The generation of skilled (construction) workers.

September 14th, 2021

NYT recently reported that “a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey found that 88 percent of commercial construction contractors reported moderate-to-high levels of difficulty finding skilled workers, and more than a third had to turn down work because of labor deficiencies.” Like all other sectors construction in India is also largely labour intensive and productivity is not primarily driven by technological or process improvements. But this fact aside, the general picture is very likely similar in India with the generation of skilled steelworkers, carpenters or masons retiring and the new generation is not trained enough for the kind of work society needs today and is not interested in construction work.

The planning framework suggested in the previous post must therefore include an industrial and construction workforce development program. In manufacturing, work can be divided into minute repetitive small tasks but on the worksite, the nature of work keeps changing to varying degrees as the project progresses – so the intensive division of labour ad hence making do with unskilled workers is very difficult. The alternative to a skilled construction workforce is delays in project completion (i.e. waste of time and material and human resources) and/or unsatisfactory quality of work.

Climate considerations in contemporary public work tenders

September 12th, 2021

 

 

The current pre-tender public works procedure looks something like this: a primary investigation by the concerned department is undertaken to assess the financial and technical feasibility of the proposed project with approximate estimates, which when gets the consent of the department goes for a detailed investigation that if gets the technical approval comes out as the document for tender and work contract – including drawings, bill of quantities and specifications.

Nowhere in this two-stage investigation and approval process, ecological feasibility is examined as an independent factor in the work project. But this stage is quite crucial as the project once notified for tender almost never gets terminated and extensively revised for environmental reasons. Which is understandable because at this stage a lot of material resource, manpower, and political calculas has already been mobilized. Therefore, climate and environmental activists should focus on the policy framework determining the initial approval of public infrastructure projects.

Such a framework must become the law of the land – like the Climate Change Act 2008 in the UK. But given the fact that India is reluctant to even revise its climate goals that is a very difficult task. And even such a law with strict emission targets will not be sufficient to govern particular projects because the impact of a single work, especially small projects like single lane roads, is usually very low even over the infrastructure’s lifetime. But the cumulative effect of all projects in a region or of a megaproject with various sub-projects – like Sagar Mala do have a massive greenhouse impact.

Hence the need for planning. Planning will not only make the ecological assessment and hence the construction of a range of public infrastructure (and possibly private infrastructure) within the biophysical limits of the planet but also give the opportunity to make more just and equitable infrastructure – where the relationships of various projects and their relationship with society and classes within it is better scrutinized.

Infrastructure for a free society?

August 27th, 2021

It is a curious fact that anarchist-communists have so far given merely scant attention to the issue of infrastructure in a free society. Kropotkin famously focused on fields, factories, and workshops but not on flyovers, canals, and water pipelines. Reclus gave passing remarks on the importance of modern transit systems to a cosmopolitan free world. Since then, activists and scholars of the workers’ control movement have focused on manufacturing and recently on services and logistics.

While 100% of the built environment that humans and many other species now inhabit is constructed by underpaid, unappreciated and forgotten workers on sites using largely tools and apparatus developed, improved, and perfected over millennia by the working intellectual-craftspeople.

While also, the infrastructure sector is one of the largest contributors of GHGs and at the same time one of the best tools for emission mitigation and social adaptation. Infrastructure reflects and perpetuates social inequalities. And at the time of terminal global economic downturn, it is the sector getting the most attention in corporate board rooms and parliaments. All this calls for more and serious attention to the engineered world around us and its future.

An engineers contribution to class struggle.

August 21st, 2021

I learned yesterday that Mike Cooley had passed away almost a year ago. Ever since I came across his work in the mid-2010s it has shaped my social thinking and activity in definitive ways. He along with Seymour Melman and Tony Mazzocchi was a pioneering example of what the intersection of engineering, labour organizing, demilitarization, and radical environmental and health activism ought to look like.

The value of this intersectional politics has increased multifold during our period of chronic emergency – from covid to daily and diverse impacts of climatic collapse, from dismantling of standard employment structures to the historic rise in unemployment. Mike was instrumental in preparing the Lucas Plan. A corporate plan that aimed to transform the war economy to civilian economy and produce socially useful products under worker control.

Mike summed up what socially useful production sought to achieve like this: “We have, for example, complex control systems which can guide a missile to another continent with extraordinary accuracy, yet the blind and the disabled have to stagger around our cities in very much the same way as they did in medieval times.”

Now we have vehicles that can “see” but the disabled, because they are not a profitable market, still await the 21st century. This is not due to technological insufficiency or unavailability but due to capitalism’s preference for profitable and wasteful production, just like it was not profitable for capitalist institutions to fund preventive research on the coronavirus when epidemiologists started warning in 2016 or even produce ventilators or hospital beds.

