THE strike launched by nearly nine lakh government employees and over two lakh teaching and non-teaching staff of government-run or government-aided schools and colleges in Tamil Nadu on July 2 was, significantly, aimed at winning back certain rights and benefits they had been enjoying for long but which they had been deprived of during the last couple of years.
Ever since the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government assumed office in May 2001, it has systematically dismantled the customary rights and benefits of government employees such as dearness allowance (D.A.), travel allowance (T.A.), bonus, festival advance and leave encashment facility. All this was done under the pretext that the State's finances were in the red. The government announced a number of cost-cutting measures, which included retrenchment and a freeze on new appointments. At one stroke it dismissed 10,000 permanent employees in the Highways Department. The government defended these measures saying that they were in tune with the reforms regime and the conditions set by the World Bank and other international lending agencies.
The AIADMK government's first confrontation with the labour unions in the public sector undertakings (PSUs) came in November 2001. A Government Order (G.O.) issued on November 9 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 order created unrest among the employees of over 60 PSUs. When the government announced that it could not pay the employees of the State-owned transport corporations the same quantum of bonus they had received in the previous three years, over one lakh employees of these transport corporations launched a strike, which threw normal life out of gear on Deepavali eve. The government was firm that it would pay a bonus of 8.33 per cent (Rs.2,500 in effect) only and not an 8.33 per cent bonus plus an ex gratia payment of 11.66 per cent of the annual earnings, together not exceeding Rs.6,000, as was the case in the previous years. Besides the transport workers, 35,000 employees of the Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation and over 85,000 employees of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board also struck work making similar demands.
In the case of over nine lakh State government employees, only 1.25 lakh Group IV employees were declared eligible to receive a recoverable festival advance of Rs.1,000 each. A protest demonstration was held in Chennai demanding that all of them be provided the facility, which was the case until the previous year. Despite demonstrations and rallies by trade unions, the government did not budge (Frontline, December 7, 2001). The government soon announced the withdrawal of or a cut in several benefits enjoyed by government employees.
The only announcement that cheered the employees during the last two years related to the payment of two instalments of D.A. Finance Minister C. Ponnaiyan said in the Assembly in March this year that a new D.A. instalment would be given to them from April 1 and also from that day an earlier instalment, being paid partly in cash from October 1, 2002, would be given fully in cash. The employees were, however, shocked when the Minister announced that the salary arrears kept impounded for five years and the interest thereon, which became due on April 1, 2003, would be paid only in instalments according to new schedules for different categories of employees. Union leaders described the announcement as "the most unkindest cut of all". Retired employees, who had been expecting this payment eagerly for the past five years, were the worst affected.
Five G.Os issued in March this year, which made drastic changes in the calculation and mode of payment of pensions, also came as a rude shock to all government employees, particularly those on the verge of retirement (Frontline, May 23, 2003). The orders affirmed the government's determination to slash pension-related entitlements, which, it said, were "unsustainable". One of the orders raised the minimum period of service required for a government servant to become eligible for full pension, from the present 30 years to 33 years. The orders also made drastic changes in the mode of calculation of pension by leaving out some allowances, substantially reducing the eligible pension and modifying the commutation formula, which in effect considerably reduced the amount a government servant could receive in cash at the time of his retirement. It was also announced that only 50 per cent of the gratuity would be paid in cash while the rest would be in the form of savings certificates.
On April 10, the government employees and teachers went on a day's token strike in protest against the drastic changes in the payment of pensions, which would cause to the employees monetary losses ranging from Rs.90,000 in the case of an office assistant to Rs.4 lakhs in respect of an officer at the highest level in the State cadre.