Virjesh Upadhyay, 55, was reelected as general secretary of India’s largest national trade union, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), for a second three-year term at its triennial session in May. BMS has been India’s No 1 union for over 18 years now, and has a membership of 1.75 crore workers. The Kanpur triennial of the union was noted for its unusually strong resolutions on the Modi government’s policies and functioning, coming as they did from the BMS, perceived to be a part of the ruling Sangh parivar. In an interview with DEEPAK RAZDAN, the BMS leader answered questions on what he thought of the NDA government’s three years, its economic policy and the jobs situation. Excerpts:
Q: How do you rate the three years of the Modi government?
A: This government’s initial initiatives, thought process, policy-making, transparency, corruption-free record have made it distinctive from other governments. It has been far better than any previous government in all these aspects.
Q: What are the achievements of the government, in your view?
A: Achievements, especially in the economic fields, employment sector… it is too early to make any conclusions, or to say whether things are right or wrong. We have to wait for some time to judge the results. The policy-initiatives will take some time to deliver results.
Q: In what ways has the Modi government been different from the UPA government?
A: The difference is clear to see. There has been no scam since the government came into office. The UPA government was full of scams.
There have been many pro-poor initiatives, though their results are not visible. Compared to the earlier government, the number of initiatives has been many, though their results are yet to be computed. Looking at their policies, thought process, decisionmaking, we can say they are doing better,
Q: Which economic policies will you want this government to modify or change?
A: The entire economic policy needs a paradigm shift. The global economy is in a crisis. There is recession. Unemployment, poverty, inequalities are rising. The whole world, IMF, World Bank, are looking for solutions. The World Bank has said both capitalist and socialist systems have failed to give answers. We need a third way out. So, we are asking for a paradigm shift in the economy. There has been no change in the economic policy or roadmap since Independence and no positive results are showing.
Q: In what ways should this paradigm shift in policies become evident?
A: We agree all initiatives cannot belong to the government; both public and private participation is required. What is happening in our economy is that wealth generated is getting centralised. That’s why we see unemployment and poverty rising. Even 70 years after Independence, we are unable to ensure payment of minimum wages.
Market economy is buyer-purchaser economy, and purchasing power comes from wages, which we are not able to ensure. There are inequalities in income; there should be some ethical cap on the higher wages. Even the Pope advocated observance of ethics in business. This was Hindu philosophy too. The world is now accepting the Indian concept of trusteeship. We need an ethical economic framework. This is what we are seeking.
Q: How is the job situation today?
A: Jobs are declining world-wide. We are all part of a global economy, India is not out of this. We are very much in a crisis of unemployment and under-employment. We are unable to create jobs. The government never provided jobs to all; the maximum employment was in the selfemployed sector. If the government wants jobs for all, it should concentrate on self-employment and traditional vocations followed by people. The government should promote, subsidise and compensate the selfemployment sector.
We are an agro-based economy. They want to convert agriculture into industry; that is just the reverse of what should happen. If we could promote agriculture and the self-employment sector, we could bring ease in the employment situation.
Q: At the Kanpur conference, you complained you are not consulted on economic issues?
A: We want all stakeholders to have their say in the policies issued by NITI Aayog. There are no representatives of farmers, workers or micro and small industry in NITI Aayog. All big shots, Harvard students are making policies. They don’t have a real connect with Indian concerns or concepts. That is why we are saying it should be reconstituted and stakeholders should be made part of this policy-making body.
Q: Your conference opposed disinvestment in public sector units, called them temples of modern India, but the disinvestment proposals come every day.
A: The government is wrong. Disinvestment in PSUs is totally against the interest of the Indian economy. Public sector in India is not doing business only. We are wrong in comparing or equating them with private players, forgetting they fulfill many social obligations. Public sector is not outside the market economy, which runs on purchasing power of the people, for which a decent wage is required. Public sector is a model of decent wages. The Indian market is surviving because of the public sector employees’ purchasing power. This was proved when the market waited every day for the Seventh Pay Commission report because that meant better wages for government and PSU employees, and their expenditure could push the economy.
We have the best doctors in the country, engineers, professionals ~ 90 per cent of them are wards of gover nment and public sector employees.
Only 10 per cent come from the business community and others. Suppose this public sector with permanent employees was not there. Contract workers with Rs 10,000 monthly wage would not have produced such highly educated children. Disinvestment of Indian public sector is therefore not desirable.
Q: Do you think MGNREGA wages should have parity with minimum wages?
A: Better living cannot be ensured without better wages. MGNREGA workers should be treated as workers and given minimum wages. Whosoever is called a worker, the concept of worker should be applied to him and minimum wage should be paid to him.
Q; Do you think Indian labour is more secure today?
A: There is no security at all. No labour laws are being observed.
Enforcement mechanism is poor. After 70 years of Independence, we have not been able to ensure payment of even minimum wages. There is no safety or security at all. We have a large number of laws.
The government enacts legislation and is responsible for implementing them.
The Contract Workers Act prohibits employment of workers on contract for jobs of perennial nature, but all government departments and PSUs are appointing workers on contract. This is violative of law.
Even the Supreme Court directive for equal pay for equal work is not being implemented.
In the case of violation of law by private firms, there is provision for prosecution. But here the government itself is the rule-maker and the government itself is violating the rules.