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Print edition : Aug 01, 2003 T+T-

Draconian government measures, including summary dismissals, and an unfavourable High Court verdict, bring to an abrupt end an agitation by government employees and teachers demanding the restoration of their suspended benefits.

in Chennai

OVER one million government servants, and teachers and non-teaching employees of State-run and State-aided educational institutions in Tamil Nadu, who launched an indefinite strike on July 2, found themselves in a quagmire of legal and administrative questions after a week of unprecedented measures by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government. Adopting a no-holds-barred approach to the employees, who resorted to direct action against the "unjust" withdrawal of certain service-related benefits such as pension and gratuity, the government arrested more than 2,000 employees and summarily dismissed from service over two lakh people on its pay rolls, within a period of four days. All this was done under the Tamil Nadu Essential Services Maintenance Act (TESMA), condemned as draconian by trade unionists, civil rights activists and leaders of major political parties. On July 4 the government issued an ordinance that added more stringent provisions to the draconian law.

The government launched its offensive two days before the strike was scheduled to begin. It cracked down on leaders and principal functionaries of the trade unions that organised the strike on the afternoon of June 30, and the arrests continued into the midnight. It was announced that the hundreds of government servants and teachers arrested in different parts of the State had been detained under TESMA. Angered at this, the employees at the State Secretariat at Fort St. George in Chennai staged a lunch-hour demonstration and walked out of their workplaces in protest, virtually launching the strike a day in advance. The government responded with more midnight arrests and alleged harassment of employees and their family members by policemen in several government staff quarters in Chennai.

When the strike was actually launched throughout the State, reports said there was overwhelming response from the employees. Over 90 per cent of the government employees were estimated to have participated in the strike. Even by officials' own admission, the attendance at the Secretariat was only 12 per cent on the first day. A shaken government, which continued to arrest striking employees, came out with an ordinance on July 4 to arm itself with even more powers, including the power of summary dismissal of the strikers, even as one of the unions took the issue to the High Court by filing a writ petition challenging TESMA, the arrests under that law, and the initiation of disciplinary proceedings.

After some dramatic developments and forceful arguments, the High Court came out on July 11 with a judgment, which disappointed the employees. The over two lakh employees who had been summarily dismissed under the amended TESMA, could not get a favourable verdict, because the petitions were held not maintainable, "without exhaustion of the remedy before the State Administrative Tribunal". The victims have now been left to seek justice from the Tribunal, which at present functions with a solitary Judge and has to deal with over 60,000 cases. The Bench did not see in the Ordinance "any infraction of fundamental right" under Article 20 of the Constitution. The release of arrested employees was the only relief the petitioners got.

Caught unawares by the unforeseen developments, the leaders of the struggle committee, many of whom were jailed before the start of the strike and released on July 12 only after the court order came, held discussions the next day and decided to call off the strike unconditionally. Affirming that they were not for any confrontationist course, one of the leaders, G. Suryamoorthy, said the Federation of JACTO-GEO and COTA-GEO (Joint Action Council of Teachers Organisations-Government Employees Organisations and Confederation of Teachers Associations-Government Employees Organisations), which organised the strike, had no plans to appeal against the High Court judgment, though it would extend "moral support" to any section of employees who would file an appeal. It was also decided to give written appeals to Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and top officials of the government for the revocation of the orders of dismissal. He said that the employees went on strike only to achieve their "just" demand for the restoration of service and superannuation benefits but were met with "vindictive action" by the government, including mass dismissals, which, he said, had "no parallel in history".

THE strike was unique in the sense that for the first time members of scores of government employees' and teachers' organisations joined it, cutting across party lines. Work in most government offices was badly affected. It was called by the Federation of JACTO-GEO and COTA-GEO, which was formed in April last, to press a 15-point charter of demands of which the principal four or five points sought the restoration of some of the employees' hard-won privileges and benefits, arbitrarily withdrawn or mutilated by the State government in the last couple of years. The rest of the demands concerned service-related problems of teachers. The focus was mainly on the modifications made in the rules and procedures governing the payment of pension and gratuity, which would entail losses amounting to lakhs of rupees to government employees in terms of their terminal benefits.

