Interview: Virjesh Upadhyay, BMS

‘They are trying to eliminate unions’

Print edition : March 03, 2018

Virjesh Upadhyay. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Interview with Virjesh Upadhyay, general secretary, BMS.

THE Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the trade union affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), has come out strongly against the Union Budget for more than one reason. Failure to give tax relief to the middle class, merging of insurance companies, and sidestepping the Labour Ministry and the tripartite mechanism on issues relating to workers, are some of the issues that have annoyed the BMS. Excerpts from an interview with Virjesh Upadhyay, BMS general secretary:

The BMS expressed its deep disappointment with the Budget and gave a call for protests the day after the Budget was presented in Parliament.

Certain issues that need to be addressed have not been addressed. The tax slab has not been revised. The 7th CPC [Central Pay Commission] was implemented. There was a hike in the salary of employees. If there is no relief in tax, whatever increase in salaries takes place goes back to the government kitty. Salaries should not be covered in the net of income tax. There is no meaning of the increase then. Why has the salary tax structure not been reviewed? The BMS has always demanded that salary should not be covered under income tax. It is not income, but reimbursement for labour input. We have been demanding that salaried people should be exempted from tax. Not only has that not happened, but relief also has not been extended.

The other important issue is that of workers of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and other schemes. There are more than one crore scheme workers. The government calls them scheme workers, but technically they do not fall under the “workmen” category. They have been working (as scheme workers) for the last 40 years. We had demanded that they should be treated as government employees and all benefits to government employees must be extended to them. In 2016, the inter-ministerial panel on labour constituted by Arun Jaitley set up a committee headed by the Labour Secretary to examine how to give social security to these workers. The committee’s report is with the government. That the government has not addressed it is a setback to us; going back on the commitment made to us.

You objected to the manner in which some announcements were made by the Finance Minister. Please elaborate.

The declaration of fixed-term employment made on the floor of Parliament is objectionable. Amendments to labour laws do not fall in the purview of the Budget. The Finance Minister has crossed the boundary and disgraced the tripartite forum. He brought up two major issues—fixed-term employment and reducing the EPF [employees’ provident fund] contributions by women workers from 12 per cent to 8 per cent. Again this has to be done by amending the Employees’ Provident Fund Act. This is the area of the Labour Ministry, which has to organise a tripartite consultation. Both the EPF Act and the Contract Labour (Regulation) Act fall under the purview of the Labour Ministry. The Ministry calls for tripartite consultation and then forwards the recommendations, if any, to the Cabinet.

Once the government has declared something in Parliament, it means it is a diktat to the tripartite committee. The process of consultation loses its relevance. It [the announcement] is a disgrace to the Labour Ministry’s mandate to amend laws. They are trying to eliminate trade unions, their relevance.

While the form is objectionable, what about the content?

Since day one, trade unions have opposed this move. They have snatched the opportunity from trade unions. Whether the conclusions are right or not will be known only if other partners [like trade unions] are given a chance. No opportunity was given. It was quite possible that we could have come up with a more viable or workable solution. You [the government] have eliminated our role. As per the system, it should have come to tripartite consultation. But with this diktat, who is going to own this? You [the government] have decided something and now you want us to accept it. Making an announcement in Parliament is beyond the subject matter of the Finance Minister and is derogatory to the Labour Ministry.

The other issue is the merger of three insurance companies. Again, the government has unilaterally decided on this. All of a sudden, one fine morning if workers know that there have been changes in the organisation they have been involved with, it is an emotional setback. Even if it was done for the betterment of the organisation, why couldn’t the workers be involved? Again, a decision has been taken and now the diktat has to be followed. The decision of the government is like what used to be done by the British; a very colonial approach. How did the government come to this conclusion, nobody knows. As far as we are concerned, the health and business of the insurance companies were doing just fine. Maybe the government has a good intention, a better plan, but why wasn’t it discussed. We are practically and physically involved in it right from the beginning and we should have been consulted. What will be its future is also at stake and of concern to all of us.

For some time now, the BMS and other unions have raised the issue involving the processes of consultation. Are the unions really out of the consultation process?

Unfortunately, consultations have become a formality, a technicality. What is expressed by the stakeholders also matters.

In the Budget speech, the Finance Minister said India’s ranking had improved in ease of doing business.

In my childhood, I used to hear that slogan “ har haath ko kaam milega” [jobs for all]. I am on the verge of retirement now. The thing is, all political parties have been fooling the people. Every election, there is a new slogan. But the very fundamentals of roti, kapda aur makaan have not changed. As a social activist and a trade union representative, I find that for the last 70 years, only slogans have been fed to people, by all political parties which have ruled this country…. That is why the common man is in the same position. Electioneering has become a business. A particular corporate house gives funds to all political parties. Even after 70 years, inequalities persist. That is why 1 per cent of Indians own 73 per cent of the country’s wealth. I read somewhere that India is the sixth richest country in the world where the maximum number of poor people reside. We are continuously generating wealth, yet the rich are becoming richer and the poor, poorer.

Does the Budget address the inequalities you mention?

Until the economic model doesn’t change, the poor are not going to get justice. We have taken an initiative for a social movement. Trade unions have been known to be a movement of workers; but if workers are affected, it affects society as well.

The government claims that the increase in the number of EPF accounts means that new jobs have been generated. What is your understanding?

The increase in the EPFO data is because of demonetisation; there was a compulsion to get formalised. Last year, the government decided to contribute 12 per cent employers’ share in the EPF; that may have led to an increase in the number of EPF accounts. How many jobs have been created is a hypothetical question as there is no data. So far there isn’t any authentic data. Even Niti Aayog has admitted there is no authentic data. Until and unless there is a complete database, one cannot come to a conclusion. Even economists are divided.

The overall expenditure in the social sector has seen either a marginal increase or a decrease.

I read somewhere that funding from most schemes is coming from the disinvestment of the public sector. We now have so many schemes and sustaining them has become a challenge. No one [in the private sector] wants to enter infrastructure development. Either the design is wrong or the calculation is not appropriate. Maybe it is an electoral compulsion, to bring about populist schemes. From day one, there have been slogans and schemes. But no government has got them into action with all efforts and honesty.

Allocation being less or more is an academic debate. But that does not work for the concern of the common man. It is just data analysis of the documents within the system. I am not going to fret with data analysis. One can say this is the world’s largest budget or world’s largest health scheme. When MGNREGA came, it was spoken of in similar terms. People are still finding it difficult to get wages. Looking at all the Budgets, I do not see much change. I am at the point where the last beneficiary stands. No Budget has reached the last man or woman. In this model, even if we die, one won’t find the right solution. It is like sitting in the wrong train. One intends to go to Kolkata, but sitting in a train going to Mumbai.

What do you have to say about the NHPS touted as the world’s largest health protection scheme? There was a reference that this might generate jobs as well.

As it has been with other schemes from 1947 onwards, this will also meet the same fate. We will be happiest if it generates jobs. There have been many schemes, Atal Pension Yojana, Jyoti, Jan Dhan. The government can say loudly they have brought in all these schemes. Now it is health protection or Modicare.