Blocking privatisation

Print edition : April 28, 2001

Tripartite talks involving the trade unions, the Chattisgarh government and the Centre fail, and the workers continue their fight against the privatisation of Balco.

IT is an unprecedented situation in Indian corporate history. More than six weeks after purchasing a controlling stake in the public sector Bharat Aluminium Company Ltd (Balco), Sterlite Industries remains unable to establish control over the affairs of the company. The sale, positioned as the first of a "big ticket" public sector undertaking (PSU) in the country, has been stonewalled by the trade unions representing more than 7,000 workers at Korba in Chattisgarh since March 3.

The first attempt at resolving the imbroglio through tripartite talks in Delhi failed on April 16. The talks, involving the State and Central governments and the seven trade unions in Balco, started the previous day after Chattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi wrote to Union Minister for Mines Sunderlal Patwa on April 12 seeking his intervention on behalf of the Centre to arrive at a negotiated settlement. Jogi had asked Patwa to consider playing a formal role in resolving the problem on a formal request of the workers. He pointed out that he was making the request because Balco was under the charge of the Union Ministry of Mines.

Sunderlal Patwa, Union Minister for Mines, with the representatives of the Chattisgarh government and Balco trade unions at the tripartite talks in New Delhi.-ANU PUSHKARNA

The unions representing Balco workers, unified on a single platform, have insisted that they will not negotiate with Sterlite Industries because they do not recognise the company as Balco's new owner. More important, they have maintained that they are willing to be flexible on all issues except the privatisation of the profit-making, cash-rich company.

Although S.C. Krishnan, managing director of Sterlite, rushed to Delhi from Korba on the eve of the talks, he was kept on the sidelines. Industries Minister Mahendra Karma and Industries Secretary Narain Singh represented the Chattisgarh government. Eight representatives of workers, belonging to the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), the All India Trade Union Congress, the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), attended the two rounds of talks.

The workers stuck to their demand for the reversal of the sale and offered Patwa four options to achieve this objective. Brahma Singh, representing the INTUC-affiliated Balco Employees Union (BEU), the biggest union in Balco, said that a range of options were provided with a view to highlighting the fact that although the trade unions were committed to the core demand of reversing the sale, they were willing to be flexible on the ways and means to achieve it.

The first option presented by the unions was for Balco to remain a central PSU with the Union government holding at least 51 per cent of its shares. If the Centre did not wish to retain a controlling stake, the Chattisgarh government should have the first claim on the disinvested shares. Under no circumstances, the unions told Patwa, should an investor get more than 49 per cent of the shares. The second option was to allow the workers to hold 10 per cent of the shares, reducing the private investors' stake to 40 per cent and keeping the Centre's holding at 50 per cent. If the Centre was unwilling to take a 50 per cent stake in the company, the unions said, the Chattisgarh government should be allowed to exercise the offer it made in an affidavit before the Supreme Court that it would buy 51 per cent of the shares at Rs.552 crores. As the third option, an imaginative one, the unions suggested that the State and Union governments run Balco as a joint venture. They did not reveal any preference for majority ownership in such a venture. The last option sought the implementation of the now-defunct Disinvestment Commission's report of 1997 that related to the Union government's disinvestment in Balco. The Commission, which was headed by G.V. Ramakrishna, had suggested in its second report in April 1997 that the Government divest 40 per cent of its stake in Balco. It had also suggested that a portion of the shares be sold to the company's employees.

Speaking to Frontline before the talks concluded officially, union leaders were pessimistic about a resolution of the crisis. Deb Roy of the CITU said that the unions and Chattisgarh's Industries Minister spoke in one voice at the meeting, making it clear that they were unwilling to settle for anything less than a rollback of the privatisation. In fact, they pointed out that the proposals they presented to Patwa were made jointly. Patwa's offer to discuss the workers' service conditions was rejected outright by them.

Deb Roy said that the Union government was trying to allure the workers with its offer to discuss their service conditions. Brahma Singh pointed out that the workers need not have travelled to Delhi to seek Patwa's help in settling the service conditions because this would have been well within the purview of the State government. Moreover, he pointed out that the Ministry for Mines had remained silent for months before the Balco sale when workers expressed apprehensions about working under a private management. He said he told Patwa that it was too late to discuss this issue with him.

Ajit Jogi, Chief Minister of Chattisgarh.-A.M. FARUQUI

Patwa blamed Jogi for the failure of the talks. He said: "I fail to understand Jogi's behaviour. The stalemate is because of the Chattisgarh Chief Minister." Disinvestment, he said, had already taken place and the government had accepted the money, so there was no question of discussing this issue. He alleged that Jogi went back on his assurance prior to the talks that he would attend the meeting along with the representatives of the Sterlite management at his residence in Delhi. He also maintained that his role as a negotiator had been an informal one and that the Chattisgarh government and the unions had adopted an intransigent position at the negotiations.

Baleshwar Jha, who heads the Balco Bachao Samyukta Abhiyan Samiti, the coordination committee of the seven unions representing Balco workers, vehemently denied Patwa's charges. He said that while the unions were flexible in their approach, Patwa "did not budge an inch". According to him, Patwa maintained that the four options submitted by the unions could not be considered because all of them involved the reversal of the Balco sale. "We have crossed that bridge. I am powerless to take a decision of this nature," Patwa told the unions.

Jogi told Frontline that "the ball was now in the Central government's court". He said that his government was prepared to work towards any solution that was "within the parameters set by the workers". He also said that efforts must be made to continue the dialogue. Significantly, after the breakdown of the talks, Mahendra Karma had suggested to Patwa that the Balco management revert to the situation before the sale of the company to Sterlite on March 2. He said that this interim arrangement would prepare the ground for resumption of work at the Balco plant in Korba and avoid further losses to the company, the third largest integrated aluminium producer in India.

THE strike that started on March 3 has imposed great hardships on the workers. Having had to live without any income for two months, they are under pressure. However, trade unions from public sector units and other sections of the industrial working class have contributed financial and logistical support to the agitating workers. The langar near the plant remains active. Financial and material help have been pouring in from workers across the country. Notable among them have been those made by bank and insurance workers and those from coal mine workers and workers of other PSUs. Leaders of various political parties and trade unions have visited Balco Nagar and offered their solidarity with the workers.

At a meeting in Delhi on April 19, the major central trade unions sought the intervention of the Prime Minister and the Union Labour Minister in arriving at an "amicable and respectable" settlement. They have also warned that if no solution is found, they would launch a countrywide industrial action by mid-May. The unions have called upon workers to stage demonstrations all over the country on May 4 in support of the Balco workers' struggle.

The women in the industrial township are at the forefront of the struggle. The Mahila Sangarsh Samiti (Women's Struggle Committee), an organisation comprising women volunteers from Balco Nagar, is active in providing logistical support to the striking workers. Brinda Karat, general secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), said that this was significant, considering that Chattisgarh was a backward tribal area.

The strike is unique in many ways. To those who have criticised the trade unions for having been content with raising only economic demands, the strike has come as a revelation - that they would also take up larger issues such as privatisation. Another significant revelation is that the prolonged strike has been conducted peacefully by a group of workers, the majority of them tribal people, who were never known for their militancy.

The recently-formed Citizens' Forum Against Balco Privatisation held a convention in Delhi on April 13. It condemned "the ongoing loot of public wealth through the privatisation of profit-making PSUs". Prabhat Patnaik, eminent economist, was among those who spoke at the convention and Rajinder Sachar, former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, presided over it.

The forum demanded the immediate reversal of the "scandalous BALCO deal".

In another twist to the Balco affair, elements in the Sangh Parivar, fearing loss of their support base among the industrial working class, mounted a scathing criticism on the government. On April 16, thousands of workers belonging to the BMS, the labour wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, along with the activists of other Parivar outfits such as the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), launched a "mass movement" against the government's economic policies. The Balco issue figured prominently in their list of complaints against the government.

In a bitter attack on the government, particularly Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, SJM founder Dattopant Thengadi described the privatisation of publicly-owned companies like Balco and Modern Foods as a "fraud committed by bureaucrats". Referring to the changes proposed to be made in the labour laws, which the Finance Minister announced in his Budget speech, Thengadi accused Sinha of having committed a grave constitutional impropriety by encroaching into the domain of the Labour Ministry. Politicians, bureaucrats and private vested interests were manipulating the privatisation of public sector companies, he said, and alleged that these companies had been rendered sick for "extraneous considerations".

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