If the military spending and the incalculable cost of what our society has to forego to sustain it continue to increase at the same pace there is no way to transform our economy to an even a version of capitalism that can prevent irreversible dive toward uninhabitable earth.

But we can neither progress towards producing and constructing what the degrading environment demands nor cut military budget nor prevent job loss because these are not technocratic matters that some right kind of corporate or political leadership or some technological breakthrough can realize. As Mike always noted that these demands are a direct threat to corporate and political managerial power over society. They can only be won by power struggle – by class struggle.

A New Behemoth: New War Industry after OFB Corporatization.

July 11th, 2021

The Union Cabinet on 30th June 2021 promulgated the Essential Defence Services Ordinance (EDSO). The ordinance was passed in haste and with the rationale that the parliament is not in session and that the ordinance needs to be effective for emergency purposes. The urgent and immediate impetus for EDSO is the call for an indefinite strike by workers under the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) which includes more than 80,000 workers in 41 ordnance factories spread across the country. The EDSO makes strikes and many other industrial actions – including denying to work overtime illegal for workers in any industry that are linked with the production or are essential for the function of defense manufacturing and services. This could include workers in the Mahindra factory engaged in the manufacturing of armored vehicles. The ordinance is in force for 6 months and can be extended every 6 months for the same amount of time.

The EDSO is a draconian law that does away with even the mild labor protections prescribed by ILO standards – most of which are not binding for India, as we have not ratified even the basic ILO conventions. But in this article, I will break down why the labour federations of civilian defense workers are going on strike starting 26th July.

Why are the five federations of the OFB and other trade unions calling for a strike?

The OFB is a government agency that works as the management for 41 ordinance factories and engages in research, development, production, testing, marketing, and logistics of products ranging from small arms, anti-aircraft weapons, tanks, missile launchers, to engines, machine tools, chemicals, and optoelectronics. It comes under the Department of Defence Production (DDP).

In the 2020-21 Union Budget it was announced that “In strategic sectors, there will be a bare minimum presence of the public sector enterprises. The remaining CPSEs (Central Government Public Sector Enterprises) in the strategic sector will be privatized or merged or subsidiaries with other CPSEs or closed.” The strategic sectors classified in the document included Defence, Atomic energy, Space among many others.

In May 2020 during the Atmanirbhar Bharat package announcement, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made public the decision of corporatization of OFB for “improving autonomy, accountability, and efficiency in ordnance suppliers”. To oversee the corporatization process Group of Ministers, headed by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, was constituted. KPMG Advisory Services (a subsidiary of the Netherland-based firm) leads the consortium as the consultants for the transformation.

The OFB workers’ federations are striking against this corporatization of the OFB, the world’s largest government-controlled defence producer.

What does corporatization of OFB mean?

As mentioned above, OFB is a government agency and agencies cannot be privatized or as a corporate entity enter into Public-Private Partnerships with private defence manufacturers. And because it is not a corporate entity it is not bound to generate profits for its shareholders every quarter. As an agency, it can work under “loss” to maintain high wages, social security, quality control, and other essential social goods which a profit-maximizing firm cannot.

The cabinet has authorized converting these 41 factories into 7 corporations. They are:

Ammunition and explosives group
Vehicles group
Weapons and equipment group
Troop comfort items group
Ancillary group
Opto-electronics group and
Parachute group

The constitution of the board of directors, creating a corporate plan for the corporations would be the next steps. All of this is going to be extremely difficult, especially given the spatial distribution and levels of technical specializations of different factories. But given the haphazard way in which the plan was announced planning seems wanting.

What are the “experts” telling us?

For Rajnath Singh increasing the quantum of defence export is the primary goal of the corporatization exercise. While for many retired military officers and “experts” it is increasing competition between producers resulting in lower acquisition costs and improving products range. Questions like ‘whether these are worthy goals’ or even if we assume that they are then ‘is corporatization the most credible strategy for achieving them’ have not sufficiently been discussed among the stakeholders, primarily with the OFB and the workers.

But appropriately enough in 2020, an internal report was leaked claiming that OFB was responsible for more than 400 accidents through manufacturing defects. The report was never shared with the OFB and the reporting on the leak failed to consider that most of these accidents could be because of unauthorized design changes, poor maintenance, or faulty fire drillings.

The basis of such proposals is put into doubt by some facts. India is constantly increasing its quantum of defence exports – India was the 23rd global major arms exporter for 2015-2019 and 19th for 2019. The Ministry of Defence’s annual report 2018-19 records India’s defence exports at Rs 10,745 crore, a growth of over 100 percent from 2017-18 (Rs 4,682 crore). OFB is a major player in these exports.

In addition to that, a 2019 study drawing lessons for India from the UK’s defence privatization by Jonathan S. Swift published in the Journal of Defence Studies (Journal of the MoD funded IDSA think-tank) found that “judged in terms of cost reduction, privatization has been a failure.” (pg. 20.)

