We the People: Expanding the Idea of Democracy - Part 3

Pranav Jeevan P

pranav jeevan pPeople normally blame democracy by saying it is not a good model of governance citing the issues that plague our country like poverty, corruption, unemployment and under-development. They believe that we are facing these issues because we are a functioning democracy and somehow it is the democratic process which is causing this backwardness and inequality. They simply equate voting for one of the available contesting parties or politicians as the sole idea of democracy. What these people fail to realise is that it is because of the existence of democracy of some limited sense that we enjoy even some basic 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, also including employment, education, information, entertainment and healthcare. The backwardness that we see as a socio-economic society is due to fact that we are 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 voiceless and oppressed will always threaten the existing hierarchies and those in power will always try to taint and malign the idea of democracy at each turn. This is done to instill 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 decentralization of power. It aims to dismantle all existing power hierarchies in society and distribute the power equally amongst everyone. This means that all decision-making will have to include opinions from every member who will be affected by the decisions. The people/social groups who monopolize power want us to believe that our current socio-economic woes are completely the fault of the public who are either too selfish or too ignorant to decide the best course of action for the society. They control and dictate every significant decision in our life imposing their will on us through oppressive laws as politicians, through caste practices as savarnas, through 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.

They give us an illusion of democracy through the festival of elections, which have actually given 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 actually held by the vast majority through elections is actually very limited 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, which 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 richest 10% Indians own around 80% of the country’s wealth, while the less-privileged 60% own less than 5%. This huge inequality stems from the lack of economic democracy. Politicians are working round the clock to create laws that makes sure that money flows from hands of public 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. The lowering of 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 priority of the government is and whose interests they actually serve. This huge economic inequality pushes more and more people to seek informal employment every year.

The informal sector consists of labor-intensive enterprises where laborers who are desperate enough to work for miserly wages in order to meet their subsistence requirements largely constitute the labour force. Since they operate outside of the jurisdiction of corporate law, workers are assured of neither job security, social protection and face severe exploitation. The laws in the country are made in such a way that there are enough people who are poor and unemployed so that they can be easily be exploited at low wages by the privileged. The expendable 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 higher bargaining power to force workers and exploit them discarding labour laws and sexual harassment guidelines [1]. According to ILO, only 6% of those employed in India are in the formal sector, with the rest 94% in the informal sector. This informalization of 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 MNREGA have been systematically weakened by ruling powers to create more informal workers to be exploited by their corporate bosses. The new labour and farm laws are explicitly designed to further push people into desperation without any regard for human rights.

The Median monthly household income in India is under 20k Rs, and assuming a family size of 6, that amounts to under 100 Rs per capita per day. So, 50% of the Indian population, around 70 crore people survive on less than that amount. When most of the people cannot afford basic necessities like nutrition, clean water and air, housing, education and healthcare, the issue is lack of democracy in allotting resources. Only through designing economic policies where interests and representation of people from informal sectors is ensured can we counter this trend of capitalistic exploitation and income inequality. Policies like Universal Basic Income where every individual is provided with enough money to cover his needs, participatory budgeting in the local government levels where resource allocation decisions are taken by public deliberation instead of a few politicians and bureaucrats, and encouragement and support for co-operatives that are operated democratically by members for creating products and services, can we address this mammoth inequality. 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 unorganized sector comes from the Bahujan communities as the Brahmin-Dwij class migrated to formal sector through government and corporate jobs [2]. According to the 2011-12 NSSO statistics, the share of wage laborers among SCs was 63%. This is significantly higher than the values for other social groups (44% for OBCs, 42% for savarnas). Even among wage laborers, SCs have a much greater share of casual wage workers (32% of all casual laborers), which signifies higher job insecurity and lower wages. DBA communities are also forcefully coerced into employment in “unclean” and “polluting” work such as disposing 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. Government encourages this discrimination while hiring people as sanitation workers, where a larger 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, who are mostly 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. Many dalits have lost their lives while cleaning sewers, and yet there has been no change at the policy level [3].

According to the Agricultural Census of 2015-16, only 9% of the total land is owned by Dalits and nearly 61% of the total land owned by Dalits is not more than two hectares. In a study of farm wage laborers, 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 mostly in domestic work such as cooking at high caste homes, serving food in restaurants, work in 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 own caste in employment and about 23% said high caste persons being 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., but Dalit community migrants are employed in more menial roles such as camel herders or dish washers where they undergo humiliation and corporal punishments from their employers [4]. 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 implemented properly by the gatekeeping of these institutions by savarnas. Now, with the new wave of privatization of PSUs and push for contract labor, we see a further attack on affirmative action policies put in place by the constitution. This lack of dignity to communities and gatekeeping by savarnas can only be countered through policies of social democracy where the monopolizing of all decision-making power by one community or gender is dismantled. No democracy can survive when individuals are devalued on the basis of caste, race, gender, orientation and religion. 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 control even in the dynamics of labour movements needs to be overthrown. The common narrative of DBA followers being led by savarna saviors have to change. People need to understand that democracy is about giving power to the people and not to a few leaders.

