Middle Class Movement Takes Needs than Wishing and Hoping in India

IMG_1065Mumbai     I’ve been coming to India regularly for over a decade now, several times per year for many years and annually more recently.  There have been visible changes, tall apartment blocks growing like weeds, highways under endless construction finally completed, more people with more money more visible, but all of this in a death grip alongside and frequently oblivious to the same grinding, relentless poverty of even more people.  How does change come to a nation of 1.1 billion people?  Very slowly, very slowly.

            On the eve of coming national elections, the rising of the middle class is an undeniable factor and part of the conversation of change.  Their cry for more transparency, less corruption, and more protection for women in public and private spaces has found not only voice but some political weight in emerging parties.  Nonetheless, their issues will not be what turns this election, and it is not just because of their lack of organization.  They simply don’t have the numbers yet and haven’t done the work to build the bridges to offset their weakness. 

Their strength is in some of the cities, but even there for example internet usage, according to Google, is 37% in urban areas, while the government statistics estimate total internet access at approximately 93 million.  Certainly, these are big, fat numbers, but nationally they are less than 10% of the population.  They are caught in an echo chamber where their own voices are vibrating back to them, louder and louder, but little heard otherwise, and, elsewhere, too much is as it ever was.

Vinod Shetty, ACORN India’s director in Mumbai, and I had a challenging conversation with two dynamic women community organizers trying to find their way to a workable model to engage the new India they sought to activate around modern values and sensibilities.  They had tried and abandoned a model of selecting associates of sorts to train and support in various organizing projects around Mumbai and had applied themselves with great energy and significant resources to the task, but had shifted gears.  Why?  The director stated simply and flatly, “not enough capacity.”  The meaning of the simple phrase was two-fold.  On the one hand a fledgling organization like theirs was ill equipped to chase all over a city of 18 million to realistically support at any effective level more than a half-dozen mini-campaigns chosen somewhat at whim by the trainees themselves.  On the other hand without her fully saying so, it became obvious in their experience that there was no way to simply graft on to their trainees their theory of change unless they could also figure out a way to actually demonstrate and model  what change and organizing would look like.

Their insight might seem obvious, but it is one still missing in Indian society at large, where this emerging middle class is hoping that speaking truth to power can in fact change the way power works.  Reading the editorialists in countless papers, they are frustrated that somehow politicians are adjusting without either embracing change or fundamentally adapting to a different political climate and culture.   The miscalculation of the Common Man party in having won the right to govern in Delhi, but then forfeiting the position in less than two months is a case in point.  Hard questions are facing their candidates around the country on whether they are quitters or “doers.”  In effect people are asking why they should waste their votes on the party, if they are not going to demonstrate the ability to establish through government the changes on the issues they advocated.  Our organizing comrades may be searching for sure footing, but at least they already understand, they are going to have demonstrate what they are advocating, which seems to have been an elementary lesson overlooked by the new middle-class reformers.

Meanwhile according to Google, the most common uses of their searches right now in the run-up to the election are two.  One is what the caste is of Modi, the BJP frontrunner.  The other is whether or not Rahul Gandhi, the emerging spokesperson for the Congress Party, is a Christian.  

As I said, change comes very slowly.

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Visiting the Labor Courts of Bombay

IMG_1060Mumbai   A call from a judge in the labor court of Bombay interrupted our meeting, so I tagged along to get a better sense of the Industrial Court system, which along with a Labour Commissioner and many others managed the labor laws of Mumbai and Maharashtra.   The courts were in East Bandra, not surprisingly less than five minutes from Vinod Shetty’s office, where we had been meeting, and where he was also licensed to practice as an advocate.

            My first hint at what lay before us was his delay in getting out of the car as he tied on a white front piece under his collar in the British tradition that still abided as tradition in the court and fetched a black coat from the back seat of the SUV.  Later instructions included standing if a judge entered the courtroom, not crossing your legs, and god knows what else if we stumbled into a trial.  This was certainly not an appearance before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in the United States, though there were many other similarities.

            The judge had been prickly because he was replying to an effort by Vinod to have additional, critical documents entered into the record for the case, after the judge had wanted an end to it.  The judge had decided to allow them, but it had to be right now or never, so we’d come running, feeling fortunate to have been in the neighborhood.  The other twist in the matter turned out to have been that the worker involved had simply decided to add some additional records to the evidence so all of the numbering was off now on the various documents so everyone was in a bit of a snit at this breach of protocol and procedure.

            More interestingly the case involved a transfer.   A popular way that companies try to get rid of union troublemakers it developed was to transfer them to some far flung, remote location where the company had operations elsewhere in the state, hoping to push the worker out.  The burden on the union then was to prove that this transfer was retaliation for union activity, which like similar matters under the NLRB was never an easy climb.  Another frequent bone of contention was whether or not there was effectively a reduction in pay and benefits through the transfer, which, like in the USA, would be discriminatory, so that was also another area of attack.  One problem in transfer cases that judges would often point out, ruefully, was that they were also required without protest to accept transfer anywhere in the jurisdiction, so….

If anything though the procedures in the Bombay labor courts were more burdensome than those in the United States under the NLRB, because everything went before a judge, rather than there being investigators and a hearing before an administrative body appealable to a hearing and decision by an administrative law judge before appeal to the overall board and potentially federal court, if you live long enough.  The Industrial Court meant that everything from the first order went to a judge, and then could be appealable to the Labour Commissioner, and little past that from what I could gather, but all of it, if anything took longer than in the states.  Similar to the US, practice before the Industrial Court did not require a law degree and a union representative could in fact handle the matter, though, also similar to the US, as the proceedings, procedure, and pleadings became more complicated and the company’s lawyers were ever present, lawyers were more privileged in the process. 

The case records and filings were piled on tables and shelves and tied with string and then muslin to keep them together and protect against the elements.  With fans humming and windows open in the hot and often humid climate of Mumbai, nature would not have been allowed to sit long in the judge’s courtroom without inflicting severe damage.  Another lawyer told me that the process of converting to electronic records and record keeping was coming soon, though it would take a while, and of course it is only relatively recently in the USA that briefs before the NLRB can be filed electronically, so there’s no shaming intended here. 

In the meantime an army of clerks were fluttering everywhere to handle the records in our case with four present along with the opposing attorney, our worker, the judge, Vinod, a tea walla, and me, as a fly sitting curiously in the room an observer to the slow, inching forward motion of progress for worker justice in the labor courts of Bombay. 

           

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