By Devansh Mehta

If ever one reaches a point where all ideas seem stale and no inspiration is forthcoming, my advice is to visit an area where people are being oppressed, such as an ongoing strike, the demolition of a slum or a drought hit area. Such people are always open and ready to talk about the problems they are facing.

It was on one such day that I found myself in the industrial area of Wazirpur. As a part of a steel worker’s fight with the owners to fulfill all provisions of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, the workers were being paid approximately Rs. 1500 below minimum wages (currently Rs.10,374/month for skilled laborers and Rs.8554/ month for unskilled laborers). They were made to work 12 hour work shifts, while the Act stipulates that they should not be made to work for more than 8 hours without being paid double for overtime.

Each employee is also to be given an ESI medical fund, which takes care of medical expenses in case the workers fall ill. The owners allegedly escape paying this by not registering all the workers, and paying hafta (bribe) to the Inspection officer from the Labour commission so that they look the other way.

Raghuraj, the leader of this movement, is a person you don’t expect to meet in a steel worker’s movement. He’s quite young and somehow possesses the unlikely combination of having a calm demeanor and  fiery oratory skills. His thoughts have a surprising clarity and his take on what’s happening with the country feels more real than any academic’s theorizing. We witnessed his support and popularity in the community ourselves, as everyone knew where his house was and we even got a worker to take us there.

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DSC 0013 Workers gathering around Raghuraj to hear him speak

Photo credits: Debjit Roy

Before he organized the first protest in 2012, workers were unorganized and anyone who protested was removed from work. Raghuraj organized the steel workers into a union, the ‘Garam Rolla Mazdoor Ekta Samiti’, and for the first time workers were allowed a weekly off. The next year, they organized one more strike which resulted in an increase in wages. This year, the workers went on a strike for 27 days, never stopping until the owners agreed to fulfill all provisions of the Minimum Wages Act.

Raghuraj was born and brought up in Aligarh district, to parents who would contest Panchayat elections. He noticed that those who had money would lie, cheat and steal their way to power, and then oppress those who had voted for them – the Dalits, OBCs and laborers. In 1995, his family formed an alliance between the Dalits, OBCs and laborers, and won the Panchayat election. As payback, the land owners refused to give the laborers work on their land, procuring labor from outside to punish them.

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Photo DSC 0053. Caption: Raghuraj(rightmost) with his family

Photo credits: Debjit Roy

In the next election, the rich land owners got together and ensured they won the election. This is when he came to Wazirpur Industrial Area in Delhi in 2000 because he was fed up with all the fighting in the area.

The area at that time had no real teachers who could teach the children there. Raghuraj got in touch with some graduates in the area (the graduates were mostly government servants’ sons) and began an informal education programme. We met a girl student who was part of this programme and is now studying Political Science at Kirori Mal College in Delhi University. Raghuraj said that the feeling of being able to improve someone’s life is why he chose to become a leader.

As Raghuraj describes, his real awakening came in 2007 when he saw houses get demolished in Wazirpur, and the families in those houses out in the rains for 3 days with no food except what the community provided. Raghuraj went to the then Urban Minister Jaipal Reddy, who told him it was a court order and the government could do nothing about it.

Raghuraj then went to libraries and read up on these ‘court orders’ and found that this was only a pretext politicians hid behind. On 12th November, 2007 he was in Bawana when he saw bulldozers coming to demolish houses. Although he didn’t know anyone in the area, he told the residents in the house that the government had no right to destroy their houses. He showed the driver of the bulldozer the research he had done into illegal demolitions, who then informed the police. The police tried taking Raghuraj away and demolishing the houses anyway, but the entire area of Bawana simply lied down in front of the bulldozers and police cars, not letting the police cars leave with Raghuraj or letting the bulldozer destroy the houses. Finally, the bulldozers could only demolish the houses after the residents were given an alternate accommodation.

From 2011 onwards, he has focused on empowering the entire community of steel workers at Azadpur to fight for their rights.

When asked what he thinks is the problem with the country, he gave a very interesting answer. For him, the fundamental problem with the country is that there exists a great divide between the rich – which he refers to as India – and the poor – which he refers to as Bharat.