Majority of Bahujan women are employed in the unorganized sector, whose issues are completely ignored by savarna feminists in their clamor for gender equality. Most savarna women take no part in cultivation activities while DBA women have traditions of female farming either on their own land or as wage labor. 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 doesn’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 labor 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 to the pandemic (ILO, ILOSTAT database). It should be remembered that one of the most significant milestones in the history of women rights in India, the Vishaka Guidelines against sexual harassment in workplace, came as result of the fight and struggles of Bhanwari Devi, a Bahujan women. There cannot be proper implementation of these guidelines in the unorganized sector, where Bahujan women are exploited for their labor and sexually by the savarna employers unless there is workplace democracy where workers get to decide how policies are implemented.

In India, 71% female workers were employed in agriculture, followed by manufacturing (9%), construction (6%) and hospitality (4%). The emergence of women farmers in the popular imagination have been visible through the recent farmers' protest. In states like Tamil Nadu, Manipur, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Maharashtra, women accounted for more than half of the agricultural laborers. 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. 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 same work that is offered to upper caste women due to the social stigma of untouchability. Rules about purity also restrict menstruating women to work in farms. On top this inequality and discrimination, savarna landowners often ask the women to pay in terms of sexual services if they are unable to compensate for the land they till monetarily.

Dalit women have formed farmer collectives and cooperatives to overcome this caste hostility which affects their income, employment, education, and social support. They collect money among themselves, lease farmland, work together, and share the profit. The savarna landowners triy to stop these collectives by avoiding lending farmland and boycotting them. Government should fund and support such women-led co-operatives [4].

A 2013 survey revealed that the top 7.18% of households owned more than 46.71% of the land and Dalit communities are largely landless. We need 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 waterbodies and stoppage of all transfers of such land to private agencies. We have to reinforce rights of people to forests and other forest resources [5]. 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 land and is provided with the resources like 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 monopolization of resources by the dominant community ceases to exist as policies will prevent accumulation of wealth and creation of the billionaire class thereby reducing wealth inequality. Worker cooperatives ensure that there is no coercion by one group over others and all decisions are being made democratically. Promotion of the cooperative owned enterprises in rural and urban spaces, ensuring that agriculture is not submitted to capitalist corporates, but rather nurtured for its people’s ownership-based employment, food security and ecological sustainability would be central to all economic democratic policies. Creation and promotion of women-led co-operative societies like Kudumbashree in Kerala, will go a long way in validating female agency. Redistribution of land will also help them in accessing benefits under multiple agricultural schemes that are only reserved for landowners. By democratization of technology, women can innovate machines to suit their needs rather than what is available now which are mostly 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 good for themselves. Self-help groups and co-operatives have emerged on their own in multiple places by people who were suffering oppression and discrimination and have shown that democratic set up in such collectives can be a strong force against power hierarchies that are present in our societies.

It is not enough to be electors only. It is necessary to be law makers; otherwise, those who can be law-makers will be the masters of those who can only be electors.” - Dr. B R Ambedkar

Part 1 of this series can be found here and part 2 can be found here.



[1] K. PUNIA, "Future of unemployment and the informal sector of India," Oberver Research Foundation, 12 March 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/future-of-unemployment-and-the-informal-sector-of-india-63190/.

[2] K. S, "Caste management through feminism in India," Round Table India , 6 August 2021. [Online]. Available: https://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=10164:at-the-intersection-of-feminist-and-anti-caste-movements&catid=119:feature&Itemid=132.

[3] S. Jain, "Govt Sanitation Workers Now Come From All Castes in Rajasthan – But Discrimination Isn't Over," The Wire, 11 March 2020. [Online]. Available: https://thewire.in/caste/rajasthan-sanitation-workers-government.

[4] 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]. Available: https://tigr2ess.globalfood.cam.ac.uk/news/employment-diversification-among-farm-labourers-caste-perspective.

[5] "The Land Question is an Unfinished Task of Nation Building," The Hindustan Times, 16 August 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.hindustantimes.com/brand-post/the-land-question-is-an-unfinished-task-of-nation-building-101629123474922.html.

[6] "Nearly 81% of the Employed in India Are in the Informal Sector: ILO," The Wire, 4 May 2018. [Online]. Available: https://thewire.in/labour/nearly-81-of-the-employed-in-india-are-in-the-informal-sector-ilo.

[7] S. SAINI and P. KHATRI, "How India can benefit from the ongoing feminisation of agricultural workforce," The Print, 8 March 2021. [Online]. Available: https://theprint.in/opinion/how-india-can-benefit-from-the-ongoing-feminisation-of-agricultural-workforce/617638/.



Pranav Jeevan P is currently a PhD candidate in Artificial Intelligence at IIT Bombay. He has earlier studied quantum computing in IIT Madras and Robotics at IIT Kanpur.


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