It was the early-1970s—time of global turmoil. There was the black movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the workers’ and students’ movements in Europe, and so on. Back home, there was the very severe drought in Maharashtra and other parts of the country. An atmosphere of dissent and a lot of activism was building around all these issues.
In 1971 I joined Elphinstone College, Mumbai. I had no family background in politics or activism. However, a feeling of restlessness seemed to be very much in the air. A group of students in my college put up a poster exhibition, raising questions about whether the drought in the state was natural or man-made. Their intervention was humanitarian rather than political, but the authorities pulled them up for taking an anti-government stand. That was the first time several of us who were not very ‘political’ realized that there was nothing that was not political.
In 1973 the Dalit Panther movement began and in 1974 was the national level railway strike. Throughout the early 1970s there was a great deal of organizing of the rural poor, especially adivasi movements in Maharashtra and other states. There was a feeling that revolution was around the corner and that things would never be the same again.
It all sounds very strange right now, but those were magical times.
I was also a part of a broad left group that was critical of the traditional left parties and had a rather fresh approach. We were part of several study circles, which gave us an opportunity to study political economy and other crucial areas of study and do that collectively.
At the same time, some of the women in left groups began to meet and formed the Feminist Network. Manushi was started at the same time. Several women’s groups were initiated in several parts of the country, even in smaller towns, including Saheli in Delhi and Forum against Oppression of Women (FAOW) in Bombay.
One of the organizations I worked with was the Bombay Slum Dwellers United Front. I was the only woman employee in the group. I tried to form women’s groups in the slum community to talk not only about evictions – the focus area of the Front – but also about other problems women faced. For instance, a number of rapes had taken place in the slums when women had gone to use the toilets that were located some distance away. When women activists politicized the issue the male leadership tried to explain it away by saying that locating the toilets close by would help prevent rapes. But we couldn’t accept the lack of facilities as the reason. We insisted that while clean and accessible toilets were our right, there was a need to look at the politics of rape and deal with it politically.
In the 1980s, I worked with the Union Research Group in Bombay which provided trade unions in Pune, Thane and Bombay with information about existing wage levels, benefits and allowances in order to strengthen their bargaining position. There were few women in leadership positions in unions then, but women in the URG continued supporting and raising women workers’ demands.
The early 1980s were a radical time for unions, but by the mid-1980s, after the defeat of the textile strike in Bombay, the tide had begun to turn. Several factories shut down and shifted out of Bombay as a response to higher wages and escalating real estate prices.
There was much excitement due to the Kamani Tube factory case where workers had taken over the factory after its owners abandoned it. Furious debates ensued over the possibility of worker takeover of factories that were closing down, and some of the unions got together and set up the Worker’s Solidarity Centre. We volunteered to work out alternatives by which this could be done, like industrial units were transformed into co-operatives. However, most of these efforts proved unsuccessful; many companies shifted location or outsourced work to combat worker collectivity.
Now, more than ever, there is an increasing ‘casualization’ of the workforce and a consequent increase in population of the informal, unprotected sector. A majority of women in the informal sector form the backbone of the economy and are the driving force behind most of our development; yet they get very little. Almost all institutions – the family, state and private property – are poised against the informal sector. There is no concept that informal workers have a right to a decent living. This is disturbing and I feel that anyone who works must have this right.
Ninety-three per cent of the total workforce, which contributes 63 per cent of the GDP, is employed in the informal sector. Ninety-six per cent of all women employed in the economy work in the informal sector. Their earnings are extremely low, hours of work long, and employment and social security benefits, such as paid leave, medical insurance and pension, practically nil.
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a communal flare-up in the nation. FAOW and the recently formed Aawaaz-E-Niswan attempted to articulate a politics and practice of anti-communalism. This to some extent took shape in the form of the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat, in the context of the anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002.
In the early 2000s I worked with the Committee for Asian Women (CAW), a Bangkok-based organization doing research and advocacy work around women workers’ issues. At CAW we tried to get organizations, unions and women’s groups in Asia together on the issue of ‘informalization’. Several other organizations and unions were active on this issue. This led to the recognition of informal workers’ rights at the International Labour Conference in June 2002, for the first time in its history.
South Asia is worse off than East Asia and Southeast Asia. While we have always had a very large informal sector, places like Japan, Korea and Taiwan did not have a visible informal sector until the crisis began. In India, the informal sector is marginalized, it is invisible in policy but because of its sheer number this sector is visible. In Japan the mainstream consists of male formal sector workers, so although the informal sector is not very large it has greater invisibility.
I have been closely involved with the women’s movement, with the FAOW as well as the Women’s Centre in its early days. The Women’s Centre was initiated in order to provide crisis-intervention services to women facing violence.
In the mid-2000s, the Maharashtra government banned dancing in bars, rendering several hundred thousand women jobless. Forum together with other women’s organizations like Aawaaz-E-Niswan worked closely with the bar dancers’ union in Bombay. While gathering evidence in favour of the bar dancers to be able to continue with their livelihood, we gained a great many insights into an occupation that we were not familiar with.
Till this month I have been working with the International Union of Foodworkers as the national co-ordinator for agriculture and plantations sectors. The workforce in both the sectors – agriculture and plantations – is the poorest of the poor, extremely exploited and largely women.
With the changing nature of capitalism, it is necessary that workers and unions experiment with newer forms of organizing. It is difficult to sustain organizations unless there is some component that sustains women personally as well. Otherwise, the vulnerability and dependence on that very income that is likely to be threatened by one’s actions makes women less likely to want to organize, especially in trade unions.
One can say that my politics lies at the confluence of unionism and feminism. However, increasingly one realized that caste, class, gender act on each other in ways that are very complex.