.  The basic pitch by the government is to streamline forty-four different labor laws into only five of them, and as Suresh explained it to me to put all disputes with unions and workers into one Labor Court.  Unions are in an uproar and making a decision on a national general strike at the end of May in protest to these proposed new law consolidations.

It’s not just a matter of having to deal with a bureaucracy.   One Modi proposal is to eliminate coverage and labor law protection to small factories and enterprises with less than 40 workers.  According to one union leader:

the main purpose of the Small Factories Bill is to keep 70-80 per cent workforce out of the existing labour laws which provides some rights to them.

That’s a lot of workers.   In another proposal companies would no longer have to consult with the government before laying off workers where one-hundred or more are employed.  The new requirement would be pushed up to three-hundred workers.


The new laws beside greasing the wheels for business and eliminating much of the already flimsy safety net for India’s workers also directly attack union organizing, which got my attention as well.

The unions are more agitated with the proposal according to which at least 10% of the work force or 100 employees will be needed for registering a trade union. At present, seven members can form a trade union irrespective of size of the establishment.


Although our organizing is largely in the informal sector among hawkers, domestic workers, auto rickshaw drivers, and recyclers, we depend on unions, though relatively small in India but heavily concentrated in the public sector, as important political allies to provide ballast in the basic push for workers’ rights to organize and to protect livelihood.   Because various national federations are usually aligned with specific political parties there is usually a hedge against drastic repression.  The union partner of the governing BJP is as mad as all of the other formations, which is a clear sign of bad trouble.


The government has made it clear that these are steps they are taking to create “a better business climate.”   That is surely a program that translates into trouble for workers!

Before calling it a day and running for the G9 bus, we looked at the new market space we had won for our hawkers under the flyover.  I had listened to our members talk about this last year, and now the first part is build and numbered and waiting for the allotment to our hawkers.

Unfortunately this seems to be just the kind of union victory that the Modi government wants to try and legislate away.











Pro-Development Indian Government Cracking Down on NGOs

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credit: Greenpeace

Bengaluru       Arriving at my lodging in Bengaluru after 2 AM in the morning holds some surprises.  One is the emptiness and quiet of the streets, normally full of horns blaring and the constant jockeying of cars, motorcycles, carts, cows, and hapless pedestrians braving all.  The other is how much is going on in the relative quiet with stores selling, factories cranking, and workers on other time clocks pressing forward in the dark of the night.

In the light of the day with bleary eyes, one of the first pieces of news to hit me was the report of the US Ambassador’s speech chiding the Indian government on its crackdown on nonprofits and reminding the “world’s largest democracy,” as India constantly calls itself, perhaps protesting too much, that NGOs have a vital role in civil society.  Certainly crackdowns on NGOs are not uncommon in the world today in notoriously repressive governments.  For example the Organizers’ Forum delegations have seen Russia and Egypt on a tear in recent years to peel back the work of any nonprofits, usually claiming reporting violations as the excuse.  This repression of NGOs almost a year into the new government of the BJP’s Prime Minister Modi may finally answer the question of his true colors.

The Ambassadors’ remarks may be news, but the emerging campaign against nonprofits has been building for months now.  In October 2014, the Home Ministry had given more than 10000 NGOs that had licenses to receive contributions under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) a month to file financial reports with the government alleging that they had not done so for three consecutive years from 2009 to 2012. According to newspaper reports of the 10,344 NGOs so notified only 229 replied. The Outlook reported:

There was no reply from the remaining NGOs leading to cancellation of their registration issued under FCRA….   Among the registration’s cancelled 8,975 NGOs include 510 NGOs against whom notices were sent but returned undelivered.

At one level this might seem reasonable.  After all India will no doubt allege that the USA is the pot calling the kettle black since the IRS has similarly suspended the 501c3 classifications of thousands of nonprofits as well for failure to file annual 990 reports for three consecutive years.

The rationalization is punctured though by the revelation early in the Modi Government of a secret report.  As reported by the Centre for Civil Society, a respected Indian nonprofit:

The controversial leaked report on NGOs was prepared for the new government by the Intelligence Bureau, an internal security agency. It called out several international organizations, including Amnesty International, Action Aid, and the Netherlands’ CORDAID for harming developmental projects relating to coal plants, oil exploration, nuclear plants, steel, and mining.  The report singled out Greenpeace India, which was mentioned 15 times. It alleges that Greenpeace India is using foreign funds to hurt economic progress by campaigning against power projects, mining, and genetically modified food. The home ministry has asked India’s central bank to stop processing foreign contributions to Greenpeace.

The report claimed that activism by foreign funded and Indian licensed NGOs who were blocking development projects was contributing to a “2 to 3 percent drop in the Indian economy.”  For Modi, that was probably more than enough given his long record of economic boosterism from Gujarat that led to his sweeping election victory.

Greenpeace India has announced that it may have to close operations within the month.  Though they claim they are now bringing in 60% of their revenue from donations inside of India, they believe their inability to fully pay staff could force them to shutdown.  Not only advocacy groups, but even the US-office of the Ford Foundation in India has been told it cannot issue any grants in India without governmental approval.  This crackdown is hardly trivial.  The Centre for Civil Society also reports that…

In the year ending in March 2011, the most recent period for which data is available, about 22,000 Indian NGOs received a total of more than $2 billion from abroad, of which $650 million came from the US.

In New York, in a conference of environmentalists listening to glowing reports of the Modi government’s claim to be decreasing India’s dependence on coal, people were excited about Modi.  When asked my opinion of the prospects for the new government, I would only say, “We’re skeptical, so we’ll wait and see.”

What we’re seeing of the government’s attack on nonprofits augurs very poorly for the future under Modi.


Please enjoy Jeff Beck’s Going Down, Thanks to Kabf.