Fall 2015

Guardian of the dispossessed: an economic dissident in modern India

– J. Zach Hollo

As India thrives and convulses in its embrace of capitalism, one labor organizer sees himself as the last line of defense for the working class and those being left behind as the country develops.

On a hot, humid afternoon in Visakhapatnam, a large city on India’s southeastern coast, Venkateswarlu Manam had a visitor. It was a young man named Raju, who had come to thank Manam for rescuing him from an abusive episode with his employer.

It had begun when Raju sold company property and didn’t hand over the revenue, like he was supposed to. Raju had admitted his wrongdoing and apologized to his boss, saying he’d pay the company back. But his boss, the manager of a gas cylinder distributor, beat Raju, and chained him to the wall outside the office building.

It was then that Raju’s aunt called Manam, who works for the Indian Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), telling him about the episode and pleading for help. Manam called to the manager, who reluctantly agreed to release Raju and give him back his job.

Raju later told Manam that his thievery was an act of desperation to pay interest fees to private moneylenders. “You fool,” Manam replied. “Why didn’t you come to me earlier?”

Settling disagreements like these is part of Manam’s job. Most of his time consists of sifting through legal paperwork for ongoing labor disputes, but random crises like this one often arise.

As India thrives and convulses in its embrace of capitalism, Manam sees himself as the last line of defense for the working class, a guardian of the poor and those being left behind as the country develops. India has experienced a sporadic flurry of growth since its 1991 economic reforms, when the government deregulated the economy, privatized many sectors, and opened up the country to greater foreign investment. Over the past 24 years, development indicators such as educational enrollment, child mortality, life expectancy, and percentage of people living below the poverty line have consistently improved. But these accomplishments belie India’s somber realities: the new economy has disproportionately benefitted those who are already privileged. Even with great economic growth, an estimated 363 million in India still live in poverty, according to a 2014 report by the Indian Planning Commission.

Venkateswarlu Manam (right) and his wife Lakshmi Marella (left)
Photo by J. Zach Hollo

At the IFTU branch in the state of Andhra Pradesh, Manam serves as the union’s vice president and also advises the Visakhapatnam Slum Dwellers Welfare Association (SDWA). The SDWA provides economic aid and legal services to residents in the city’s poorest quarters, and is led by Manam’s wife, Lakshmi Marella, who shares her husband’s activist bent.

Manam, who is 49, stands hunched over, his left arm twisted and dangling at his side. He walks with a limp, and though he often struggles to move from one place to another, he can get by, even if it takes a bit longer. What Manam lacks in mobility he compensates for in energy. He jumps from one bundle of paperwork to another, his voice serious but chatty as he discusses cases with his colleagues in his home office. He smiles easily under a whirl of hair oranged by the sun.

Manam’s battle for the poor, and against the establishment he sees as their oppressors, began in college. Raised by farmers in a village in Andhra Pradesh, he moved to Visakhapatnam to study law at Andhra University. There, he joined a student group that visited the city’s slums and organized political rallies against income inequality and caste discrimination.

In the early 1990s, while he was nearing the end of his law program, life on Manam’s family farm changed dramatically. As India’s economy teetered on the brink of collapse in the late 1980s, the government acquiesced to a host of structural reforms imposed by the World Bank in exchange for investment loans. Among those reforms was an agricultural policy that deregulated the Indian seed market and brought it under the jurisdiction of the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Seeds that Indian farmers had used their whole lives became the intellectual property of American corporations like Monsanto and Cargill, who collected royalties on their acquisitions and forced seed prices to skyrocket.

Manam’s family had to stop growing their own seeds, which they had normally replanted every year, and were forced to buy more expensive seeds, ones that had been genetically modified so that they could not be replanted in future seasons. The family also had to switch from homemade fertilizer to a more expensive foreign brand. Nationwide, imported food products made cheap by heavy subsidies from western countries flooded the market, driving the price down on the crops that Manam’s family sold.

“My input costs shot up from 4,000 to 15,000 rupees [$62 to $235],” remembers Manam’s brother Veeranjaneyu, who still works as a farmer. “The yield increased a little, but not nearly enough to cover the increase in input costs. And my crops sold for less money than before. I was forced to take out six lakhs [$9,412] in loans from private moneylenders. The loan has been a horrible burden on my life.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Vinay DV

For India’s farmers, the debt acquired in an effort to cope with the new trade rules has led to an epidemic of suicides in the countryside, which continues to this day. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, in the past three years more than 3,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide.

Having watched American multinational corporations extract vast amounts of wealth from the Indian countryside, and having seen firsthand the squalor of the urban slums, Manam decided to dedicate his life to activism. “I knew then I wanted to work for the people,” he says.

In college, Manam met Lakshmi, a likeminded liberal student activist. They fell in love, married, and had two daughters. Together, they help those most vulnerable in their community, one desperate case at a time.

“Seeing the condition of people around us, and knowing the reasons behind why they are suffering, how could we sit back and allow it to continue?” Lakshmi says.

“The system now pits human against human,” says Manam, arguing that capitalism reduces the world to competition and cruelty. “People should always be kind and loving to others. People should help one another, whether that person is family, a neighbor, friend, or complete stranger.”

“I do not like the Chicago School,” he volunteered to me recently, referring to the University of Chicago’s famously conservative economics department — the onetime intellectual home of Milton Friedman and birthplace for many of the economic theories that justify the World Bank’s and World Trade Organization’s structural reforms. “Globalization is just another word for Western hegemony,” Manam sighs.

Two photos of Bhagat Singh, a socialist revolutionary who violently opposed British rule in the early twentieth century, adorn a long pink wall in Manam’s office. Known as the antithesis of Mohandas Gandhi, the peaceful champion of nonviolent resistance, Singh rose to fame by taking part in the revenge murder of a British police officer in 1928. In prison, he fasted for 116 days, dying at the gallows at age 23. Whereas Gandhi disavowed class struggle in favor of unified resistance to the British, Singh remained devoted to Marxism, studying Lenin until the last days of his life.

“I do not like Gandhi,” Manam says. “I don’t believe India ever became independent. It went from being colonized by the British to being colonized by multinational corporations.”

Manam sees his efforts with workers and slum dwellers as part of a larger effort to manifest radical change in the country. “We need a revolution,” he says. “We need to take up arms against the government if we have to. There is so much suffering and so little relief. Communism is the only way forward. Everyone should be equal. The government should provide for the people. It should make sure people have shelter and food when they are in need. It should give them education.”

A communist banner is carried during a pro-farmers march through Thiruvananthapuram, India, in 2011.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Johan Bichel Lindegaard

“Every Monday is grievance day,” says Yuvaraj Narasimhan, the Visakhapatnam collector, a position much like a mayor. “Everyone is free to come and speak to me and my colleagues. And we often address the problems people tell us.”

Manam brushes it aside. “It is a sham!” he shouts when I bring up the “grievance day” sessions. “The government is deceiving the people into making them believe someone is listening.”

“I wanted to be an official once,” he continues. “Before I came to Visakhapatnam for university, I dreamed of getting a law degree and joining the government. I wanted to be a minister. I wanted to help the rural areas. I thought it was possible to serve in politics without corruption, without partiality, in a way that would really help the people. But after I moved here, I learned that idea was trash. It’s not possible to do good within the system.”

On May 30, 2015, three days after Manam had helped Raju, there was an incident involving a worker who transported gas cylinders, which are commonly used in India to provide fuel for cooking. This time, a 32-year-old transporter named Nagababu died on duty, leaving behind a wife and two children.

“Nagababu would only come home on Sundays. Otherwise, he was always working,” says Dhanalakshmi Lalam, Nagababu’s wife. “He would drive all day. At night, he slept in the car to guard the cylinders.”

Manam’s main task was to file a formal complaint to the police detailing the man’s death. Otherwise, he says, the company would have legal wiggle room to claim that the driver had not been on duty, leaving them largely off the hook in compensating his family. “The company has been abusing these workers,” Manam fumes. “They are only supposed to work one eight-hour shift per day. But the company often has them work three shifts straight.”

Before studying the autopsy or drafting the paperwork, Manam had a more personal role to play. He was going to the man’s home to pay his respects to the family, who live in a village two hours west of Visakhapatnam. Manam left his house with two union colleagues at 5 p.m. They’d be there by sundown.

Photo by J. Zach Hollo

Their small white van shot out of the city and onto a long highway that weaved through thick patches of palm trees, and past thatched-house villages next to sparkling Hyundai dealerships. Even more than the city, the countryside was full of surreal juxtapositions. The thatched-hut communities embodied serenity, but the road itself was a violent organism, with trucks, cars, and motorcycles swerving and honking at one another, surging onward with a ruthless sense of purpose.

Around 7 p.m., Manam and his colleagues turned onto a smaller, more unkempt road, and soon arrived at the village. About a hundred men had gathered in a field where Nagababu’s body lay atop a tall stack of wood, his face covered in orange dust with a thick red bindi mark on the forehead. Night was falling fast. A man lit the pyre.

The group gathered around Manam, shaking his hand warmly and smiling at him with tired eyes. Many men in this village work for the same company as Nagababu, and they all count on Manam’s services. Manam spoke to them, asking about their working conditions and telling them about the case he was filing to get Nagababu’s family more compensation.

Afterward, the van drove to the family’s house, a one-story brick home with a large porch draped by a billowing embroidered sheet. Two candles cast a dim yellow glow over the darkness.

Dhanalakshmi, Nagababu’s young widow, sat on a cot with their two children, a five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son, each of whom looked malnourished. When Manam entered, clinging to a colleague’s arm as he walked, Dhanalakshmi began to weep. Nagababu’s mother, short and skinny with long grey hair, was also there. Her eyes were sunk so deep into her face that they were barely visible. She wept, too.

Manam sat on a chair in front of the family. He stayed quiet for several minutes and absorbed the sounds of their grief. His eyes burned holes in the floor. Then he looked up and spoke.

He told them he was sorry for their loss — he couldn’t imagine the pain they must be feeling to lose a husband and son so young. He told them he was filing a police report on Nagababu’s behalf, so the family might get more compensation from the company. He told them he would need help from the family in days to come.

“Don’t be afraid. I know it is hard now, but you must be determined,” he said to them. “You must have courage. Don’t lose your courage.”

Dhanalakshmi paused her sobs and nodded. She thanked him, saying the family would do everything necessary to help the case.

After siting a few more minutes, Manam stood up, took his colleague’s arm, and limped away. As the van pulled out of the village and back onto the highway, one of them turned on the stereo and flipped to a muffled song, a fast number sung by a chorus with strong drums.

“This song was written during the Cold War,” Manam tells me. His eyes stare searchingly out the window; wind sails through his hair as he begins drumming his right hand on his leg.

“It’s about the hegemony of the Soviet Union and the United States — and struggle to escape imperialism,” he says. “They are singing, ‘How are we supposed to view the world? How can we escape this misery?’”

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J. Zach Hollo has reported on migrant labor issues for Doha News, on the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan for Al Bawaba, and is a contributor to the Wilson Quarterly. Follow him on WordPress or on Twitter at @JZachHollo.

The reporting of this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.