1989 - Celebrating May Day with India's unemployed

SPEAKING PERSONALLY

Stefan Gigacz

Celebrating May Day with India's unemployed

On 21 May, workers at Cape Kanyakumari, the bottom tip of India will celebrate May Day.

The Indian equivalent of Cape York, without the space agency, is a region of great natural tropical beauty.

Most of the people still own their own land, which they cultivate for rice; coconuts, bananas, rubber, and so on. The land appears fertile and water is sufficient.

Fish are plentiful in the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal which all converge at the Cape. Even the sands on the shore contain titanium and other valuable minerals.

The young people are very industrious, many of them not only completing high school, but taking degree courses or secretarial or even computer training courses. If it seems too good to be true, the real problem of the region only becomes dear when you stop at a roadside stall to talk to the local people. Somebody's brother is in Madras, someone else in Bombay. Why are they standing there? Because they're unemployed.

Apart from working the family plot of land, or running your own street stall, or teaching at a local school, there is very little employment. Well, I should mention the cashew nut processors and matches factories, or even the small quarries, where many of the girls and women work for about 5-6 rupees a day. That's about enough to buy a kilo of rice, or a couple of soft drinks, or perhaps a meal at a roadside stall.

A teacher I met, after several years without employment, has just started work at a nursery for 200 rupees a month or $A16. Her brother, however, was pleased. He had been supporting his family with his earnings as a teacher. Now, with his own marriage impending, it was a relief to him that his sister could earn even this small amount.

So the majority of young people leave for the big cities where the opportunities are better. This follows the pattern of development in so many parts of the world. It seems a natural pan of the progression from a rural to an industrial economy. You I can seen that money is starting to come into the region sent back by the workers. People are building new houses; new shops, humble though they may be by western standards, spring up along the main roads.

The situation as far as living conditions are concerned is improving. I don’t think there will be famine in these parts of India any more This in itself is a great achievement. However, the local people demand more They see the development taking place in other parts of the country and the world, and they want their share

They can see that the benefit of the natural resources of the region is not going to the local people No factories exist to process the mineral sands or rubber that is produced. Cottage industry is the only kind of local industry.

And you can’t criticise the quarry owner or match factory proprietor for his wages when he is only one step away from the poverty of his employees.

A key problem is infrastructure. The multinational corporations and local big companies do not want to invest here in Kanyakumari because there are no roads, railways, ports, electric power, and so on.

It is the same for the people you see living in incredibly unhygienic city slums, yet inside their tin shack is a colour television. It’s not because the people have got their consumer priorities wrong It's because you can earn enough to buy a television, but you can never earn enough to build a sewerage system.

And it takes a pretty good community organiser and a lot of time to achieve this kind of project through lobbying

The local YCW in Kanyakumari has undertaken a campaign to build a small dam in the area which would irrigate 500 acres, benefiting about 250 small farmers. The total cost of the dam would be about $6,000. But to date, the government has not been able to allocate the money to do it. (Now they are trying to find and raise the money themselves.)

Yet when I spoke to a Bombay development expert, he told me that the number one priority for increased food production in India is to increase the number of acres under cultivation.

Most of India's increased food production to dale has come from the introduction of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Now, there is little scope for further improvement in this area.

But government doesn't have the money to invest in such infrastructure, and business is not interested.

Moreover, even in other areas of India where huge factories have been built, the model of development is open to question. I visited a town outside the southern Indian city of Trichy where a huge government owned heavy electrical manufacturing plant is located. The factory employs 1500 people and among other things produce electric power generators for export to Australia of all countries.

The irony is that at the very meeting where the local people were explaining this to me the power blacked out. The reason There is a lack of local generating capacity. You have to ask who such a system is really benefiting

A further irony is that India is a country that has always prided itself on “self reliance.” Now even India is joining the world export-import economy.

I’m sure that is good too. Trade is vital in the modem interdependent world and India should not have to miss out on these benefits. But how to develop a trade and investment system in which the people of Kunyakumari and Trichy can also participate and benefit?

Whereas Cape York has rival consortia spending millions on feasibility studies for a rocket launching facility, there's no money to spare for investment, study and development in the more immediate future of millions of people

The YCW in Kunyakumari expect upwards of 3,000 people for their May Day march. They'll be marching for the right to work, and of the right to share in the development that the 20th century has made possible

The Pope is his recent encyclical also contrasted “superdevelopment” and “underdevelopment.”

As we approach the 21st century; this gap is emerging as the greatest labour issue of our time

Stefan Gigacz

The Advocate, Thursday 25 May. 1989