The mirage of an oasis in old age

by Gauri Lankesh

Women workers foil a greedy government eyeing their PF money

A huge vinyl-printed hoarding has been put up recently at Bommanahalli. Sponsored by a BJP corporator, the hoarding thanks union ministers Ananthakumar [Parliamentary Affairs] and Sadananda Gowda [Statistics and Program Implementation] for having ‘strived’ to get the centre to withdraw its controversial provident fund (PF) amendments of 10 February 2016. Oh really? One would have thought that thanks were due to the thousands of women garment factory workers who braved the lathis of brutal policemen through two months of protest to ensure that the Modi government withheld (if not withdrew) the new PF rules. Well, this is not the first time that a BJP-led central government has tried to tweak PF rules, and this is not the first time that women from the same garment industry in Bengaluru have protested. What is interesting is why successive BJP governments have had their eyes on the PF kitty.

Prior to the era of liberalization, the working classes of our country could rely upon a few perks upon retirement. Government servants used to get a tidy amount as monthly pension which was fully paid out by the state exchequer. Likewise, those working in the private sector could look forward to getting a handsome gratuity from the employer. And both of them would get their provident fund to which the employer and the employee had contributed throughout the years of service.

Gradually, when the number of retirees increased along with their longevity, the government amended its pension rules. Since 1986, both the central and state governments are hiring people only after they sign an agreement saying that they shall not receive any pension upon retirement. Similarly, the private sector has opted for signing contracts instead of employing people, in order to get around gratuity rules.

In our country, a major portion of the working population is in the unorganized sector, which does not come under any pension or savings scheme. A large section is also either self-employed or is involved in casual labour where no social security net exists for old age. According to data dating back to 1997, only about 15 per cent of the entire work force in our country comes under the ambit of PF. Although some employers have acted as disgracefully as Vijay Mallya and not paid up their share of PF money, even what the employees deposit (10–12 per cent of basic salary) as their share of PF funds adds up to a substantial sum. As per estimates, the money in the PF fund at present is a whopping Rs 8,50,000 crores.

In the 1980s, America implemented a tax exempted retirement plan titled 401 (k). Under this plan, the savings of employees could be invested in the share market. Most importantly, there was no government insurance for the money saved in this scheme. Since the American government wanted to expand the market for its insurance companies, it started pressuring other governments to bring into force schemes similar to 401 (k). In the 1990s, the then BJP prime minister A.B. Vajpayee set up a high-powered committee under the chairmanship of S.A. Dave to recommend new PF measures. In 2000, Dave’s committee submitted its report which, ironically enough, was titled OASIS (an acronym for Old Age Social and Income Security). In view of increasing retirees and the consequent burden on the government, the committee lamented that there would be scant resources left for ‘development’. In order to overcome this, it suggested that employees be made to shell out some money from their pockets (with the government/employer not paying even a paisa) every month which would be returned to them when they reached the age of retirement. It even suggested that people should not be allowed to withdraw their PF money often. Most dangerously, the committee recommended that positions of provident fund managers should be auctioned and that these managers would decide in which mutual funds the PF money could be invested!

Clearly, these recommendations were against the interests of the employees but very much in the interests of investors who were looking for easy access to public funds. Critics had slammed OASIS as a ‘mirage’. That year, even as the debate was going on around OASIS, a rumour spread in Bengaluru that garment factory workers would not be able to access their PF money until the age of forty-five. What followed was a wildcat strike by thousands of women on 24 July 2000. On that day, a number of Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation buses and police vehicles were torched and over a hundred people arrested. The spontaneous strike by women forced Vajpayee to drop OASIS. Yet, over the next two years, Vajpayee made two more attempts to prize open the PF funds to private investors.

Sure, since then various governments have been tinkering with the PF structure. But none had been as bold as the present finance minister Arun Jaitley. In his recent budget, Jaitley proposed to impose a whopping 60 per cent tax on money withdrawn from PF accounts. This would have been a kick in the guts to poor workers whose PF savings often represented their only fall-back in times of medical or other crises. When the opposition parties protested, he was forced to fall quiet. But like Kaa of The Jungle Book, Jaitley had his beady eyes on the PF money. Thus, he finally hissed, “An employee has to wait till the age of fifty-eight to withdraw the employers’ portion of the fund.”

Thousands of women of Bengaluru, most of them poor and unlettered, hit the streets once again. Their hellish work conditions, struggle to make ends meet, sweating for hours for less than minimum wages and anxiety about the future of their own hard-earned money made them put up resistance of a kind rarely seen. On behalf of millions of workers across the country, these women forced Modi’s government to backtrack.

No wonder, I am justifiably proud of these ‘Rani Chennamas’ of my city.
25 April 2016, Bangalore Mirror

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Chandan Gowda writes:

Gauri’s humanism let her stay open to evolving moral situations, and not give in to ideological rigidity. Her passion for humaneness was driven more by intuitive conviction than from an engagement with any humanistic traditions. In the course of her activist life, she did move from being indifferent, even contemptuous, towards religious practices to recognizing the latter’s importance in Indian society. In later years, she felt comfortable, for example, sharing platforms with heads of mathas whose social work she admired. She even invited them to the events she organized. Her regard for them appeared to rest on what she felt was their democratic mindedness than on the theological roots of their social activism. Her enthusiastic support for the recent demands of the lingayats to be classified as a separate religion was driven more by a political desire to negate the idea of a uniform Hindu community than theological considerations.

Gauri’s remarkable work as publisher is yet to find due attention. Besides ensuring that her father’s prodigious literary output—short stories, plays, poetry, autobiography, novels and critical essays—stayed in print, she published several volumes of his previously uncollected writings. Alongside publishing new Kannada fiction and non-fiction, she commissioned translations from several Indian languages into Kannada. For instance, the works of figures like Khushwant Singh, G. Kalyan Rao, Perumal Murugan, D.N. Jha, Saadat Hasan Manto, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Kamala Das, Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson and of social activists such as K. Balagopal, A. Revathi, and Anand Teltumbde.

Over the years, Gauri’s work brought her close to hundreds of activists from Karnataka and outside, many of whom became personal friends. At a time when few Kannada writers actively participate in political discussions, she, a journalist, vigorously embraced that obligation. Even when one disagreed with her stance or found it rigid, her selfless idealism, affectionate nature and courage endeared her to sensitive youth across the state. Those fighting a fair cause could find a ready ally in her. The mainstream media might have ignored them, but her weekly made space.

Gauri Lankesh (1962-2017) was the editor of the Gauri Lankesh Patrike. Starting her career as an English language print journalist, she worked for the Times of India, Sunday magazine and the chief of bureau, ETV News, New Delhi, in the 1990s. In 2000, after her father P. Lankesh’s death, she took over the editorship of Lankesh Patrike, the weekly tabloid that he had founded in 1980. She became a recognizable figure in the social movements of Karnataka after joining the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum in 2003. As an activist and journalist, she stood at the forefront of several struggles for justice, equality and love. She was shot dead outside her home in Bengaluru on 5th September 2017 by unidentified gunmen.

Chandan Gowda teaches at Azim Premji University, Bangaluru. He has translated U. R. Ananthamurthy’s Bara (OUP, 2016) and edited Theatres of Democracy: Selected Essays of Shiv Visvanathan (HarperCollins 2016).

Excerpted by the ‘Gauri Lankesh Reader’ edited by Prof. Chandan Gowda and published by Navayana and DC Books in 2018

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