People typically blame democracy by saying it is not a good governance model, citing the issues that plague our country like poverty, corruption, unemployment and under-development. However, they believe that we are facing these issues because we are a functioning democracy, and somehow it is the democratic process that is causing this backwardness and inequality.
They equate voting for one of the available contesting parties or politicians as the sole idea of democracy. These people fail to realise that it is because of the existence of democracy in some limited sense that we enjoy even some fundamental constitutional rights.
The way forward to making the society more egalitarian is to expand the idea of democracy into every social, economic and political sphere, including employment, education, information, entertainment and healthcare. The backwardness that we see as a socio-economic society is limited in our idea of democracy, not because we “have too much of democracy”, as the CEO of NITI Aayog commented.
The assertion for democracy by the voiceless and oppressed will always threaten the existing hierarchies, and those in power will always try to taint and tarnish the idea of democracy at each turn. This is done to instil a disdain for democracy in the public narrative so that people will willingly surrender themselves to the authority of the powerful.
The core idea of democracy is the decentralisation of power. It aims to dismantle all existing power hierarchies in society and distribute the force equally amongst everyone. This means that all decision-making will have to include opinions from every member affected by the decisions. The people or social groups who monopolise power want us to believe that our current socio-economic woes are entirely the public’s fault, who are either too selfish or too ignorant to decide the best course of action for society.
They control and dictate every significant decision in our lives, imposing their will on us through oppressive laws as politicians, caste practices as savarnas, patriarchal cultural indoctrination as men, and workplace exploitation as capitalists. Yet, they try to propagate the narrative that we are getting exploited because democracy as a concept is flawed, and decision-making should not be left to the people.
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They give us an illusion of democracy through the festival of elections, which have provided some power to people, but in a vastly unequal society with hierarchies controlling each aspect of our lives and with a few people from dominant caste/class/gender holding massive amounts of power. The power held by the vast majority through elections is minimal to create a force that can dismantle this power inequality.
They cleverly keep us fed with fake news and fabricated propaganda to confuse and disunite us into hating and fighting against each other. They watch from their power positions and enjoy, like Romans watching gladiators. Unless we realise the true meaning of democracy and start asserting and practising it as a true ideal to live by in all aspects of our life, we can never create a society that embodies “liberty, equality, fraternity.”
Data published by Credit Suisse in 2018 state that the wealthiest 10% of Indians own around 80% of the country’s wealth, while the less-privileged 60% own less than 5%. This colossal inequality stems from the lack of economic democracy. Politicians are working round the clock to create laws that ensure that money flows from the public’s hands to multibillionaires.
We have seen the current government selling public assets to private capitalists in the name of Monetization Pipelines, basically serving these assets to them on a platter. This is a complete takeover of public services and utilities for capitalist exploitation, which will result in increased consumer prices and lower employment opportunities and lack of job security.
Lowering corporate taxes for capitalists in the name of economic growth and subsequent increase in GST and fuel prices that affect the common citizens clearly shows where the government’s priority is and whose interests they serve. Moreover, this enormous economic inequality pushes more and more people to seek informal employment every year.
The informal sector consists of labour-intensive enterprises where labourers who are desperate enough to work for miserly wages to meet their subsistence requirements consist of the workforce. However, since they operate outside of the jurisdiction of corporate law, workers are assured of neither job security, social protection and face severe exploitation.
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The laws in the country are made so that there are enough people who are poor and unemployed so that they can be easily exploited at low wages by the privileged. Moreover, the expandable nature of this labour force causes wages to remain at minimal levels, mostly lower than the legal minimum wage, depriving workers of the capacity to accumulate significant savings.
Due to the oversupply of cheap labour, employers have the higher bargaining power to force workers and exploit them, discarding labour laws and sexual harassment guidelines. According to ILO, only 6% of those employed in India are in the formal sector, 94% in the informal sector.
This formalisation of the workforce is worse in India compared to other South-Asian countries like Bangladesh (48.9%), Sri Lanka (60.6%) and Pakistan (77.6%) doing much better. Even social security policies like MGNREGA have been systematically weakened by ruling powers to create more informal workers to exploit their corporate bosses.
The new labour and farm laws are explicitly designed to push people into desperation without regard for human rights.