What is the context of this move?

Privatization of the sectors that were predominantly under public control saw significant push under Bajpai rule. First, commercial aviation and importantly in 2003 Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Limited (IPCL) to Reliance Industries (RIL) for pennies. Then, in 2005 came MoD-appointed Kelkar Committee’s report recommending to corporatize the OFB to improve its efficiency. The report remained in limbo till 2020. But in the meantime, starting in 2009 more than 20 international defense manufacturers established subsidiaries in India – almost all headquartered within shouting distance from Raisina Hill and with ties with defense think tanks. 2014-15 saw the announcement of the Make in India campaign – defence is the biggest component of the campaign.

It is also worth noting that the Cabinet Committee on Security that approved OFB corporatization has the Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs as a member. And between 2017-2019 Nirmala Sitharaman was the Minister of Defence. Making Sitharaman, Rajnath Singh, Modi, and Amit Shah the primary supervisors of the policy.

What will be the implications of corporatization?

Depending on the exact nature of the next step by the Singh-led Minister’s Group the whole exercise could mean either of two things: first, gradually being sold to private corporations, or second, gradually and through conscious policies being wiped out of the market, like Air India and BSNL.

Either way, one thing is clear: the influence of private, for-profit corporations that live on the war and waste industry will have more and direct influence over India’s foreign and domestic policies. The market for domestic weapons and surveillance systems will also grow. For most of the 80,000 workers, it would mean the end of government workers’ status and a turn to contract jobs and even lay-offs.

By more deeply entrenching industries and economy into war industry, OFB corporatization will be a big step in the direction away from a more peaceful South Asia. It must be resisted and stopped.

 

Are all activists just selfish?

July 8th, 2021

When you are working on projects that are not financially or in any material sense rewarding, it is common to hear from fellow activists or people in communities you are working with that these people who are doing this work are “selfish” because that’s just the sort of thing that makes them happy – at least for now. I have always found this notion to be disturbing for few reasons: 1. it stands on the fallacy that starts with the premise that ‘all actions humans do are selfish’ therefore reaches the conclusion that ‘socially directed actions (broadly “sympathetic actions”) are also selfish’. 2. It strengthens the myth concocted by the capitalist ideology that humans are primarily or exclusively selfish and seek to do things that satisfy them, most of the time materially.

But there is also a deeper problem with this way of looking at our social lives. It is based on the assumption that any action (including any sympathetic action) is genuinely “selfless”, and the assumed implication is also that it is therefore morally superior, only if the source of the impulse (moral motivation) is external to the human self.  The act has to be grounded in something outside our personal wants and desires. This is a belief in which God continues to linger as the linchpin for “genuinely moral acts”. Because human is seen as naturally sinful and without God or any external authority does not have any reason to be good.

In fact, these were the accusations leveled at atheists of the 18th and 19th centuries – against people like Hume and later Shelly. That they can and will only act in a sociable way only if and when it suits them and not otherwise – so a society of atheists would be immoral, unjust, and even untenable. Similar reasoning pervades the discourse on sociability and viability of non-authoritarian forms of societies, without the guardianship of the states and corporate masters.

The only options focusing on selfish or selfless acts leaves us with are either being selfish or a slave. Instead of focusing on this wrongly formulated quasi-metaphysical question, it is more important to look at whether the actions are making any meaningful positive changes.

Two reasons to doubt in Descartes.

June 24th, 2021

Descartes is (in)famous for his apparent skepticism. While he was merely rehearsing the common Pyrrhonist skepticism, most famously being advocated by Michel de Montaigne and Mersenne, before criticizing it. In doing so he asks us to doubt two categories of beliefs: that of the extramental world (I refrain from using the word “physical” for separate reasons) and of mathematical facts. His reasons for doubting both categories were different. But first, let us look at why do we find these beliefs to be self-evident.

I believe that my dog is sitting in front of me because my sense tells me that he is. But my senses do, from time to time, deceive me, for example in the case of optical illusion and under the influence of psychoactive drugs. So this method of acquiring belief is generally put into doubt – although many individual believes might still be true but the senses generally lose their credibility as a source of self-evident believes. And in the case of mathematical facts, we find them to be true because they are tautologies – i.e. they are true by virtue of their definition, or at least because they are true by demonstration of proves. Also, these are not claims about the external world, Pythagoras theorem will still be true even if there is no external world and no physical triangles. Descarte gives two reasons to doubt these mathematical beliefs (Point 5, Part 1, Principles of Philosophy and Book 1, Meditations.) First, he merely states and in my opinion without giving any convincing examples to the effect that we often err while forming mathematical beliefs, and second, that God has created us in such a way that we err sometimes so it is possible that he might have created us in a way that we err all the time, even in things mathematical. The second argument can be made without invoking God as evolution might as easily have organized our cognitive faculties in such a way that we systematically err.

While to doubt the first source of beliefs seems reasonable, the second looks less convincing as it is on the one hand a general claim about all cognitive faculties and not merely about the method of acquiring mathematical claims, and on the other, we have no examples that lead us to doubt the specific source of such believes. Whatever their merit, it is clear that the epistemological value of the reasons to doubt both categories is very different.

What Demands for Kashmir?

June 10th, 2021

For people concerned with freedom, equality and decency it is fair to say that the last decade has been that of regression. This is no doubt the case for Kashmir, Kashmiris, and Indians who are privileged and alive enough to care about Kashmir’s suffering and struggles. The arbitrary arrests, the silencing of the population, the erosion of civil society, and many other things we hoped to get rid of in Kashmir have strengthened their grip over India.

It makes the battle ahead difficult while all the more urgent and necessary. Unfortunately, the section that is affected by similar issues in India, like police violence, state repression, violence against women and working people, powerlessness has only increased. That expands the scope for more understanding, raising consciousness, and solidarity among the oppressed in Kashmir and in India. The criminal mismanagement of covid-19 also demonstrated for many the costs of not having politically democratic and responsible institutions.

But what can we reasonably hope to achieve? Plebiscite? Demilitarization? These things look impossibly far now. So what demands? And how? New Delhi is not moved by public opinion in Kashmir. It demonstrated in 2019 that for Delhi Kashmiris are animals and insects, without rights and we do with them whatever we like. Farmer’s protests show that even vocal Indian public opinion hardly matters for this regime. But if there is any hope for improving the situation in Kashmir it is largely from international and domestic pressures. Waiting for Kashmir to explode in civil or armed unrest is a prayer for genocide. The brutality and power of the Indian state have only increased since the 1990s. It will only give a new justification for intensifying the cycle of violence and harming the chances of any long-term solution.

I believe the most basic demand that Indian activists, labour unions, civil societies, progressive NGOs, and maybe political parties should include in their programs is that of the restoration of the pre-August 5, 2019 position. Something similar to the baseline reached in the first Gupkar Declaration.

The first and major step must be increasing public support. While being as cautious and prepared for reaction by the state. And to my knowledge, public support remains the best defense against the state’s retaliation. Another step of course must be to learn more from civil society, activists, and people in the region to formulate a more meaningful and reasonable proposal.

This should be considered only a suggestion to start the conversation. With the increased access to information and opinions about Kashmir, a large section of young Indians have grown sensitive towards their struggle. But understanding must also lead to action. Hopefully, we will rise to the occasion.

[Music] Throughput – @home

May 28th, 2021

All the tracks were written and recorded during the April and May lockdown imposed because of the cataclysmic second wave of covid-19 in India. The process was a selfish and necessary break from almost all social engagement. The cover images for all the songs, except the first, are photographs taken by Lokesh.

 

WHY DOES THE WORKING CLASS SUPPORT BJP? (To whatever extent it does.)

May 24th, 2021
Why are most people in urban and rural India skeptical about the existence, nature, or origins of the coronavirus? Why do they mistrust the vaccines – whether developed in India or not? Because for most working people the people in power (“bade log”), whoever they may be, do not have their interests in mind, most have little understanding of the forces that seem to govern their life – from decisions about livelihood, health, education and even death.
 
The talk of the whole covid catastrophe in India being the result of increasing sins (“paap”) in the world is also common. When I asked a woman what they mean by “paap” she responded by saying that it is the increasing selfishness, diminishing human decency in society – “just look at how dead bodies of covid casualties are being treated.” Some people might reply differently but the feeling that “we have changed for the worse” is pretty common and with little effort can evoke a sense of longing for a mythic “better past and tradition” that is lost. A sense of alienation and powerlessness combined with mistrust of social forces and corrupted people is the ideal ground for the seeds of power worship to grow. They are just waiting for a messiah to appear, convince them it’s their interest he or she represents and they will surrender.
 
These people are a victim of neoliberalism and the shrinking possibility of even a mediocre life. Most young people of my generation who grew up in a middle-class have fallen out of it and almost half of them are unemployed. This is why in the opinion polls globally the so-called right-winger supporters usually favor progressive economic policies. That’s why parties fight elections on “cultural” and”identity” issues almost exclusively.
 
The question more important now is will the working class continue to support BJP (again, to whatever extent it does) even after BJP demonstrated that it is one of the worse party and government in the world when it comes to dealing with any sort of crisis and has no interest in poor people’s lives? I think the answer (quite obviously) is: Yes if the majority of the working people do not find a real alternative that can show it cares about its interests – including economic interests. Only a campaign for economic justice that speaks to the needs and aspirations of the masses can defeat BJP.