THE two-month-long strike by more than 7,000 workers of Bharat Aluminium Company Limited (Balco) in Korba in Chattisgarh continues. The strike, the longest industrial action so far against the Union government's public sector disinvestment policy, has set the government on the back foot in its privatisation drive. Meanwhile, the struggle continues inside and outside the Supreme Court. Ironically on May Day, the Supreme Court accepted an affidavit from Sterlite Industries, Balco's new owners, offering to pay two months' wages as an advance payment to the workers if they agreed to resume work. Balco, India's third biggest aluminium producer, accounts for about 15 per cent of the country's aluminium output.
The Supreme Court, hearing the three cases that have been transferred to it from the Delhi and Chattisgarh High Courts, "advised" the workers to examine Sterlite's offer. The court's observations were widely misreported in the media to imply that it had "ordered" the workers to resume work in return for two months' wages. However, the record of the proceedings of the court shows that the Bench, consisting of Justices B.N. Kirpal, U.C. Banerjee and Brijesh Kumar, had only asked the Sterlite management "to pay the workers the amount claimed by them as outstanding payment." It also said that this will be "paid as an advance subject to adjustment subsequently" and without prejudice to the rival claims of the workers and the management. The Bench hoped that the unions would consider the offer "in the right spirit".
REFERRING to the Chattisgarh government's petition challenging Balco's sale to Sterlite on the ground that it alienates tribal land, the court asked the State government to submit a list of companies that had leased or bought tribal land in the State. The court observed that if eventually in the Balco case it was held that tribal land could not be transferred to non-tribal persons, it would affect other companies that had taken similar possession of tribal land.
The seven major unions of workers at Korba were quick to spurn Sterlite's offer. Their reaction was in part conditioned by the new management's action of terminating the services of a leading activist in the ongoing agitation, A.M. Ansari, a fitter in the Korba plant, on April 27. They pointed to this as being indicative of the management's "vindictive attitude" towards the striking workers. Ansari was suspended for his role in a strike action in 1999. The unions said that at that time "Sterlite was nowhere in the picture" and accused the company of being "unscrupulous and high-handed". In a joint statement the seven central unions in Balco leading the agitation referred to the dismissal as evidence of the Sterlite management's "terror tactics" aimed at demoralising workers. They sought the Union government's intervention to stop such provocative acts.
The workers were critical of the court taking up Sterlite's affidavit at a point when their own petitions were pending before it. V.K. Sharma, secretary of the Balco Employees Union (BEU), told Frontline that the court's "advice did not address the issues regarding privatisation that the workers had raised." He referred to the wage revision that was due since 1999, the issues relating to the fact that the Balco facility is situated on land acquired from tribal people and the consequent violation of constitutional guarantees, and the workers' demand that at least in the interim, worker-directors should be appointed to the Balco board. Sharma told Frontline that the workers "were ready to fight on, rather than resume work for a few rupees of relief."
Reacting to the Supreme Court's "advice", Mahendra Karma, Industries Minister of Chattisgarh, said that the workers should explore the possibility of resuming work in the "national interest". However, he later told Frontline that the workers could not do so without receiving any guarantees. Karma said that what the Balco workers had initiated was just the beginning of a battle against the non-transparent privatisation process that was on. He said that the Balco issue pointed to the need to "evolve a general formula that would protect the interests of workers in such situations". Karma also reiterated his earlier suggestion, made during abortive tripartite negotiations, that a congenial interim arrangement be created by reverting the management to the situation before Balco was sold to Sterlite on March 2.
Brahma Singh, general secretary of the BEU, affiliated to the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), said that the workers were only seeking a just and equitable solution. He said that Sterlite had only offered to pay the workers as an advance what was due to them. He told Frontline "there was nothing magnanimous about Sterlite's offer". He hinted that the leadership of the unions was under pressure to reach an "honourable solution" after a long battle involving thousands of people who had sacrificed a lot in the battle against privatisation.
AT a special meeting on May 4 of the core committee of the seven main unions, the workers unanimously rejected Sterlite's offer. Referring to the unions' consistent stand that they will not negotiate with the new management, but only with the State and Union governments, Brahma Singh said that the workers were clearly against accepting any "crumbs offered by Sterlite". He said that the issue of privatisation, the main issue raised, remained completely off the agenda. "Unless this is addressed, there cannot be any resolution to the tangle", he said.