A strike in Tamil Nadu

Print edition : November 24, 2001

Transport employees in Tamil Nadu go on strike after the government rejects their demand on bonus and ex-gratia, citing 'financial crunch'.

THE loss of 28 lives in a road accident near Kovilpatti, 150 km from Madurai in southern Tamil Nadu, on November 14 served to highlight the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government's mishandling of a Statewide strike by over one lakh employees of the 21 government-owned transport corporations on the issue of bonus.

In Coimbatore, on a strike day.-K. ANANTHAN

The victims, who included four women and three children, were among the 33 passengers packed into a 'maxi cab' that was operating on a bus route after bus services were dislocated. The vehicle was involved in a head-on collision with a State-owned bus allegedly driven by a person appointed three days earlier in a special recruitment drive. Accidents involving newly recruited drivers, though not of the same magnitude, were reported from many places. Eager to break the strike, the government apparently ignored safety norms.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi blamed the government, which he said had appointed inexperienced drivers in order to break the strike. Communist Party of India (Marxist) State Secretary N. Sankariah condemned the "anti-worker" approach of the government in appointing untrained hands as drivers. Chief Minister O. Pannerselvam, however, denied that the driver was inexperienced.

Trade unions affiliated to the Labour Progressive Front (LPF), the Centre of Trade Unions (CITU), the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) began the strike on November 9 and this threw normal life out of gear on Deepavali eve. Tamil Nadu Government Transport Employees Association general secretary and CITU leader A. Soundararajan said the strike was thrust on the employees by the administration, which refused to pay the workers bonus at the same rate as in the last three years. "We have not made any new demand. We only wanted them to pay the workers a bonus of 8.33 per cent and an ex-gratia of 11.66 per cent of annual earnings, together not exceeding Rs.6,000 as was paid in the last three years," he said.

The government was firm that it could pay only a bonus of 8.33 per cent (Rs. 2,500 in effect). A recoverable advance of Rs. 1,000 would also be paid, but no ex-gratia payment, it said. The reason given by Transport Minister Nainar Nagendran was "the State government's difficult financial position inherited from the previous DMK regime".

From the beginning the government took a tough line. On the first day of the strike, over 5,000 employees were taken into custody. The government attempted to maintain services with the help of private fleet operators and by drafting school and college buses in Chennai and minibuses from the districts. The Railways ran special trains on suburban and long-distance routes. All this did not help minimise the hardships of festival shoppers. Autorickshaws had a field day. With the government unyielding despite appeals from leaders of almost all major political parties in the State, no solution was in sight and the Festival of Lights on November 14 brought little cheer to the families of the striking busmen. The next day family members of the men joined them in picketing the various bus depots in the State. More than 6,000 agitators were arrested. After a team of strike leaders, led by CITU State unit general secretary T.K. Rangarajan, met the Chief Minister, talks were initiated to end the stalemate.

Besides transport workers, 35,000 employees of the Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation, which operates the Public Distribution System (PDS) in the State, are also on strike on the same issue. Over 85,000 employees of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board struck work on November 12 but their leaders decided against carrying on the agitation.

At the root of the unrest among employees of more than 60 Tamil Nadu government undertakings is a Government Order issued on November 9, which stated that it was "very difficult" to make bonus and ex-gratia payments "in view of the financial crisis that the PSUs and the government find themselves in". The government intended to make bonus payment strictly in accordance with the provisions of the Payment of Bonus Act, 1965, which stipulated a ceiling of Rs.3,500 as monthly salary to be eligible for bonus.

In the case of Tamil Nadu government employees numbering over 12 lakh, only 1.25 lakh (who come under Group IV) were declared eligible to receive a recoverable festival advance of Rs.1,000 each. The others, who received it until last year, were disappointed, and they feared that they would also be denied the customary ex-gratia payment in mid-January on the eve of Pongal. A section of the government employees staged a demonstration in Chennai on November 12 demanding payment of an advance to all employees, including thousands of teachers serving in government-run and aided educational institutions.

The AIADMK government has been complaining of a financial crunch since the day it assumed office after the Assembly elections in May. According to a white paper on the State's finances tabled in the Assembly by Finance Minister C. Ponnaiyan on August 18, the cash reserve with the government was Rs.649 crores at the end of 1995-96 (when the AIADMK left the government). Financial year 2001-2002 commenced with not only nil cash balance, but also a loan of Rs.242 crores from the Reserve Bank of India. In addition, there were unpaid bills and liabilities of about Rs.700 crores payable to suppliers, contractors and other agencies implementing government schemes, the white paper said. Ponnaiyan said in a recent statement that the government could clear only part of these liabilities until October 31, 2001.

ANOTHER reason why the government refused to concede the transport employees' bonus demand was that most of these corporations were running on loss. The accumulated losses run into more than Rs.2,000 crores, and the current year's loss is estimated at Rs.468 crores.

Trade union leaders do not give much credence to the "financial crunch" theory. Many of them say it is a ruse to get into the reforms regime in order to fulfil the conditions of international finance agencies for extending assistance. The discontinuance of subsidies and the rationalisation of the tariff/price structure, particularly in the transport and electricity departments and the public distribution system, may be on the cards. This perhaps explains the targeting of employees of the transport corporations, the Electricity Board and the Civil Supplies Corporation. An orchestrated campaign is also seen in favour of privatising the transport system.

Soundararajan did not agree that the transport corporations were losing, particularly in view of the fact that they were public utility services and were indirectly bringing in "social gains". Even if there was loss, how could the workers alone be held responsible for it, he asked. He pointed out that the efficiency of the workers of the transport corporations in Tamil Nadu had been found to be higher than that of their counterparts in other States and that Tamil Nadu's transport corporations had received several awards, even as recently as 1997-98. The fleet strength of the corporations had grown from a mere 2,000 in the 1970s, when they came into being, to 17,015 today. Over 18 million people travelled every day by 15,379 buses, which daily covered 63.7 lakh km. Through this massive operation, the corporations, with a workforce of 1,25,925 persons, brought in a daily revenue of Rs. 738.9 lakhs. He also pointed out that of the buses now in operation, 9,681 were put on the road only during the last four years. He said that while four of the corporations were earning profits, 10 had reached the break even stage. Only seven were reportedly in the red, he said.

One of the reasons for the loss shown, according to Soundararajan, is the 40 per cent depreciation made on each bus every year, which was easily on the higher side and patterned on private companies looking for ways to evade tax. The merger of the 21 corporations into a single undertaking would enhance the earnings by substantially reducing the present top-heavy administrative expenditure, avoiding duplication of services and averting unhealthy inter-corporation competitions, he said. The government should put an end to the operation of omnibuses, which encroached on the nationalised routes in violation of the rules governing the permits given to them, he added.

Trade unions, Soundararajan said, were aware of their responsibilities. "Whatever the financial difficulties, only the committed work of the 1.25 lakh employees can save the corporations. There can be no justification for hurting them, for robbing them of the benefits they have won through struggles over the years."

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