Shoutout against privatisation
The labour strikes across India’s public sector witnessed through December and January have all stood against the privatisation of state machinery
The labour arena in India has suddenly become an active space. After a successful telecom strike by two lakh BSNL workers on December 3, 2018, and two successive bank strikes on December 21 and 26, 2018, involving a million bank employees, four lakh defence sector civilian workers are now on a three-day strike from January 23-25 2019.
These aren't routine run-off-the-mill industrial actions. BSNL workers successfully fought against the government's policy of denying them the 4G spectrum and handing it over only to private monopolies. The second bank strike in December 2018 was against the government's policy of merging three public sector banks as a shortcut to handling the unsustainable crisis of non-performing assets. Now, defence employees are on a strike to challenge the government's policy of privatising defence production.
Less noticed but no less significant was the 'work-to-rule' agitation staged by 1.3 million workers of Indian Railways on December 11, 2018, against privatisation. Some 75,000 steel workers under SAIL went on a strike as far back as in April 2017 against disinvestment and revived their protests in 2018 against the outright sale of Salem Steel Plant. Last year, about 50,000 regular port workers — including 32,000 from 12 major ports — followed them up with an all-India strike in May 2018. Lakhs of casual workers joined them in opposing the Major Ports Authorities Bill 2016, pending in Parliament, which they feared would pave the way for the corporatisation of ports as a transitional step for subsequent privatisation. The labour scene was also peppered with similar direct actions by airline workers, insurance employees and all-India transport workers in between.
The three-day strike by Coal India Limited (CIL) workers, in June 2017, was a watershed. When 2.8 lakh CIL workers followed it up with a threat of an indefinite strike, the government had to beat a retreat and drop the privatisation move. It was the first major defeat for the government at the hands of the working class. The string of industrial actions that originated in 2017 had continued as a wave of strikes in the 2018 winter of discontent and shows no let-up in 2019. These are all political actions challenging the government's policies. In the political context of a rightwing surge having implications on union power, which showed signs of weakening initially, these actions mark a turning of the tide.
Among them, the defence workers' strike is exceptional and has some added significance. Alageswaran, the versatile worker leader of the Ordnance Factory of Tiruchirapalli, who is also a literary personality authoring three books, including one on India's foreign policy, said even as he was addressing workers, "We have no other economic demands on the table. The four lakh workers from 42 state-owned ordnance factories, DRDO units, all the Military Engineering Service (MES) centres and Army Station Workshops are challenging the government at the policy level. Put an end to privatising defence production. In a sense, the strike is historic. This is for the first time that all civilian employees under the Department of Defence have come together for a strike action. Earlier, workers of only some ordnance production units used to come together." He also pointed to yet another special feature: "The strike is also total. Partly because, as it happened in the case of Coal India and banks, the officers are also supporting workers as they are also against the government whittling down the public sector defence production industry in favour of Ambanis and Adanis".
"We had two rounds of talks with the Defence Secretary and he refused to accept our demands claiming they fell in the realm of government policy beyond his ministry. It was the government's prerogative, he argued. We did not take it lying down. Things did not lapse back into the routine pragmatic bargaining process of going by what is practicable and achievable. Even if there is no scope for immediate reversal of the policy, we felt the need to register our strong protest", he adds.
In the case of CIL, the proposal was for dividing the company into four units and going for outright strategic sale. No defence production unit has been put on the bloc for privatisation as yet. However, defence production is being outsourced to private corporates, Indian and foreign. The Rafale scandal, in which HAL was sidelined in favour of Dassault, is a fallout of this policy. Not only Ambanis, but Indian biggies like Adanis and Punj Lloyd are also vying with Swedish Saab and American Airbus Industries for the Indian aerospace market space.
Union Minister of State for Defence, Subhash Bhamre, informed Lok Sabha on July 11, 2018, that 94 contracts involving Rs 82,979 crore have been signed with Indian vendors for the supply of defence equipment. He also said that contracts have been signed with seven US arms majors, seven Israeli firms, five UK firms, three each with German and Swedish firms and two with French firms, including Dassault for Rafale fighters. He, however, did not disclose the total amount involved in these foreign deals. Unofficial media estimates put the figure at $20 billion.
Side by side, the government has also embarked upon disinvestment. Foreign investment up to 49 per cent in defence manufacture units has been allowed through the automatic route and up to 100 per cent would be cleared in select cases. The government partly rolled back the government stakes in defence PSUs like Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and BEML, where the government shareholding now is 66.72 per cent and 54.03 per cent respectively. In February 2017, the government further announced a 26 per cent stake sale in BEML and is presently negotiating with Mitsubishi, Siemens and L&T in this regard. Further, according to BEML trade union leader Anjaneya Reddy, the workers went on a strike against this. Clearly, the military-industrial complex in India is acquiring a transnational dimension throwing up serious security issues.
India has become the largest buyer of arms in the international market. After already bagging $20 billion worth of contracts, global arms majors are still drooling for a bigger slice of the pie. The stakes are indeed very high — for both the government as well as workers.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)