The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) pulled out of the all-India joint trade union strike on September 2 at the last minute. Perhaps it did not want to embarrass the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre, which it is ideologically sympathetic to. However, it has its own views on labour law reforms and it remains staunchly opposed to disinvestment. The union has demanded a people-friendly Budget from the Finance Minister. Excerpts from an interview that BMS general secretary Virjesh Upadhyaya gave Frontline :.
The government seems to have concerns about resource mobilisation. It has also not been able to meet its disinvestment target. Do you think it is going to move aggressively in that direction?
We have given suggestions to the Finance Minister at a pre-Budget meeting to increase budgetary allocations to the social sector. What the government intends to bring into the Budget should be discussed. The tradition has been that the government calls all stakeholders—trade unions, farmers, industry and others—for consultations. It should not be done in the dark. The draft proposal of the Budget should be put out. Since Independence this practice has never been followed, the government never discloses what is there in the Budget. The common man is paying a lot of tax in the form of indirect taxes, while those who are in a position to pay tax, the corporate sector, for example, are getting exemptions and concessions. The corporate sector is the biggest beneficiary of the Budget. Corporate tax revenue concessions include revenue forgone on corporate income tax, personal income tax, excise duty and customs duty. The government’s excessive romance with the corporate sector is creating a loss to the social sector. There is deliberate tax default by big business and corporate houses, leading to unpaid direct tax dues.
This system should be changed. Wage-led growth should be there. Increased wages will lead to greater purchasing power, which will in turn strengthen the market and the economy.
What is the BMS’ position on disinvestment of PSUs as a form of resource mobilisation?
Since Independence there has been no serious thought about resource mobilisation. It is unfortunate. Every government wants to get popular, so the basics are not addressed properly. The gap between resources and requirement is widening. Even after the Budget is presented, the government should have a serious discussion on resource generation and reallocation of resources. But whatsoever is the compulsion, the focus comes on public sector disinvestment. This is not an intelligent approach. I don’t appreciate this at all. This is like selling the family jewellery for buying groceries.
All governments see public sector disinvestment as easy way out. Ultimately, it was because of the market conditions that LIC was compelled to buy the shares. The real situation of LIC is not very good. It is not in a good shape. There are many PSUs that have been sick since day one. The government took over many companies after Independence and some of them were sick even at that stage. We have told the Finance Minister that we want a separate discussion on PSUs. This is required because many PSUs were created at a particular phase and time. Many of them were producing for others. Indian Telephone Industries—its product was being used by the telecom department. After the NEP [New Economic Policy], the government laid down that 60 per cent of equipment would have to be purchased in the open market. ITI got affected and that in turn affected Hindustan Cables. The public sector is in good health where there is no competition. I have a view on profit- and loss-making PSUs. What is the basis for considering a PSU as such? It is the balance sheet. But the parameter of performance should be redesigned. Why do we have industrialisation in the first place? To create quality life for human beings. The role of PSUs have to be considered in creating quality life for many. The mindset that sees only the monetary aspect is not correct.
Unemployment and underemployment is also a reason why there is a growth in terrorist activities. The question why PSUs are not performing also needs to be asked. The truth is that many of them were producing for other PSUs. And why should PSUs be blamed. That is one of the reasons why we have asked the Finance Ministers for an exhaustive discussion on the public sector so that we can conclude what is loss-making and what is not. We are fundamentally against the disinvestment of PSUs. This wealth is already there; it is being converted into hard cash. Divesting in PSUs is not generating new wealth. From day one, we have been against disinvestment of PSUs. We would like the issue to be discussed in its totality.
Have you been able to convince your constituency about the steps taken by the government? The BMS is opposed to the reforms in labour laws even though ease of doing business seems to be predicated on relaxed labour laws.
So far, it seems that certain initiatives of the government are positive. The Jan Dhan Yojana or the Atal Pension Yojana indicate that a pro-poor approach is there, but it will take some time for the turnaround to happen. Yes, we are against references to labour costs or labour-law relaxation in all documents relating to the ease of doing business in India.
With the present economic trajectory, is resource mobilisation for government expenditure going to be possible?
No. A complete directional change is required. The present economic discipline, worldwide, is not serving the concerns of common people or of governments. That has to change. If the government is ready, then it should discuss these issues exhaustively. By directional change I mean, the present economic model is a market-driven one. We are rich in agriculture. Our economic focus should be agro-based. If one changes one’s direction towards villages, a lot of resources will be found. Mass industrialisation has resulted in huge maintenance costs. Whatever is being produced, the income from that is being used for environmental maintenance. The efforts to push skill development, etc. are good but ultimately the manufacturing sector has to grow to utilise the skills. We have also suggested that there should be a lakshman rekha between corporate affairs and the Finance Ministry.