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Reading into “25,000 Crore Loss”

All India Trade Union Strike

Ankur Sarin (asarin@iimahd.ernet.in) teaches in the Public Systems Group at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A). Aditi Thakur is an Academic Associate at IIM-A.

 

Industry bodies and the mainstream media were quick to claim that the country suffered a loss of Rs 25000 crore in the 2 September all India labour union strike. Parroting these figures and ot contextualising the strike in the larger debate of erosion of labour laws and rights make both these bodies look like knowledge architects without public accountability.

The 2 September strike called by almost all the major central trade unions garnered the usual, frenzied media attention. It was touted as one of the biggest ever in the country (The Hindu Business Line 2015). The strike protested against the changes in labour policies being ushered in by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.[i] All leading newspapers, websites and news blogs covered the strike, some even provided their readers with sort of an “all you need to know about the bandh” cheat sheet, a day before. While the strike raised several issues, the headlines that dominated the reporting on the day after the bandh were around the loss of Rs 25,000 crore to the nation’s economy.

Assocham’s Numbers

This widely quoted number was attributed to the industry association, Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham). By midday on 2 September itself, Economic Times published an article reading, “Strike Call: Estimated Loss to Economy Pegged at Rs 25,000 Crore, says Assocham.” Almost the entire mainstream media repeated this estimate of the loss as the most salient feature of the strike. However, other than a quote by D S Rawat, secretary general of Assocham, stating that the, “financial impact of the disruption of essential services might lead to an estimated loss of over Rs 25,000 crore to the economy thereby taking into account the numerous direct and indirect losses” (Ghoshal 2015) there was no public mention of how the association had estimated the “numerous direct and indirect” losses that had come to dominate the narrative about the strike in the mainstream media.

This was not the first time that Assocham had estimated such a loss. For a trade union strike on February 2013, Assocham had estimated a loss of Rs 26,000 crores to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This was also was reported by the media with headlines such as, “Bharat Bandh: Assocham Raises GDP Loss Estimate to Rs 26,000 Crore” (NDTV 2013).

Despite the economic growth witnessed during the interim period, the difference in the durations of the strike, the similarity between the losses estimated because of the strikes that took place more than two years ago is intriguing. However, our purpose here is not to engage with the magnitude of the estimated loss or comment on its accuracy. Our concern is with the manner in which such a number is generated; the legitimacy it is granted and the lack of accountability of institutions engaged in the production of narratives that influence how the larger public perceives civic action.

Since none of the public reports provided any details on how the “loss” associated with the strike was estimated, we tried contacting Assocham for an explanation. After several emails and calls to their Ahmedabad and Delhi offices, the only response we received over a telephonic conversation was that these estimations were a result of an “informal, internal exercise” conducted to estimate the losses that could have been incurred by the particular industry affected (which in the case of the 2 September strike was banking services) on the day of the strike. They offered to send this data in a more formal, detailed manner, via an email. But even after sending several reminders, we had not received any information.  

Assocham states that it is the “fountainhead of knowledge for Indian industry” (The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India) choosing to call themselves the “knowledge chamber.” However, the callousness that characterises their response to requests of an explanation for a number they put out with considerable authority makes them appear as “knowledge architects” without the requisite public accountability. The putting out of a number to characterise large public action is nothing but a political activity. In summarising a complex and contested activity, a number suggests objective, scientific thinking that seeks to monopolise the truth and everything that purportedly needs to be said about a subject.

Media Allegiance

Kohli (2012) argues that, “over the last three decades the Indian state and business have increasingly converged on such crucial issues as the approach to labour; the pace and pattern of external opening of the economy; and, most importantly, on how to enable Indian business to improve productivity and production.” An issue on which there appears to be clear convergence is the view that organised workers are obstructionist and one should delegitmise any means of protest available to them.  In this role they seem to have found a close ally in mainstream media that decides not to question the “knowledge” produced by a clearly interested party or put out a counterpoint.

Describing the media coverage of February 2013 strike, Krishnan (2013) wrote, “The dominant media narrative about the two-day all-India Strike called by trade unions was one of ‘hooliganism’ by workers and inconvenience caused to the ‘public’. As is usual, the main demands of the striking workers found little space in the media’s discussion of the strike.”  The particular strike had turned violent in some parts of the country, mainly in the National Capital Region (NCR); this was obviously widely reported by the media. What the media chose to ignore is that working class anger is based on real issues like denial of rights to unionise and organise as well as blatant violation of labour laws.