The median monthly household income in India is under Rs. 20,000 and assuming a family size of six that amounts to under Rs. 100 per capita per day. So, 50% of the Indian population, around 70 crore people, survive on less than that amount when most people cannot afford necessities like nutrition, clean water and air, housing, education and healthcare, the lack of democracy in allocating resources.
We can counter this trend of capitalistic exploitation and income inequality by designing economic policies where interests and representation of people from informal sectors are ensured. Some approaches that address this mammoth inequality are:
Expansion of democracy in the economic sector is the only way to counter the increasing exploitation of the masses.
Majority of those employed in the unorganised sector come from the Bahujan communities as the Brahmin-Dwij class migrated to the formal sector through government and corporate jobs. According to the 2011-12 NSSO statistics, the share of wage labourers among SCs was 63%. This is significantly higher than the values for other social groups (44% for OBCs, 42% for savarnas).
Even among wage labourers, SCs have a much greater share of casual wage workers (32% of all casual labourers), which signifies higher job insecurity and lower wages. DBA communities are also forcefully coerced into employment in “unclean” and “polluting” work such as disposing of dead animals, cremation, scavenging, sweeping, cleaning sewers and septic tanks. They continue to face threats of violence, eviction and withholding of wages if they refuse to do this work.
The government encourages this discrimination while hiring people as sanitation workers, where a more significant portion of the cleaning, which includes cleaning sewers, unblocking drains, picking up dead animals and transporting garbage from the depots to the dumping grounds, is still forced on the dalits but restricts the savarnas to supervisory tasks. Even the private contractors, primarily savarnas, get the sewers cleaned by workers from the Dalit communities at a minimal price.
Even when there is an imminent risk, there is no insurance cover provided by the contractors. As a result, many dalits have lost their lives while cleaning sewers, yet there has been no change at the policy level.
According to the Agricultural Census of 2015-16, only 9% of the total land is owned by Dalits, and nearly 61% of the entire land owned by Dalits is not more than two hectares. In a study of farm wage labourers, almost 71% reported being denied work by savarnas due to their ‘polluting status’. In non-farm wage workers, about 52% reported denial of work due to caste background.
The caste restrictions are primarily in domestic work such as cooking at high caste homes, serving food in restaurants, working in the construction of temples and cultural and religious ceremonies. This exists even in the formal sector, where about 22% reported savarna employers giving preference to persons of their caste in employment. About 23% said high caste persons were selected with less qualification.
A study by Thorat and Attewell in 2010 observed that for equally qualified SC and upper-caste applicants, SCs had 67% less chance of receiving calls for an interview with a high percentage of less qualified high castes (undergraduate) receiving calls compared with the more qualified SCs (post-graduates).
The situation is similar among migrant workers where the dominant caste migrants get work as drivers, skilled workers, office assistants etc. Still, Dalit community migrants are employed in more menial roles such as camel herders or dishwashers, where they undergo humiliation and corporal punishments from their employers. Moreover, exploitative practices such as begar and halpati are still prevalent where DBA people have to provide free labour for generations.
Even the government jobs where reservation is constitutionally mandated are not appropriately implemented by the gatekeeping of these institutions by savarnas. Moreover, with the new wave of privatisation of PSUs and the push for contract labour, we see a further attack on the constitution’s affirmative action policies.
This lack of dignity to communities and gatekeeping by savarnas can only be countered through policies of social democracy where the monopolising of all decision-making power by one community or gender is dismantled. No democracy can survive when individuals are devalued based on caste, race, gender, orientation and religion.
Therefore, social justice is a core element of social democracy, where every aspect of society is to be reclaimed by all communities.
The common patriarchal savarna ownership of the means of production, their control over the governing boards of all decision-making bodies, their gatekeeping of lucrative sectors like industries, films, media, sports, and academia, and their power even in the dynamics of labour movements needs to be overthrown. The standard narrative of DBA followers being led by savarna saviours has to change. People need to understand that democracy is about giving power to the people and not a few leaders.
Most Bahujan women are employed in the unorganised sector, whose issues are entirely ignored by savarna feminists in their clamour for gender equality. Most savarna women take no part in cultivation activities, while DBA women have traditions of female farming either on their land or as wage labour. The oppression faced by Bahujan women due to Brahminical patriarchy is cleverly reappropriated by savarna feminism to further their caste interests.
