The Essential Services Maintenance Bill, 2002, which has been passed by the Tamil Nadu Assembly, robs the working class of its right to democratic dissent.
GREETING workers on May Day 2002, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa said that the day signified the upsurge of the working class against exploitation, and its hard-won rights. Ironically, on May 6, she introduced in the State Assembly a Bill that sought to rob thousands of government employees one of these "hard-won rights" - the right to strike work. Veteran trade unionist and leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) group in the Assembly, J. Hemachandran, termed the bill "fascist". He and other Opposition leaders said that all the rights won by workers after decades of struggle would be wiped out once the Tamil Nadu Essential Services Maintenance Bill, 2002 entered the statute book.
Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) State general secretary T.K. Rengarajan and leaders of other labour unions, including associations of government employees, demanded the withdrawal of the "anti-worker" Bill. However, the government rushed through the Bill at the fag end of the Budget Session of the Assembly on May 10, and got it passed despite a spirited protest by the entire Opposition.
The Act has been characterised by trade union leaders as one of the most oppressive pieces of legislation enacted against workers in India since Independence. It prescribes a punishment of up to three years of imprisonment with a fine of Rs.5,000 each not only for the participants in a strike which involves any one of the "essential services" as described in the Act, but also for those who call for the "strike" or "instigate" workers to go on strike, or extend any financial assistance for the conduct of the strike.
The Act covers a range of government services. Apart from services relating to the supply of water and electricity, passenger and goods transport, fire-fighting and public health, civic services provided by the local bodies come under the purview of the Act. Employees of the Assembly and the High Court and "any public services and posts in connection with the affairs of the State" come under the purview of the Act. It empowers the government to declare as essential "any other service or employment or class, thereof connected with any matter with respect to which the State legislature has power to make laws under List II in the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution and which the government being of opinion that strikes therein would prejudicially affect the maintenance of any public utility service, the public safety or the maintenance of supplies and services necessary for the life of the community or would result in the infliction of grave hardship on the community."
Under the Act, "strike" includes not only the refusal of the employees connected with these "essential services" to "continue to work or to accept work assigned" but also "refusal to work overtime" and "any other conduct which is likely to result in, or results in cessation or substantial retardation of work in any essential service".
Opposing the Bill in the Assembly, Hemachandran said that the move was violative of the Constitution, which guarantees "the freedom to form associations or unions". The very purpose of granting workers the freedom to form a union was to enable them to seek relief if and when they are denied their dues. The Bill defeated that purpose. Former Transport Minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) MLA K. Ponmudi likened the Bill to the repressive moves that were launched by the Union government during the Emergency (1975-77). Members of the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Congress(I), the Tamil Maanila Congress and the Paattali Makkal Katchi questioned the need for it.
WHAT was the provocation for the enactment? While moving the Bill, Finance Minister C. Ponnaiyan said that the Bill was aimed only at enforcing discipline and improving the economic prospects of the State. The Bill's 'statement of objects and reasons' was more categorical. It said that there was no law empowering the State government "to deal promptly and effectively with strikes in essential services". "Such law is considered necessary," the statement said, "in the present context of the activities of certain persons employed in essential services."
The real and immediate provocation for the move to ban strikes appears to have come from a decision taken at a meeting of the Federation of Government Transport Employees Unions on May 5 to launch a series of agitations that would culminate in strike action, for which the unions had given notice in order to secure its demands. These demands included wage revision, payment of bonus arrears, restoration of incentives and the dropping of the move to privatise all bus services. Two days earlier, over 20,000 members from transport workers' families went on fast in different parts of the State pressing these demands. The meeting was critical of the "failure" of the State's Labour Department to initiate conciliatory talks even 40 days after strike notices had been served on the transport corporations.
The confrontation between the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government and its over 12 lakh employees as well as one lakh public transport employees, started in November 2001, when the government rejected many of the workers' demands regarding payment of the customary bonus and festival advance on the grounds of a financial crunch. It put down the 16-day strike by transport workers (Frontline, December 7, 2001) through ruthless measures, including privatisation threats, arrests, withdrawal of many allowances and suspension from service.
Trade union leaders see the Act as being a part of the government's attack on the democratic rights, particularly of the working class. This, in turn, is part of its larger effort to facilitate the process of liberalisation and privatisation. They said that in several parts of the State trade unions were denied permission to take out rallies on May Day, a practice that has been in vogue for decades. During the transport workers' strike in November, the unions had to move the High Court in order to take out a procession, recalled A.K. Padmanabhan, assistant general secretary of the CITU State unit. When this issue was raised in the Assembly, he said, there was no proper response from the government. Padmanabhan said that the Labour Department, which had been keen on declaring the busmen's strike "illegal", did nothing to resolve the issue.