Shri Ramdev Singh as labor leader was one of the most prominent labor leaders we have seen in Uttar Pradesh (UP), India. The labor movement in UP, India, owes its origin, structure, and characteristic to Ramdev Singh. From the media account, under his leadership, the labor association, that was born at Hindalco Ltd., became the most influential and popular labor association of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India. In independent India when society and industry were faced with multitude problems, especially reminiscence of coloniality, individualism and the power of its employer class were oblivious and ignorant to workers issues. His compassionate perception about working class and leadership compelled him to forge a confident workers' organization dedicated to the principles of solidarity and mutual aid. He furthered the socialist principle on very tough situations and non-conducive environment, and his story is no less inspiring than the story of Samuel Gompers.
Modernization of world had multiple factors and one of that is the Industrial Revolution in England in late 18th century. The colonized India paid the worse price, as the feudalistic ruling of British Raj, forced the Indian farmers to produce cotton plantation so that it can fuel English factories and the cash crops in place of food crops, brewed the worse famines known in the history of India. Not that India was not industrialized, prior to British Rule, India had robust handicraft industry, and led the world’s export with exotic wool, cotton, silk, ornaments, jewelry and other utility materials. But British systematically executed deindustrialization of India and not only made Indian to provide raw materials and labor for cheap but also leaving them with no choice than to purchase high-priced goods produced by themselves but owned by British.
The British exploited the industries in India to produce ammunitions for Second World War, and of course for no profit leading to collapse of industry and worse life qualities for the workforce. And it all ran on the method of feudalistic slave-driving tactics. After Independence (1947), industries in India were in worse shape as ownership was in few hands, short supply of capital and educated workers, resulted in state taking complete control and infusing feudalistic government’s systems. The industry system in India fell in abyss and it was so dire that Indian had to enact Indian Factory Act 1949 to impose rules in the rampant system covering health safety, the welfare of workers, and to relieve the industry from the detrimental influence of the public sector.
In 1955 Karve committee recommendations set the path for small-scale industries to utilize more resources of India, including raw materials emerged from mines. Though industries grew in number, but industrial productivity was miserable, primarily due to feudalistic exploitation of workforce to increase profit. It continued without any care or intervention until in 1977 Janata Party Government brought a new industrial policy, with aim to increasing employment as well as developing a small-scale sector for rural development.
The workforce in India industry saw darkest period during this tenure, but it gave rise to work-hardened social leaders who contributed tremendously to the quality of lives of work force. One of very prominent leader was Ramdev Singh who India lost few weeks ago. Ramdev Singh could be considered as Samuel Gompers of USA who for the first time formed national federation of unions for skilled workers in 1889, later taking a form of American Federation of Labor. The few decades span of activism of Ramdev Singh paints us a picture of pathetic situation of work force in Post-independent India. Success of Atmanirbhar Bharat, a path embarked by India will rely on the success of legacy of activism that Ramdev Singh and other such work force leaders have left behind.
Industrialization brings prosperity, but what happened during the Industrial Revolution should not be forgotten, the tale of plight and struggle of working-class people who were to work for long hours, get motely low wages, deprived of nutritious food, medicine and health care, live in an unhygienic shabby slum of Lancashire and London. Some ray of hope came to all those who were not treated as human beings rather as toiling machines, when government brought intervention strategies through policies such as increasing wages, tenable working hours, providing for education, establishing day care centers and healthcare support. But that still was not enough to lift the life quality of the work force which eventually led to labor unrest.
During labor unrest, leaders emerged and after a while International Labor Organization was created in 1919. History of labor unrest had been part of the industrialization, as it has been a major issue for most organizations all over the world, and productivity of industry has suffered as they often times develop negative attitudes towards their work as well as towards the employer. Emergence of Ramdev Singh as labor leader was to fill up the gaps and help fellow workers as well as to help employer appreciate the key aspect that the employee welfare services increase the loyalty and motivation of employees. His activism initiated at Hindustan Aluminum Corporation Limited was aimed to convey the most critical labor principle that provision of employee welfare services is a social responsibility of organizations since the entire life of workers ‘centers on the employer and their loyalty is most sensitive to that.
The Hindustan Aluminum Corporation Limited (later renamed Hindalco), established in 1958 by the Aditya Birla Group at Renukoot in Uttar Pradesh steadily expanded its capacity to produce 20 thousand metric tons per year aluminum metal and 40 thousand metric tons per year alumina. Hindalco was listed in the Forbes Global 2000 at 895th rank worth 1.332 trillion INR (US$18 billion, 2021) boasting as one of the biggest producers of primary aluminum in Asia. However, at inception company faced grave issues in terms of capital constraints impacting productivity, and employee drawn into labor unrest due to extremely poor employee welfare services. It was around that time Ramdev Singh joined the company as a wager, where he was needed to work near furnaces emitting unbearable heat. While they had to work in miserable and dangerous conditions, they also had to deal with feudalistic set up of the management. The living conditions of the employees were extremely poor with 20-30 wagers crammed in tiny tin-shades that turned into heat chambers in summer. Ramdev Singh soon found himself in a perfect condition to simmer and boil the labor unrest.
When we draw insights from Contagion Theory (Gustav Le Bon,1896) it helps us evaluate the professional employer negotiators and employees’ interactions, and the mobilization theory that assess the decisions of workers to participate in industrial conflict we get a good sense of company’s delivery on the employee social welfare facilities and its positive impact on industrial unrest. Lately, it has been found to be not significantly effective in terms of organizational performance. Mostly such activities had not been there, and even if some labor unrest warranted them to do something they would not address the employees’ problems comprehensively. The labor unrest intervention strategies employed by Hindalco did not address the issue of unrest and thus did not enhance performance of the organization. Management of Hindalco lacked the understanding and they rather formulated counterproductive policy that caused multiple strikes harming productivity on one hand and disgruntlement of employees on other hand.
Hindalco had no or almost negligible employee welfare arrangements and that revealed management’s apathy to the employees who had to put up with terrible working conditions. Ramdev Singh brought those issues to his supervisor and later to higher management but his plea was ignored. The capital-driven feudal system was so prevalent that some in higher management found Ramdev a hurdle and they terminated him without any prior information. Ramdev Singh wanted to explain the situation to the higher management, but he was restrained from entering the entry gate. This news soon reached the fellow workers, and they came out in significantly large numbers to express solidarity. In no time employees started sloganeering, asking reinstatement of Ramdev Singh. That was an inflection point, the suppression of workers gave rise to a voice and gave birth to a labor leader Ramdev Babu.
As expected, Hindalco HR did not appreciate that employee welfare activities are critical element in promoting economic development as it motivates workers to be loyal which in turn had direct effect on their work efficiency and productivity. Hindalco neglected welfare services such as housing, medical assistance, canteens, training, educational and recreation facilities. It remained indifferent to workers issues and totally ignored their concerns regarding extended working hours, employment policy, workers’ health and welfare, workplace design and the general conduct of workers at the workplace. Hindalco didn’t fulfill ILOs recommendations. Hindalco management did not have any leverage on the situation and thus they called Ramdev babu to hear and compensate. Ramdev Babu by then realized that it was incumbent on the workers, to bargain for their welfare from Hindalco management, and founded the first trade union in Hindalco, named Rashtriya Shramik Sangh.
A study conducted in America found that workplace stress is linked to the employee work conditions. Through Rashtriya Shramik Sangh’ Ramdev Babu raised issues pertaining to betterment of workers with management. Hindalco apparently did not make any effort to initiate workers welfare activities. On the contrary, Hindalco management terminated him without any reason, and got him and key Rashtriya Shramik Sangh members arrested. The suppression of labor voice took a vicious form. Ramdev continued his fight for workers. He approached leaders and influential people and obtained their support to his movement. He continued his talks and meetings with the Hindalco management who never offered any meaningful solution leading to labor strikes in 1963 and 1966. Hundreds of workers participated in the 1963 strike which lasted for three days. Hindalco management offered a settlement clause of no victimization. But there was no improvement in worker welfare arrangements. Thousands of disgruntled workers called for strike in 1966 leading to the shutdown of Asia’s biggest aluminum producing factory operations for two months. Hindalco management terminated over 300 employees. After media intervention, majority of employees were reinstated but Ramdev Babu and few of his close associates were left out. But Ramdev Babu continued his struggle at different front. He united the traders and established markets in the vicinity of the factory. In addition, he founded ‘Vyapar Mandal’ and became its first chairman.
Ramdev Singh soon earned good reputation for his leadership and became part of various political meetings and ‘laborers jan sabhas’ and moved with influential leaders like former Prime Minister Ch. Charan Singh, Chandra Shekhar, top socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan and George Fernandes. He became close associate of leader and activist Raj Narain who later became health minister of Uttar Pradesh. Raj Narain ji was the only politician who defeated Indira Gandhi in the general elections of 1977. Raj Narain who held the Union minister of India position, investigated the situation at Hindalco. Subsequently, Ramdev and many others who were terminated were offered jobs. Ramdev Babu’s struggle put his family through an extremely difficult time. But he was never dissuaded and after 14 years of struggle he got back his dignity and confidence. He got many offers to join politics which he humbly rejected and as a true socialist he continued working for the labor welfare.
The post covid world has seen global supply shortages and strong demand opening new opportunity for Hindalco Industries Ltd which has plan to spend $7.2 billion to expand its aluminum business over the next five years. Rightly so, it is also an opportunity for Hindalco management to revisit their social welfare responsibility and reconcile with all those who build the company with their hard work and toil. Hindalco must appreciate, acknowledge, and adapt the legacy that Ramdev Singh left behind and use that as a framework to make long term plans policies to address employees’ welfare. The legacy of Ramdev Singh (8 October 1935–14 April 2022) is exemplary. Now, Ramdev Singh’s son Manoj Singh (known as Manoj Bhawuk) is carrying on his father's social service legacy. He has built a trust in Ramdev Singh’s name which honors persons who have rendered valuable contribution towards welfare of laborers on his death anniversary.
Image source: Sampurnamaya.in
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. MyIndMakers is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information on this article. All information is provided on an as-is basis. The information, facts or opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of MyindMakers and it does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.