Since savarna feminists gain power and privilege from their caste position, they only focus on issues that don’t topple the caste hierarchy. They are always willing to fight for higher and equal pay for females in corporate positions but will still pay meagre wages to the Bahujan domestic help on whose labour and exploitation they thrive.
This lack of focus on issues of Bahujan women in the informal sector by mainstream savarna feminism led to the decline of female labour force participation from 31% in 2005 to 20% by 2018 and has fallen even further during the pandemic (ILO, ILOSTAT database). One of the most significant milestones in the history of women rights in India, the Vishaka Guidelines against sexual harassment in the workplace, came as a result of the fight and struggles of Bhanwari Devi, a Bahujan woman.
There cannot be proper implementation of these guidelines in the unorganised sector, where Bahujan women are exploited for their labour and sexually by the savarna employers unless there is workplace democracy where workers get to decide how policies are implemented.
In India, 71% of female workers were employed in agriculture, followed by manufacturing (9%), construction (6%) and hospitality (4%). The emergence of women farmers in the popular imagination has been visible through the recent farmers’ protest. Women accounted for more than half of the agricultural labourers in states like Tamil Nadu, Manipur, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Maharashtra.
Even though so many women are involved in agriculture, only 12% own the land they work on. Even among land-owning women, close to 90 per cent of their landholdings fall in the category of small and marginal landholdings. Moreover, data on daily wages from the Labor Bureau show that wages received by women were 36% lower than wages received by men.
Even when women undertake work, women from the Dalit community never get the same work offered to upper-caste women due to the social stigma of untouchability. Rules about purity also restrict menstruating women to work on farms. On top of this inequality and discrimination, savarna landowners often ask the women to pay in terms of sexual services if they cannot compensate for the land they till monetarily.
Dalit women have formed farmer collectives and cooperatives to overcome this caste hostility, affecting their income, employment, education, and social support. They collect money among themselves, lease farmland, work together, and share the profit. The savarna landowners try to stop these collectives by avoiding lending farmland and boycotting them. Government should fund and support such women-led cooperatives.
A 2013 survey revealed that the top 7.18% of households owned more than 46.71% of the land, and Dalit communities are mainly landless. Therefore, we need the allotment of land for landless persons in rural and urban areas and recognition of the rights of these communities over “commons”, including pastures, grazing lands and water bodies and stoppage of all transfers of such land to private agencies.
We have to reinforce the rights of people to forests and other forest resources. Land redistribution would have been possible if we lived in an economic democracy where the resources were distributed fairly to all and not to a few castes. When each family owns the land and is provided with access to credit, machinery and technology, they won’t be forced to sell their labour at meagre wages and coerced into exploitation.
Economic democracy also ensures that the monopolisation of resources by the dominant community ceases as policies will prevent the accumulation of wealth and the creation of the billionaire class, thereby reducing wealth inequality. Furthermore, worker cooperatives ensure no coercion by one group over others, and all decisions are being made democratically.
Promoting the co-operatively owned enterprises in rural and urban spaces, ensuring that agriculture is not submitted to capitalist corporations but rather nurtured for its people’s ownership-based employment, food security, and ecological sustainability would be central to all economic, democratic policies. Moreover, creating and promoting women-led cooperative societies like Kudumbashree in Kerala will go a long way in validating female agency.
Redistribution of land will also help them access benefits under multiple agricultural schemes that are only reserved for landowners. By democratising technology, women can innovate machines to suit their needs rather than what is available now, mainly designed for male use.
Thus, we need to stop imagining democracy as the root of all evil and stop assuming that people lack the agency to decide what is suitable for themselves. Self-help groups and cooperatives have emerged in multiple places by people suffering oppression and discrimination. They have shown that a democratic setup in such collectives can be a strong force against power hierarchies present in our societies.
“It is not enough to be electors only. It is necessary to be lawmakers; otherwise, those who can be lawmakers will be the masters of those who can only be electors.” – Dr B R Ambedkar
S. Bailey, “Employment diversification among farm labourers: Caste perspective,” TIGR2ESS: Transforming India’s Green Revolution by Research and Empowerment for Sustainable food Supplies, 28 April 2021. [Online].
This article was first published on Roundtable India.