Shifting Politics

Discussing the political-corporate-media relationship and the manipulation of media in shaping public thought, Kohli emphasises the growing corporate control of media as an example of “the diffuse power of business.”  He further warns that “while much of what the Indian media target are consumer tastes, political values are hardly far behind. By influencing what issues get covered and how they get covered, as well as via editorials, the privately controlled media in India today attempts to shift the political preferences of Indian society in a pro-business direction.” (Kohli 2012).

The media coverage of the recent strike is clearly reflective of this direction.  Almost all the leading dailies and news sources quoted Assocham on the loss the country was seen to have suffered without any efforts to question the methodology of the estimation or provide independent estimates of their own. In unquestioningly reporting Assocham’s estimate, the mainstream media not only fails its readership by providing a biased, if not misleading, perspective, it also reinforces prejudices against worker rights.

By not contextualising the strike in the context of increasing threats to worker safety (SafeInIndia - Agrasar Research, 2015), their own reports of failures of translating increases in productivity to higher wages and consequent stagnating worker wages (Singh 2015), mainstream media shows the paradox in which it finds itself. Even as it reports on the need and urgency for paying attention to worker rights, it is unable to get itself to challenge the structures that sustain it.

Note

[1] The trade unions that participated in the nationwide strike included the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), affiliated to Indian National Congress, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), affiliated to the Communist Party of India (CPI) and CPI Marxist, respectively,  independent Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) and Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), All India United trade Union Centre (AIUTUC) which is affiliated to the Socialist Unity Centre of India, Trade Union Coordination Committee (TUCC) supported by the All India Forward Bloc, All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), United Trade Union Congress (UTUC) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) affiliated Labour Progressive Federation (LPF). Bharatiya Janata Party affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) and independent National Front of Trade Unions (NFITU) boycotted the strike (Nanda 2015) (Ahn 2010).  

References

[All URLs accessed on 12 January 2016]

Ahn, Pong-Sul (2010): “The Growth and Decline of Political Unionism in India: The Need for a Paradigm Shift,” Bangkok: International Labour Organisation, http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---asia/---ro-bangkok/---sro-bangkok/documents/publication/wcms_143481.pdf.

Economic and Political Weekly (2009): “The State of Our Unions,” Vol 44, No 3, http://www.epw.in/journal/2009/39/editorials/state-our-unions.html.  

Economic and Political Weekly (2010): “Understanding the Bandh,” Vol 45, No 29, http://www.epw.in/journal/2010/29/editorials/understanding-bandh.html.  

Ghoshal, Sutanuka (2015): “Strike Call: Estimated Loss to Economy Pegged at Rs 25,000 Crore, says Assocham,”  Economic Times, 2 September, http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2015-09-02/news/66143958_1_central-trade-unions-mr-d-s-rawat-labour-reforms.

Hindu Business Line Bureau (2015): “Strike Near Total, Say Trade Unions,” Hindu, 2 September, http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/trade-unions-strike-a-success/article7607675.ece.  

Kohli, Atul (2012): Poverty Amid Plenty in the New India, New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.

Krishnan, Kavita (2013): “All Out Crackdown on the Working Class in Noida,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 48, No 9, http://www.epw.in/journal/2013/09/web-exclusives/all-out-crackdown-working-class-noida.html.

Nanda, P K (2015): “The Impact of the Trade Union Strike,” Livemint, 2 September, http://www.livemint.com/Politics/RfQmVt1zi4ccYpOEDZq19H/The-impact-of-the-trade-union-strike.html.

NDTV (2013): “Bharat bandh: Assocham Raises GDP Loss Estimate to Rs 26,000 crore,” 21 Februrary, http://profit.ndtv.com/news/cheat-sheet/article-bharat-bandh-assocham-raises-gdp-loss-estimate-to-rs-26-000-crore-318229.  

Press Trust of India (2015): “Bharat Bandh Cost Rs 25,000 Crore to Economy: Chambers,” Indian Express, 2 September, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/one-day-strike-cost-rs-25000-crore-to-economy-chambers/.

SafeInIndia - Agrasar Research (2015): “What Can Safeguard Workers—Accidents in the Automobile Industry in Gurgaon: Case Studies and Stakeholder Response,” http://nebula.wsimg.com/3007bdc8b88eb5461fc18c4fb1101528?AccessKeyId=8F419A6E8A1135250670&disposition=0&alloworigin=1.

Singh, P (2015): “Higher Productivity Equals Higher Wages? Not for the Indian Industrial Worker,” Livemint, 21 January, http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/Vxmd5HHO8qeLuqYUiobbpM/Higher-productivity-equals-higher-wages-Not-for-the-Indian.html.

The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (nd): “Assocham India – Mission,” http://assocham.org/defaultpage.php?pageId=9.

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