The strike was the culmination of a series of agitations across the State pressing the demands. The rare unity among the government employees and teachers was built during the last six months through joint mobilisation of support and organisation of agitations. The preparation for the struggle began as early as February 2002, said A.K. Padmanabhan, national secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). From February to October there were a series of demonstrations, rallies and other forms of campaign. In October, JACTO-GEO launched a strike, in which COTA-GEO did not participate. The powerful Tamil Nadu Secretariat Employees Association also kept off. The strike, though only sectional, was successful in the sense that it lasted 10 days and created a great impact on the employees in general. Some sort of understanding was reached after the strike, but there was no follow-up by the government, said Padmanabhan. In March 2003, five Government Orders (G.Os) were issued by the government, which curtailed the superannuation benefits. JACTO-GEO launched a token strike against the G.Os on April 10. By this time, COTA-GEO, had come closer to the sponsors of the strike. Though they did not join the strike they went on mass hunger-strike on the same day, pressing the same demand - the restoration of the various benefits. Meanwhile, there was a change in the leadership of the Secretariat Employees Association, and the new leaders threw their weight behind the Federation of JACTO-GEO and COTA-GEO. The Secretariat Employees Association joined the work stoppage this time.

Besides the midnight arrests and the summary dismissal of employees, the State government also resorted to a widely publicised recruitment drive to cow down the strikers. Thousands of unemployed persons, men and women, young and old, many of them waiting for their turn in the rolls of the employment exchanges, thronged the recruitment centres. Over 6,500 persons were recruited to man the government offices, in contract jobs on a consolidated monthly salary of Rs.4,000. "This in a way reflected the magnitude of the problem of unemployment," said Padmanabhan.

THE first judicial intervention to bring about normalcy came from Justice P.D. Dinakaran, who, in an interim order on a writ petition filed by the Tamil Nadu Cooperative Subordinate Officers Association on the evening of July 6, a holiday on account of it being a Sunday, directed the State government "to keep in abeyance all the dismissal/suspension orders and to release immediately all the arrested employees". He also directed the government not to fill the posts "of the alleged erred government servants". However, within two hours, a Division Bench comprising Chief Justice B. Subhashan Reddy and Justice N. Dhinakar, suspended the order until July 7. This the Bench did after admitting a writ appeal filed by the government. (Acting on the same petition on July 6, Justice Dinakaran directed the Advocate-General, N.R. Chandran, to seek instructions from the government as to why the strikers' plea to withdraw the strike and resume duty could not be considered.)

During the hearing on the writ appeals of the government before the Division Bench comprising the Chief Justice and Justice K. Govindarajan, TESMA and the Ordinance were challenged on the grounds that the two violated the "right to livelihood" and many other provisions of the Constitution. The government's contention was that the affected government servants could seek remedy only through the State Administrative Tribunal. Although some of the judicial observations during the course of the arguments appeared to be questioning the "midnight arrests", the "mass dismissal" and the point of "undermining the right to report for duty", and gave indications of some possible relief to the dismissed employees, the Bench in its judgment on July 11 held that the petitions were not maintainable "without the exhaustion of the remedy before the State Administrative Tribunal" and so did not go into the other issues such as the validity of TESMA.

Describing the judgment as "disappointing", advocate N.G.R. Prasad told Frontline that the matter being of such magnitude, affecting thousands of employees, and the ordinance being of such a kind, the employees hoped that they would get some relief. The judgment did not really reflect how the court reacted at the time of the hearing. There were strong arguments to show how the Ordinance violated several constitutional provisions. The High Court, Prasad said, should have entertained this writ petition because it involved the life of lakhs of government employees, particularly because Article 21 of the Constitution, namely, the right to life, was involved. "In the wholesale dismissal of lakhs of employees, there is a denial of a decent livelihood," he said.