August 19, 2012

This is what hundred years later looks like

2012 is the year the Pension Parishad launched a campaign to demand a universal old age pension for workers, farmers and others in the unorganised sector. After the first dharna in May at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, there have been public meetings in Bangalore, Chennai, Pune and recently in Jaipur on 13th August. This video is of the six thousand of the oldest, poorest, near-destitute people of the state of Rajasthan at the dharna, shouting the slogans:

"APL/BPL khatam karo, sabko ration-pension doh"  (End poverty lines, given ration and pension to everyone)

"pension do toh vote lo, pension nahin toh vote nahin" (Give us pensions, take our votes, No pension, No Vote).

It rained heavily for the most part of the day and people stood under their umbrellas and plastic sheets for hours at a stretch. This image of people huddled under an umbrella, reminded me of another image, credited to being a strike in New York City in 1912, in support of the on going strikes in Lawrence Massachusetts to demand better wages and working conditions in the textile mills.

This famous strike is celebrating its centennial this year. It is also known as the Bread and Roses strike, as some accounts of history attributed the rallying slogan  'We want bread..and roses too', to the general strike in Lawrence. This slogan and its root poem by James Oppenheim, has been reclaimed several times over, by the International Socialist Federation, the Irish Labour Party, the Suffrage Movement, with renditions by Joan BaezUtah Phillips & Ani DiFrancoJerry Garcia and John Kahn and by many other protests over the last century. Ken Loach's film, Bread and Roses (2000), is about janitors working in office buildings in Los Angeles unionising to demand better pay and working conditions. There is a Bread and Roses prize for Radical Publishing, which in 2012 was awarded to David Graeber for his seminal work 'Debt: The First 5,000 years' that is recognised to be the blueprint document which started the thought and process behind the Occupy Wall Street movement.

One of the slogans used by the Pension Parishad, is:
Har haath ko kaam doh
Kaam ka pura daam doh
Budapey mae araam do

(Give every hand work/Give a full wage for that work/Give us rest in old age)

It seems that the demand of the poor and working class for over a century has not changed - it has been demanding work, a fair wage, decent working conditions and above all, dignity. We need to survive, but we also need some more than just the bare minimum.

If activism is defined as the policy of taking direct action to achieve a political or social end, then everyone of these elderly people at the dharna is an activist. If the status quo and global trend over the past century has been the privatising of social security, decreasing real wages and concentration of wealth, then it falls on activists, like the six thousand people present to remain visible and to insist on change, to legitimately highlight this plight, and to put forward this point of view on the table, every single time.

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