Hurt pride

Print edition : July 14, 2006

Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. - ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

THE Centre's decision on Nalco was immediately opposed by the 7,000-odd employees of the company, trade unions and political parties. What added momentum to the agitation was the feeling of the common man that Nalco was Orissa's pride. While the workers of Nalco abstained from work, political parties organised rallies and demonstrations.

The workers at the company's smelter at Angul observed a 12-hour strike on June 23. Workers at the company's refinery in Damanjodi (Koraput district) stopped work for 24 hours on June 24. The officers and workers at the company's corporate office in Bhubaneswar abstained from work on June 26.

On June 25, all major Central trade unions held a State-level convention in Bhubaneswar to decide a course of action. Apart from the union leaders, representatives of various political parties and leaders of Nalco employees' unions attended the convention, which unanimously criticised the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The participants termed the Centre's decision `anti-people' and said there was no reason to sell equity in Nalco when the company's profits had been rising every year. Several of them alleged that the Centre was using Orissa as a laboratory for testing its dubious policies and promised that the people of Orissa would not remain silent spectators.

The trade unions vowed to bring to a halt all Central government establishments, including railways, ports, industries, and postal services, in Orissa on June 30. They decided that if the Centre did not change its decision after the strike, an all-party delegation would meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi and a State-wide bandh would be called.

Presiding over the convention, veteran trade union leader and former Member of Parliament Shivaji Patnaik warned that the agitation against disinvestment of Nalco would go on until the plan was dropped and urged political parties to put up a combined fight.

The unions that participated in the convention included the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), the United Trade Union Congress (Lenin Sarani) and the All India Council of Central Trade Unions (AICCTU).

Lalit Mohan Patnaik, chairman of the Central Coordination Committee of Nalco unions, pointed out that mobilising resistance this time was easier than in 2001 when the NDA tried to sell the company to a `strategic partner'. Clearly, the ruling Biju Janata Dal's (BJD) decision to take the fight to the Centre has given a boost to those opposing the disinvestment move.

As opposition to the move grew among workers and trade unions, the BJD led from the front. Chief Minister and BJD president Naveen Patnaik wrote to the Prime Minister, urging him to reconsider the decision. The party's Koraput unit observed a bandh in Damanjodi on June 26, paralysing normal life in the small industrial town. Production was affected in the refinery that day as many workers did not turn up. The party's various wings took turns to stage demonstrations outside the Nalco corporate office in the following days.

The BJP did not want to be left out of the action. Its youth wing staged a demonstration in Bhubaneswar. A senior leader, Vinay Katiyar, while on a visit to the State, demanded immediate withdrawal of the plan. He, however, found it difficult to clarify his party's position, since a similar move had been made during the NDA regime.

Congress leaders of the State were also in a difficult situation. Instead of participating in the protests, they rushed to New Delhi to lobby with the party high command to reconsider the decision.

The Left parties were comfortably placed. Their stand on the issue had remained unchanged. Janardhan Pati, secretary of the state committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that his party had always been opposed to the privatisation of profit-making public undertakings and would continue to oppose such moves.

Prafulla Das
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