Liberalisation viewed through worker's eyes

THIS IS a worthy compilation of stories of resistance by workers to the assault on them, legitimised now by the New Economic Policy. More specifically, it tells the story of the courageous fight against closure and privatisation waged by the National Projects Construction Corp Ltd, a central public sector undertaking, by the workers of the UP Cement Corp, located in Dalla, Churk and Chunar, and the state pubic sector Auto Tractors Ltd in the state public sector and of the rise of the path- breaking Kamani workers cooperatives. In short, the booklet seeks to press home the message that there are working class alternatives to privatisation that can lead to greater productivity, greater working class control and greater involvement in management.

There is also a chapter on the heinous murder of Shankar Guha Niyogi, the Chattisgarh trade union leader and the author has no hesitation in linking the slaying to the new pro-business ("Get rich quick at all costs, we'll protect you") environment being promoted by the International Monetary fund and World Bank, and the Indian state have been out to promote. So far, so good as there is a crying need to hear the other side of the story. The market and the media are flooded with anti-worker articles and books. If in the government, there are a few labour economists, so also there are all too few materials that take up the workers' side of the picture. But the larger problems remain.

Reviving the public sector through greater, participative control by employees and even takeovers instead of selling off -- often at a pittance -- to big industrialists, is a worthy, intermediate policy alternative. Such reorganisation can pay real dividends if back-up support from sympathetic credit agencies and a more open-minded state or central administration is available. However, are these arguments for a mere welfarist, worker-oriented capitalism or are they a stage to something else? The question is crucial now, in the wake of what has happened in the former USSR and eastern Europe.

It is this question that the author avoids. Most of his case studies are of stirring rearguard action. It is the Kamani venture that has most to say about a possible alternative. Here, the interview with D Thankappan has a tantalising element about it. This was a brutally mismanaged firm. The Kamani workers cooperative, which took over the firm and managed it successfully by self-governance, was a milestone in showing what could be done to restore viability. But what is going to happen now to its trade union? What is the effect on its workers of involvement in the exercise of competing with other firms and workers to increase profits? What is the effect of a worker's own income remaining tied to the firm's profits, albeit in a new management firm? What effects do these have on larger worker solidarity, on developing an alternative world-view of how a modern economy can be run? Thankappan expresses in his interview an uneasiness about it all, which comes across in his reference to build a new culture among workers. It also comes across in the stray comment that after the initial outburst of energy, many workers who are not representatives in the executive board began to feel less and less that they have as strong a stake as they once thought they did in the cooperative, resulting in rising absenteeism.

This pamphlet serves its limited purpose, but the larger question of how to bring about a viable alternative to capitalist organisation of Indian industry still stares us in the face.

Achin Vanaik is a senior fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi.