May 17, 2012
Published by Parag, on behalf of Krantikari Naujawan Sabha (KNS)
From the filth and dirt of the cities of the present, emerges a shriek of revolt. Liberal society based on inequality squirms, and tries desperately to contain it and dole out relief. The people asserting their power and dignity of labour persist with the question—who controls access to urban resources and who dictates the quality and organization of daily life? Is it the financiers and developers, or the people?
Nonadanga, in the eastern fringes of Kolkata in West Bengal, has brought this question again starkly to the foreground which is being posed everywhere. In this area lie several slums with thousands of households, housing a population with few belongings and only their capacity to labour and dignity in hand. The bulldozers of the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA) with brute Police force burnt and razed the houses in Mazdoor Pally and Shramik Colony to the ground on 30 March 2012 in the name of ‘emptying the land’. This prime land including water bodies in and around Nonadanga of 80 acres is to be handed over to developers of ‘star/budget hotels, shopping malls, multiplexes, restaurants, serviced apartments, recreational facilities’. If the 80 acre project materializes, another 1000 odd houses are in line to be demolished. The legal and parliamentary channels had already been close to exhausted before this round of evictions. Peaceful marches by residents under the banner of the local autonomous Ucched Pratirodh Committee (Resistance-to-Eviction Committee) on 1 and 4 April, sit-in demonstration on 8 April and many agitations were organized, appeals were made. The government responded with allusions of Nonadanga being a place where ‘outsiders are inciting’ and ‘stockpiling arms and ammunitions’.
Kolkata Police resorted to brutal lathicharge on a protest rally on 4 April, and many suffered severe injuries including children and pregnant women. On 8 April the committee decided to go for a road-side sit-in-demonstration and police was intimated accordingly. But within an hour police force mobilised and picked up 69 residents and activists. Later 62 among them were released but seven activists continue to languish under many charges ranging from ‘assaulting public servant in the execution of his duty’ to ‘anti-national activities’ (5 of them were released on bail after about two weeks imprisonment). Then continued a series of mass protests and subsequent arrests, along with which we witnessed attack on APDR rally by TMC goons. On 28 April, after the confrontation of residents with police over the blocking of the entry-exit points with a boundary wall by the KMDA, 11 residents including 5 women were arrested and slapped with a host of cases, and were put into police custody (on 3 May, only after payment of bailbonds of Rs. 5000 each, all of whom are daily wage earners, they were granted bail). The threat of further repression through legal and illegal channels looms large.
Who are the residents of Nonadanga?
An area meant for rehabilitation for evictees from various canal banks and slums across Kolkata, Nonadanga is crowded with single roomed flats of 160 sq ft, which were distributed to these evictees with many anomalies. The ‘rehabilitation’ did not contain schools, health centers or markets. Later more and more evicted and forcedly migrated people from the crisis in the rural areas, a majority from Sunderbans after Aila, started to come here and build their homes as they thought that the land stipulated for rehabilitation would be the last one where jaws of eviction could reach. Having been pushed here thus, the people of Nonadanga are employed in various small-scale industries, in petty production and many are unemployed workers. Some in the garment industry, some in the ‘Kasba Industrial Estate’ nearby, some in other small factories of the subcontractors of big industrial houses. A large number of people work as construction workers and contract workers in various places. Many are auto-drivers, rickshaw-pullers, van-pullers, drivers of personal or official cars. Many people are self-employed in small roadside shops of food, tailoring, mobile-recharge, grocery and majority of women are employed as domestic-helps. The question of living wages in such a situation is one of the most important. Linked to that, the quality of living condition is horrible to say the least and the struggle to reproduce everyday life is rife with insecurity. Struggle over shelter and rent, added with worries over water and sanitation constantly plague the people. These insecurities also play out into internal divisions over the struggle for scant resources.
As in each and every urban concentration across India, they bear with them the marks of the violent process of development both in the rural and urban areas. And this pain and their function in the chain of capitalist production is their strength and power. In the villages, they have seen their debts with the landed elite and prices of agricultural inputs soar, the pesticides ruin the nutrition of their soil, even caste related atrocities jump in number, and have been thrown out unceremoniously as companies pounce on their resources. They bear with them the crisis in the urban areas where huge ‘industrial model towns’ have no mention of workers housing even in the grand ‘master plans’, where workers are being pushed daily into selling the endless days and nights of labour even cheaper. With no proper housing, they are pushed into residing in rented dormitories and slums where the state has willfully withdrawn from all its responsibilities. The working classes are thus ‘legally’ handed over to networks of the local elites and goons (who are hand in glove with the local police, the company owners in the nearby industrial estates, the political party in power or parliamentary opposition) who impose exorbitant rent and user charges on any service that is provided. All this comes under the rubric of ‘illegality’, and the pitching of the people as encroachers. To manage this, the system also has in place several welfare programs and NGOs who act as middlemen, ‘service providers’, ‘consultancy groups’ to delink the struggle in the rural and the urban, the factory/workplace and the household, and push the struggle only into litigation and as a question of lack of rule of law. Integrated in the global networks of capital, cheap labour has to be ensured for the ruling class by constant regulation—by the force of law, by the police and by the ameliorative benevolence of the NGOs.
Exposing the present model of ‘development’
There is nothing surprising about eviction and repression as everywhere in India, and across the world, cities are restructured to suit the needs of capital accumulation, as the attack of neoliberal capital intensifies. In the resistance in Nonadanga is seen an active process of exposing the linkage between exploitation and state repression—both of which define the fabric of ‘normalcy’ and ‘development’. The residents of Nonadanga formed an independent organization without links to the Trinamool or CPI(M) or any of the standard vote-shops, and asserted their power without relying on the NGOs either. This has been possible, even in the face of their weak economic condition and other insecurities, because of their will and the presence of struggling left revolutionary forces from much before this present agitation started—who are working in coordination during the struggle. Even after all the houses were demolished, the residents refused to budge from the site, put up shelters, ran a community kitchen, and are confronting the might of the police everyday with their bare hands and indomitable will. Since 11 April, 10 comrades under this Ucched Pratirodh Committee persisted with a fast-unto-death in the site for 12 days with undeterred support of the entire slum, and beyond. Fighting the might of the developers and the state, they have reconstructed almost all the burnt and demolished houses, and are preparing to face further assaults from the government, like the boundary wall being constructed by the KMDA and constant threat of further violence by the police, and TMC goons. A local school here, during the present agitation, has been turned into a police camp. However, even in the face of this, some initiatives in education, ecology, health camps are stirring to imagine a different vision of development, even as the state is sought to be held responsible and answerable to their demands. The built makeshift houses stand for now, but so do the demands for proper housing.
The residents continue to demand unconditional dropping of charges against the arrested activists and residents. That without ‘organisational prejudice’, 7 activists of various mass organisations were arrested on 8 April, and then again 11 residents of the area were arrested on 28 April, shows that whoever raises a voice against the developmental terrorism of capital, without exception, will be crushed. The illusions of justice by the government, police, administration, and judiciary are daily breaking, coming face to face with them in the arena of struggle. The TMC and CPI(M) of the Singurs and Rajarhats have been exposed as lapdogs of the land sharks and company mafia. The state has been forced into retreat after confrontation—the government has been forced to grant bail to the 7 arrested activists (though 2 of them are still in jail) and the 11 residents, and make promises (albeit temporary) not to go into further evictions. The solidarity campaign by revolutionary left forces and mass organizations in different places also got energized into thinking, debating and linking the ongoing struggles against similar processes in own specific locations. In cases of local resistance, not only did the general process of capitalist restructuring of cities and resistance as the only way to confront it come up again, but thinking around questions of forms of resistance and organization within the struggle are also showing itself.
Beyond anti-Mamata-ism, and the empty discourse of (il)legality
During the ongoing struggle, we have witnessed repeated attempts to not only repress the movement, but at the same time to depoliticize and divert it as an ideological offensive by the ruling class. Even the solidarity campaign when picked up by the civil society, the NGOs, the national media or a organization like SFI focused on (a) anti-Mamata Banerjeeism, (b) depoliticized appeal to push the release of the ‘eminent scientist, harmless national asset’, Partho Sarathi Ray, and (c) relief to the ‘helpless slumdwellers’, without challenging the discourse of (il)legality.
There is at present, a seemingly anti-Mamata Banerjee wave. From the huge uproar over the arrest of a JU professor over a anti-Mamata cartoon to the ‘don’t talk to CPI(M) members diktat’ around the same time, the corporate media is also ‘lovin it’. Nonadanga then becomes merely a question of ‘bad management’ by the Chief Minister. Whereas one opinion argues for an even more virulent form of corporate rule as the answer (it points to the earlier three decades of so-called ‘communist misrule’), the other opinion grants legitimacy to the CPI(M) as better political managers for the capitalist class. After all, the CPI(M) showed its capability to contain revolutionary and mass struggles for a long time, before it faltered over Singur and the Nandigram, and the building mass discontent and shifting class base. What these opinions fail to see is that these Nonadangas show again that whether it be a Mamata or a Buddhababu, they have to take credit for their shops from the same capitalist class. The handing over countless Singurs and Nonadangas to corporates at throwaway prices, the using of brute repression for it on the resisting population is to continue the normalcy of exploitation and accumulation by further demolishing the power of working class. Against this, what must be posited, in continuation from Singur, is that the revolutionary left forces organizing the working class and masses as a power will fight capital and its political executive of whichever variety, who seek to impose the fear over the people.
The hullabaloo over Partho Sarathi Ray as the ‘eminent scientist’ divorced from his political positions against the depredations of global capital and state repression reminds us of the decoupling of ‘the good doctor’ Binayak Sen from his politics of demanding universal primary health (upholding the declaration of Alma Ata, the work with Shaheed Hospital) and protest against the Operation Greenhunt. It reminds us of representing Irom Sharmila Chanu as the vaishnavite/Gandhian divorced from her struggle against the AFSPA and the Indian military’s occupation of the Northeast. The question is in this manner sought to be trivialized to mere condemnation of harassment of these ‘national assets’ ignoring their uncomfortable politics or just mentioning it in passing as merely incidental.
The third argument is a desperate attempt to confine the struggle. It raises the question of rehabilitation and livelihood from a NGOist perspective—not going into its causes, and forgetting that most rehabilitation packages are used by neo-liberalism, more often than not, to make yet another assault on the reproduction of labour-power. They thus see this as only a question of shelter for the marginalized, push the struggle into mere litigation and ask for stronger laws or better implementation of existing ones. However law itself and its enforcers create a false sense of equality even as it constitutes its ‘outside’ i.e. the slums as areas of ‘illegal encroachment’. The struggling people and the revolutionary left forces understand that what is law for one class is repression for others—and only a struggle that seeks to question ruling class law itself can shed light into how they came to be ‘illegal encroachers’ in the first place and overturn it; that it is not a question of mere ‘governance’ or more laws or protection from the state of ‘human right violations’. When here, the law of equal exchanges is pointed out, we reiterate Marx of Capital, “between equal rights, force decides”, as has been the history of capitalist production. The people assert—we are not helpless victims of atrocities but we raise the question of housing as a question of class struggle. We demand wages and housing both simultaneously, recognizing that the increase in distance between the place of residence and the source of livelihood that most resettlement and rehabilitation process imposes on the evicted slum-dwellers further devalues our labour-power by lengthening our average labour day. We link the spheres of reproduction and production, we bear the pain of your ‘poriborton’, ‘development’ and ‘aid’, and are a force who posits a different imagination. From the Paris Commune to Occupy Wall Street and the London Riots, imaginations of how cities might be reorganized in socially just and ecologically sane ways—and how they can become the focus for anti-capitalist resistance have been posited. Today in India, we find the urban space as increasingly turning into a site of such resistance even as these are still fragmented, localised and disorganized.
As the struggle in urban areas intensifies, the space of operation of NGOs and civil society organisations as only ‘mediators’ between ‘atrocities happening in some remote part’ and ‘corridors of power’ in the cities, is shrinking more and more each day. As class struggle and urban resistance sharpens, the limits of the framework of ‘legality’ and ‘civil liberties’ within which these forces work will become even starker. The shrinkage of democratic space—manifesting with even more brutal assaults by the police state and juridical machinery on the working class is inevitable. While being engaged in the struggle in Nonadanga, we learn from it and those like it that this presents a possibility, and we must seize this.
The Aspirations/Possibilities of Nonadanga
The movemental militancy here is bound not to be confined in the legal and rights discourses only; it asserts its right to the question of housing as a class question. Neo-liberal capital thrives on cheap labour and segmentation. The working class while asking whose city is it, whose space is it, militantly asserts its inalienable right to all resources and to the dignity of its labour. This possibility in Nonadanga is then the potential of the struggle of the working class in urban areas to fight for the cost of its reproduction i.e. of housing and rent, health, education, transportation. These are reflected in some of the present demands—the movement is now proceeding with the demand for proper rehabilitation which is a political demand for a dignified and free life, along with thinking of the practice of alternate forms (however transitory now) of development.
Linked to this, is the possibility of taking this struggle against exploitation to the site of production, to the connected workplaces—asking for higher wages and better working conditions. In attempting to organize domestic workers and the huge informal sector workers and unemployed in the area in these ways, we believe the struggle can take a crucial turn, and this presents a possibility of unearthing and positing through a period of struggle, a form of organized working class power. In organizational terms itself, a process of democratic churning among left revolutionary forces in tune with the movement also is at play, which is also noteworthy. Today, the future of the present struggle is still uncertain, but we find that these possibilities show themselves as the political question that Nonadanga poses, which we seek to take forward here and elsewhere. The crisis of capitalism cannot always be managed by governance, more laws and NGOs which seek to isolate and contain these local struggles—this framework will be in danger, and thus the eruption of a hundred million Nonadangas can be a serious anti-capitalist threat in the heart of capitalism as the terrain of struggle is remapped. The state will increasingly act with the repressive and ideological apparatuses at its disposal and this clash can and will only intensify.
What is required is to take the movemental militancy and democratic organizational forms in Nonadanga a step further, and in every space where capital thrusts its violent marks. Standing in solidarity with it can only mean intensifying the struggle in our own locations and furthering them to learn from and connect to each other for a proletarian upsurge.