‘Trade union’ seems to be the new hate word for Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao who went about crushing the ongoing strike by the state-owned transport corporation, announced partial privatisation of the bus services and set the November 5 deadline for the 49,000 odd employees to resume their duties or face dismissal from service.
It has been over a month since the employees of the Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC) began their strike demanding, among other things, higher wages and merger of the corporation with the government.
This is the biggest challenge for KCR in his second term as the chief minister. However, he has surprised both his admirers and critics in equal measure by adopting an unusually aggressive approach, refusing to hold talks with the agitating staff and even ignoring the Telangana High Court’s advice to sort out the issues through negotiations on the ground that the strike was illegal.
Armed with the victory for his Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in the recent assembly by-election in Huzurnagar, a traditional Congress stronghold, KCR has further hardened his stance by saying that he would not be cowed down by the blackmailing tactics of the unions and that partial privatisation of the corporation was inevitable to improve operational efficiency, profitability and service to the commuters.
KCR’s risky political gambit is reminiscent of former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s response to a similar situation in 2003. She had dismissed 1.76 lakh government employees who had gone on strike. Following the court’s intervention, her government later agreed to take back the employees on its terms. The reinstatement was subject to every employee tendering an unconditional apology as well as giving an undertaking that they will not go on strike in future. She lost the subsequent assembly election.
Adopting a similar stand, KCR has laid down a condition that the striking employees returning to work must give an undertaking that they will not go on strike in future.
In a rather unusual outburst, the chief minister hit out at what he called ‘militant trade unionism’ and warned the employees against falling into the trap of the self-seeking union leaders who were out to derail progress and development in the name of asserting their right to protest.
The chief minister’s claim that the salaries of the TSRTC employees have been hiked by 67 per cent in the last four years has been refuted by the union leaders.
Privatisation on cards
A crucial cabinet meeting on Saturday (November 2) decided to allow private operators to run RTC buses on 5,100 routes out of the total 10,400 routes in the state. “If the striking employees don’t return to work by November 5 midnight, we will privatise the remaining 5,000 routes as well,” he warned while firmly ruling out merger of the corporation with the government, a key demand of the employees.
The government has, however, clarified that private operators will work under the control of the TSRTC and there would be a regulatory commission to fix fare and take care of other issues.
The decision to partially privatise the transport corporation was taken to ensure efficient public transport and provide better service to the people, the chief minister said and cited examples of Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal where certain bus routes have been privatised.
The TSRTC is incurring an annual loss of ₹1,200 crore and has an accumulated debt of ₹5,000 crore. The TRS leaders contended that the privatisation decision was irrevocable as the state was empowered to do so under the recently amended Motor Vehicle Act, 2019.
Union leaders adamant
On their part, the TSRTC union leaders remained adamant and threatened to further intensify the agitation. The president of the TSRTC Joint Action Committee (JAC) Ashwathama Reddy said they would approach the Centre soon and, if necessary, seek the intervention of President Ram Nath Kovind to find a solution.
The union leader asked the employees to be bold and courageous and not to compromise on their self-respect.
Meanwhile, the Telangana High Court has summoned Chief Secretary SK Joshi, TSRTC in-charge managing director Sunil Sharma and Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) commissioner Lokesh Kumar to the court on November 7, when the hearing on the strike resumes.
At the previous hearing on November 1, the court had pulled up Sunil Sharma for submitting false report on the dues to be paid to TSRTC by the government and GHMC.
Experts oppose privatisation
Experts have warned the government against privatisation, saying what the transport corporation needs is more operational autonomy.
“It is ridiculous to blame the transport corporation and its employees for the losses. The government must reduce the tax burden on the corporation and allow greater operational freedom to achieve the turn-around,” analyst Professor K Nageshwar said.
Diesel alone accounts for 32 per cent of the total expenditure by the corporation and heavy state tax on fuel is one of the key factors responsible for the losses. “The RTC pays nearly ₹650 crore per year to the government towards taxes. If the government reduces the tax burden, then the corporation will be able to cut down its losses,” he said.
The expenditure on fuel, which stood at 20 per cent of the total expenditure in 2015, rose to 32 per cent in 2018 while the component of staff salaries went up by just 1.2 per cent during the period from 54.8 per cent to 56 per cent.
“This shows that instead of privatisation, the corporation needs to be freed from the shackles of high taxation. Moreover, it must be seen as a service organisation, not a commercial one. Providing safe and efficient public transport is the social obligation of the government,” added Professor Nageshwar.
The Congress, BJP and Left parties have extended support to the striking employees and stepped up attack on the TRS government for its unilateral and undemocratic decisions as KCR takes a tough stand on the strike.