Wrong time to meddle

Given the dire nature of current circumstances, independent bureaucrats and ministers should stay away from influencing commercial decisions of individual PSUs for the moment

It is high time that central ministers and top bureaucrats stop meddling with commercial decisions of the management of their departmental undertakings, especially at this difficult time. In the past, such interferences have led to financial misery of many public sector undertakings (PSUs). The worst of them were two former national airlines — Indian Airlines and Air India — under the Ministry of Civil Aviation. Most public representatives in the government holding ministerial portfolios are generalists and not management experts. The same is the case of bureaucrats. They would probably do well to refrain from giving unwarranted commercial advice to the management of departmental undertakings at this juncture when large PSEs are fully engaged in fighting Coronavirus within their plants and establishments, employing thousands of people, and those living close to their factories, while running their operations. The Government should also see that such advice is also not showered on PSU management by their departmental secretaries or top bureaucrats. The latter could give wrong signals.

A departmental secretary, last week, reportedly asked PSUs under the Ministry of Steel to maintain normal production while preparing to face the threat of Coronavirus in their plants. The secretary chaired a meeting, via video-conferencing, in which senior officials of SAIL, RINL, NMDC, MOIL and KIOCL, among others, participated. The PSU bosses were confused, if not puzzled. It was not because of the advice by the top bureaucrat on the virus control but because of his verbal directive on maintaining the production levels of steel and mines, including iron ore. The domestic steel demand has drastically fallen after the virus scare, followed by the nation-wide lockdown. The housing and construction activity, automobile manufacturing, engineering units, roads and infrastructure projects, among others, have all slowed down. Many have opted for temporary shutdowns. Almost all steel producers — primary and secondary — are cutting down production in keeping with the market demand. Last year, India's total crude steel production was 111.2 million tonnes. The public sector units accounted for only 20 per cent of the production. Will the Government provide similar commercial advice to private sector producers on maintaining their production levels in total disregard to the demand in the lockdown-hit market?

Steel is one of the eight core sector areas in which PSEs play a very significant role. The sector is highly capital and employment-intensive. The other core sector industries are electricity generation, crude oil and gas production, petroleum oil refining and distribution, coal mining, cement and fertiliser. All these industries are also served by the private sector. Fighting COVID-19 is a common concern for all. The PSEs are also required to strictly follow the directive of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE). Under the BPE guidelines, all CPSEs are required to enforce work from home for half of their non-executive staff to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. To avoid crowding in offices, plants and other units, heads of CPSEs have been asked to draft a weekly roster keeping in view their work exigencies for the non-executive staff in such a manner that not more than 50 per cent of their non-executive staff have to attend office every day. All CPSEs are following the directive. Many are taking additional measures to prevent the virus from spreading. For instance, SAIL has implemented various preventive measures across its plants, units and offices to contain the spread of the virus. Quarantine facilities and isolation wards have been prepared at SAIL hospitals. The company has restricted travel of its employees. The meetings are mostly conducted through video-conferencing. At RINL, biometric attendance has been suspended. An isolation ward has been arranged with a quarantine facility at the Vizag plant. The NMDC's offices and buildings across the country are being sanitised.

Social and physical distancing, an important requirement to fight the Coronavirus, is not easy to follow in most of the units. Yet, it must be stated with satisfaction that the PSE management are innovating industry-specific practices to follow the directives of the government and, at the same time, meet the emergency needs of consumers and the market. The various PSU managements have the full support of their respective trade unions. The PSEs such as Coal India, the country's biggest corporate employer, having nearly half a million miners and essential staff, SAIL, ONGC, Oil India, IOC, NTPC and BHEL have all changed their work pattern and schedule to meet the BPE guidelines. Notably, employees' unions at all these PSEs are proactively working with their management and contributing to solutions for specific problems. The demand for products and services in almost all sectors is moving downward following the lockdown. Revenues are also falling. Some like NHAI are forgoing toll collections as per the government directive. Most interestingly, both the pilots' unions of Air India — IPG and ICPA — have written to the Prime Minister assuring him that their members will stand by the Government and will operate any special flight irrespective of the extent of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Announcing the three-week nationwide lockdown, the Prime Minister clearly said the life of people is more important than economic growth. The government is substantially dependant on PSUs to pursue its policy to protect life and meet dire necessities of the common man. The Union Health Ministry said that it has given orders to PSUs to provide ventilators to handle the surge in Coronavirus cases across the country. The Government has asked PSUs to provide 10,000 ventilators. Bharat Electronics Limited has also been requested to purchase 30,000 additional ventilators in 1-2 months. Falling market demand has already led to a cutdown in production and supplies by such market leaders as ONGC, IOC, BPL, HPCL, etc. IOC has slashed its refining capacity utilisation by almost 30 per cent as fuel demand crashed. Maybe, it is in the best interest of the country, independent bureaucrats and ministers stay away from influencing commercial decisions of individual PSUs at the moment.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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