Most economists laud the reforms of 1990 as a something which catapulted India into the 21st century. However, Raghuraj pointed out one of the ill effects of this move which was that India opened up her markets to the world.

Before 1990, a lawyer, a doctor and a laborer would all use the same facilities. For example, they would all send their children to government schools, they would all use government hospitals and they would all stand in the same line to buy things from ration shops. There was thus scope for a laborer to become friends and talk to a lawyer or a doctor.

Post 1990, the situation became very different. The people of ‘India’ now go to private hospitals, send their children to private schools and buy things from supermarkets. The people of ‘Bharat’ continue using government facilities. Earlier, when government teachers did not come to class, when hospitals did not store medicine and when black marketing in ration shops was rampant, these lawyers and doctors would raise their voices and fight for good facilities (since they too were using these facilities) now don’t since they have shifted to private schools, hospitals and supermarkets.

This also results in a great divide between the two classes, since earlier laborers, lawyers and doctors would send their children to the same school and even get to understand the problems of one another. Now, the people of India have no clue about the problems of the people of Bharat, and the people of Bharat do not know anything about the people of India since there is little scope for the two classes to interact with each other.

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Photo DSC0031. A trampled on and torn Indian flag at Wazirpur

Photo credits: Debjit Roy

This problem only intensifies since it is the people of India who rule the country.  In a talk by the Planning Commission on low cost housing for laborers, Raghuraj asked them why in the proposed scheme was there no provision for water to reach the houses, and how was it possible to fit a bathroom, a kitchen and 10 family members in a 125 square foot house.

His point was that all governments talk of sadak, paani and bijli (roads, water and electricity) while what is really needed is a change in the decision making process – the people of India need to hold consultations with the appropriate stakeholders, the people of Bharat, in the decision making process. From where to place new bus stands and where newer buses are needed most, to where to set up industrial areas (ideally set up on barren lands, according to him, since setting factories on fertile land will push up the cost of food) to how funds need to be used for the benefit of all, these decisions are all made unilaterally by bureaucrats sitting in their A/C office, without consulting the people whose lives really will be affected by these decisions.

As an example of how the needs of the people of India trump the needs of the people of Bharat, he explains how a flyover after flyover is being constructed, while buses are packed and there is less expenditure on setting new bus routes, and even metro projects are stalled for a long time owing to paucity of funds.

During my internship with a media company, I witnessed first-hand this divide over which stories to publish and which not to. I was made to write articles which appealed to the people, about the different footballer’s hairstyles, the movie Humshakals and how it was successful in spite of getting bad reviews and about the new crazes trending on Twitter.

I wanted to write about the problems the people of Bharat face, and so I went to Wazirpur where I met Raghuraj for the first time. I was covering the strike, hoping my article would get published. The 1000+ workers were fighting tooth and nail with the owners, and went on an indefinite strike against the owners which lasted for 27 days, during which they received no wages. The dependent industries like printing, finishing, transport were also affected, and over 50,000 workers were out of work. When the police tried taking Raghuraj into custody, the workers lay down in front of the police car, preventing it from leaving with their leader. The situation only got resolved after the Additional Commissioner of Police(ACP) came and apologized to Raguraj, and directed the police to let them strike peacefully.

When I finished my article on the strike, my boss at media company appreciated the effort but said that such an article did not have a very large reader base, and few people were interested in reading on a strike in an area in Delhi, and that I should focus on more ‘global’ and readable stories. I was then given an assignment to write on a new trend on Twitter called hashflags, where writing #fra changes the word to a French fla.

The same students he helped teach have now helped the Union become more tech-savvy. To read more about the steel workers strike, you can visit their blog here http://garamrolla.blogspot.in/2014/06/an-appeal-to-all-justice-loving.html

Devansh is in 3rd year philosophy at St. Stephen’s College. He pursues any activity as long as it promises to be an interesting one. He also believes that we cannot write about something we don’t have experience of, and so stays away from theoretical discourse and instead writes about the experiences and problems of the people he comes across. Don’t hesitate to tell me something interesting by dropping a mail at devansh76@gmail.com.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind