Andhra employees’ protest: Jagan faces NTR-like challenge with cuts in salaries

Andhra employees’ protest: Jagan faces NTR-like challenge with cuts in salaries

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Never in the history of Andhra Pradesh, before or after the bifurcation, have government employees had an occasion to demonstrate their physical strength against a regime on the lines of the protest that happened in Vijayawada on Thursday (February 3).

Lakhs of employees left their homes in response to the ‘Chalo Vijaywada’ call given by PRC (Pay Revision Commission) Struggle Committee. The Struggle Committee is the united forum of associations of government employees, teachers and pensioners.

Much to the surprise of the government, employees in lakhs descended on the roads of Vijayawada to participate in a rally as an act of defiance. They thwarted the police plan to “insulate” Vijayawada as a handful of non-descript leaders pulled off “magic” without much noise. It was a show of strength no politician can dream of.

The reason for protest 

The bone of contention is the downward revision of wages in the name of implementation of PRC recommendations. The Struggle Committee decried all the government orders (GO) issued on January 17, 2022, to give effect to new wages. The employees cried foul as the ‘pay revision’ resulted in reduction in salaries instead of a hike. Talks that followed failed because the government refused to roll back the orders.

The Andhra government clearly appears to have overestimated the situation. After it increased the retirement age from 60 to 62 years, the government wrongly thought it would make employees happy, to the extent that they would ignore the downward revision of wages.

The employees, however, are not ready to accept any pay cut while the government is not willing to shell out extra money to please them. This resulted in a show of strength by employees on Thursday.

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Huge crowds gathered on the roads of Vijayawada despite police restrictions. The crowds, emerging from every nook and corner of the city, took control of the arterial BRTS Road in no time. Chants of ‘betrayal of the government’ echoed all over.

Despite the huge number of protesters, the striking employees claimed that only a fraction of them could reach Vijayawada as the lucky ones sneaked into the city hoodwinking as daily wage labourers, marriage parties, farmers, hawkers, patients, etc. Several of their colleagues were stopped by the police in the outskirts of Vijaywada. A teacher from Anantapur district, who participated in the rally posing as a businessman, said each family had dispatched a member to express solidarity with the ongoing agitation. Government sources, however, suspect infiltration of “outsiders” as the reason for the big numbers.

The mood among protesting government employees is belligerent, though it is not known whether this display of anger would take the form of an anti-Jagan sentiment, repeating the events of 1986 which laid the path for defeat of NT Ramarao in the 1989 state elections.

Employees feel Jagan Reddy betrayed them

The government employees feel they were betrayed by chief minister Jaganmohan Reddy who, they allege, reneged on his poll promises with regard to the implementation of the recommendations of PRC. They said instead of benefitting the employees, PRC resulted in reduction in salaries. “Though PRC was an important poll promise, Jagan’s government seemed reluctant to implement it once it came to power. When forced to implement, it sought to cut the salaries,” said Bopparaju Venkateswarlu, Chairman of Employees JAC (Amaravati).

“At a time when the prices of all commodities are on the rise, the government had announced a lesser fitment (23 percent) than the IR (27 percent) and abridged the HRA slabs from  12 percent, 14.5 percent, 20 percent, and 30 percent to just 8 percent and 16 percent. The government also stopped additional pension being offered to those in the age group of 70 and 75.

“The employees were also peeved at the lowering of the basic pay of village and ward secretariat employees from Rs 20,000 to Rs 14,500 and Rs 15,000. As a result of downward revision of wages, the employees got a lesser salary in January 2022 than the previous month,” Bopparaju said demanding immediate revocation of all orders related to pay revision. He warned of an indefinite strike from February 7 if their demands were not met.

The Jagan government, however, is trying to belittle the massive rally by saying the huge numbers were because of the presence of “outsiders”.

Chief secretary Sameer Sharma warned, “The government is ready for talks on the anomalies in the wages. If employees go on strike, there is a danger of vested interests infiltrating into it.”

Prof KS Chalam, noted economist and Chairman of Institute for Economic and Social Justice, sees it as a failure of the government in implementing the PRC.

“IR is generally given to employees if pay commission report is delayed. It seems the administration has failed to convince the employees that their salary would not be cut after the pay commission. The employees, particularly teachers, are very vocal. They have a lot of experience in waging war against the state. Yesterday’s rally indicates the mood of the employees. Now the government should talk to them without any prejudice,” Prof Chalam, who was former special rapporteur of the National Human Rights Commission, said.

Will history repeat itself?

There is a striking similarity between the situation NT Ramarao as chief minister faced in 1986 and that of YS Jaganmohan Reddy now. Having won the 1985 election with a huge majority of 202 seats in the house of 294, NTR used to delude in the permanency of his position. Calling himself the head of a ‘peoples’ government’, NTR would dismiss anything that was not to his liking. He thought employees were corrupt and should be taught a lesson or two. In his first stint in 1983, NTR brought down the retirement age from 58 to 55 years which was rolled back later. In his second stint, the issue was pay revision. During the talks, NTR ruthlessly dismissed all the demands of the employees which led to the historic 53-day strike in November and December 1986. What united the employees against the mighty NTR was his branding of employees as “lazy, corrupt, and unhelpful to the people at large.”

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Thinking that NTR was tarnishing their image, the employees took a hard stance and went on strike. Though a truce was struck, the bad blood persisted which eventually led to the defeat of NTR in the 1989 election.

Jagan’s mistake

Like NTR, CM Jagan Reddy also seems to be reading the landslide mandate he was given in the 2019 election (151 out of 175 seats) as a licence to browbeat forces of opposition. He made himself unapproachable. The tendency that a government with massive people’s mandate can take any decision could not silence the restive employees who were pressing for pay revision.

In a pamphlet released recently, the employees indirectly reminded the government of how NTR in 1986, despite an absolute majority in the House, failed to snub the employees. The success of the meeting, which CM Jagan had earlier with the employees, has proven short-lived mainly because of the way the government wanted to give effect to the pay revision made public.

The difference between politics of Andhra and Telangana

Andhra Pradesh is not known for anti-government mobilizations, unlike Telangana which has always been the hotbed of political struggles. What drives the politics in Andhra is sheer manipulation.

When Chandrababu Naidu made Amaravati the capital of Andhra Pradesh in 2014, Rayalaseema, which wanted Kurnool as capital, did not flare-up. Similarly when Jagan planned to shift the capital farther to Vizag, the region, which harps on Sribagh Pact, did not utter a word of protest. The virulent Telangana movement could not generate any backlash in any part of Andhra.

The state’s politicians love to wait for an opportunity to manipulate things instead of investing energies in political movements. The chief ministers who ruled the state between 1989 and 2019 ensured that employees were not rubbed the wrong way. Many consider the 1986 agitation as the last strike by Andhra state employees.

Against this backdrop, the employees this time are flexing their muscles to challenge the “strong-minded” Jagan. Now the state government is not able to digest the fact that employees are trying to overpower it. It appears that poor handling of the situation by the aides of the chief minister spoiled the goodwill generated after the retirement age was increased from 60 to 62.

“Both sides have gone too far and it is difficult for them to beat a retreat,” said noted political commentator Dr Pentapati Pullarao. “The problem with the government is that it has never created a channel for a proper exchange of views with the employees.

“There appears to be a tendency in the government that employees should accept the views of the government.

“Had there been a meaningful liaison with employees, the situation would not have reached this far. The Vijayawada massive rally should be seen as the sign of something more than a mere demonstration of employees, “Dr Rao said.

The only graceful exit for both parties appears to be the intervention of the High Court, which is looking into a petition filed against the validity of the controversial government orders issued to implement the PRC. The case was adjourned till February 23. Till then the state government and the protesting employees will have to keep their fingers crossed.

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