VIRJESH UPADHYAY, national general secretary of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), did not find much fault with the Union Budget, though he maintained that long-term solutions could not be found within the model of economic development being pursued now. A staunch critic of labour law reforms, he felt that all economic policies favoured business, by and large. Excerpts from an interview:
Does the Budget reflect the concerns of trade unions? There is a feeling that there is not much in it for the common man.
In the 25 years that I have been analysing the Budget, for the first time I see that the direction it sets is beyond our expectation. For the first time, the focus is on job creation, agriculture, farmers and infrastructure development. There is an effort to address the demand of the youth, the unemployed and agriculture. See, employment generation is for the common man. A large part of the workers are also dependent on agriculture. It is possible that one section of the middle class or the rich community may be unhappy as the focus in this Budget is on agriculture.
One of the highlights of the Budget was that inflation (Consumer Price Index) has come down. Do you agree with this?
The economy cannot be addressed in a piecemeal fashion. Whatever the Finance Minister has proposed today will have an impact tomorrow. Much depends on agriculture. A lot of emphasis has been placed on harvesting, seeds, irrigation. Ultimately, all this will address inflation, but the impact will not be felt immediately. The problem is that without remodelling the economy, no solution can be found. Many expert economists also believe that until and unless the model of the economy is changed or reframed, not much progress can be made. Industrialisation was meant to improve quality of life. But quality of life has regressed. All industrial activity seems to be geared towards the development of business. Every policy, every design, focusses on how to grow business. We are concerned about inflation because it hurts. The Budget does not touch upon remodelling the economy.
There has been a reduction in corporate tax and the slabs for income tax exemption have remained the same. There is a feeling that the government is pro-corporate.
There was an expectation that the tax slab would be revised. All this relates to the economic model. The government must try to ensure that the size of the cake is increased. If it grows bigger, more will be distributed. But the government is following the same model. The desired result will not come. When we say there should be growth in employment, industry argues for relaxed norms for labour. When we say that the government is handing over the economy to corporates, we are told [by the government and the corporate sector] that it is for employment generation. We believe that until the economic model is changed, expectations will remain expectations and promises will remain promises.
You have been a strong votary of the public sector. There was a proposal for the disposal of assets of the public sector. Does this worry you?
Public sector assets are the only assets that have created quality of life. The public and private sectors and the government are sometimes found operating in similar industries, but the parameter of evaluation has to be different. If one is really interested in improving the quality of life, then the public sector is important. The average minimum pay in any public sector [organisation] would be Rs.30,000. The private sector pays much less for the same kind of work. If you take the telecom sector, the lowest paid employee in BSNL or MTNL gets an average pay of Rs.40,000; even 40 people in the private telecom sector would not be getting this much for the same kind of work. In the telecom sector today, many private companies are bleeding. If one evaluates them on the parameter of quality of life, only the public sector fulfils that criterion. We firmly oppose the proposal to dispose of public sector assets.
The Budget speech talked of setting up multi-skill development centres, and allocations have been made too. Does this address the problem of unemployment and under-employment?
The initiative is commendable. But there are issues with the kind of practices which will be adopted. There is nothing wrong with the idea. We are rich in manpower. Skill development should find a place in our education policy. Consultation and involvement with the stakeholders is required. After acquiring skills, one is going to become a worker, so unions have to be involved. As long as skill development was part of the Labour Ministry, labour unions were part of it. Now we have a separate Ministry.
What do you make of the pre-Budget consultations? Is it some kind of a ritual?
One unfortunate thing is happening. The trade unions find a way to put their opinion only in front of the Labour Ministry. There are 24 Ministries that directly deal with workers, but only one Ministry deals with labour.
Pre-Budget consultations have become a ritual. Nothing comes out of them. That is why in our Budget submission we said pre-Budget discussions should come up with concrete proposals.
The issue of default of loans by a section of corporate India created a lot of furore.
The government should strictly recover the money. The defaulter should be dealt with firmly. Industry has to be nursed, but the degree to which industry is being taken care of, the message goes out that only they are being looked after. Within the corporate sector, too, there is a section that feels that it is being ignored. It won’t be wise to give a signal that some in the corporate sector have been favoured, others have not.
One long-pending demand has been the creation of the National Social Security Fund. The BMS, like the other trade unions, has argued for a minimum wage for the scheme-based workers.
The health insurance coverage of up to Rs.1 lakh for BPL households is a welcome step. Ultimately, one should be in a position to meet one’s basic requirements. So if the government is able to give them pension and health insurance, there could be some relief.
The BMS has decided to chart its own course. Is there any pressure not to join the other trade unions?
At our national executive in the first week of February we decided to hold a nationwide agitation on February 24. Our two main issues were to put a stop to all the labour law reforms and the implementation of the agreement at the inter-ministerial meeting. At the joint trade union meeting on February 10, I told my trade union friends that we should not be like an opposition party to the government. We should point out the good things that the government has done. So far, the practice of trade unions has been to oppose the government. The BMS believes in responsive cooperation. Whatever goes against the working class, we will oppose with all our might. But where the government is doing good, we will support it. So far we are not part of the March 10 agitation or the March 30 convention.