'Workers have chosen tougher option'

Print edition : April 14, 2001

Chattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi has been campaigning across the State against the National Democratic Alliance government in the wake of the Tehelka expose. He claims that the disclosures vindicate his allegation of corruption in high places in the matter of the Centre's privatisation drive. Extending moral and financial support to the workers of Bharat Aluminium Company (Balco), he has reiterated the demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee inquiry into the entire privatisation programme. Excerpts from the responses he gave V. Sridhar in reply to a set of questions sent to him on e-mail:

What is the situation with regard to the striking workers in Balco?

A.M. FARUQUI

Obviously the workers have chosen the tougher option in the face of severe odds. It is their resolve to get the sale (of the company) undone and they are united on this. It is a tribute to their sense of responsibility that the agitation continues to be peaceful despite provocations. Please note that workers subscribing to all shades of political opinion - not just the Congress ideology - are united in this struggle. The workers are on a disobedience movement. They are refusing to work for a private investor, who they feel has taken over the plant through a questionable deal. No law can force unwilling workers to work.

But it is equally true that this should not go on like this. The Congress party has created a fund for the welfare of the struggling workers, and the response has been overwhelming. People from all walks of life are contributing to this fund.

Is there any tangible gain, at least as an interim measure, that you expect from the Supreme Court?

The Supreme Court is the highest forum of justice, and I am confident justice shall be done. The court will certainly see through the game plan of those who have brought Balco to the mess that it is in today. The Government of India is in the forefront of the legal battle virtually on behalf of the investor who has been favoured in the deal.

Do you think the workers have the stamina to carry on the struggle if the Centre drags the case through the courts?

I do not think workers anywhere lack the determination. Yet, there are limits to their patience. It is in the interest of all concerned that there is an early settlement to this crisis. Let no one be under the delusion that it is the workers alone who would suffer if the crisis prolongs.

Is your government turning the heat on Sterlite Industries? The State Budget has raised the entry tax on bauxite rather sharply.

I do not believe in "turning on the heat" on anyone. There is no vengeance as far as the State government is concerned. We have increased the entry tax in order to attract mining activity in the State. Why should bauxite for the plant come from Orissa when it is available in Chattisgarh? On the very day the Union government signed the deal with Sterlite, the company signed a deal with the Navin Patnaik Government in Orissa to source bauxite from there.

Has any tribal citizen of Chattisgarh complained to the court about violation of the constitutional provisions aimed to prevent the alienation of tribal land?

I am told that several tribal people whose land was acquired or who are the legal heirs of those who sacrificed their lands - their only resources - for the public purpose of setting up a public sector undertaking or for its mining leases, have intervened in a notice issued by the Sub-Divisional Officer (Revenue) under section 165(6) of the State Land Revenue Code.

What has been the progress on the summons issued by the sub-divisional officer (Korba)?

The notice has been served, and to the best of my knowledge, the respondents have sought time to file their reply.

Is the Congress(I) united on its stand against privatisation? Its government in Rajasthan has chosen to remain silent about disinvestment in the Hindustan Zinc Ltd (HZL), and Hindustan Copper Ltd. (HCL) where government holding is to drop below 50 per cent. Is this not a manifestation of divisions within the party on a major aspect of economic policy?

The Congress reiterated clearly its policy in regard to privatisation at the Bangalore session of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) in March. We are not against disinvestment, but against privatisation of profit-making public sector units. We are against lack of transparency. The sequencing and prioritisation of which public assets need to be privatised are critical. In the Balco case all these criticalities have been overlooked and the nation has been taken for a ride.

There are no differences in the Congress. I am not aware whether issues such as special protection to tribal people are involved in the case of the two companies you have mentioned. Perhaps in those cases there is no alternative but to infuse private capital, I am not too sure. Everything depends on the merits of each case, and there can be no value judgment. This is precisely our stand, that you should not privatise for the sake of privatisation or because it happens to be fashionable to do so. There should be some rationale behind any decision.

Even in the case of Chattisgarh, we have asked the Government of India whether enterprises such as the Bhilai Refractory Project or the Nagpur Cotton Mills of the National Textile Corporation should not have been taken up for disinvestment first in order to infuse much-needed capital and management efficiencies.

Balco is on a different footing altogether. It is a profit-making company with large reserves. It has been grossly undervalued. It is involved in sensitive production that concerns national security. In the face of these facts, the priority given to the sale of Balco and the unholy haste with which the deal was signed, point to corruption in high places.

The Chattisgarh government has made a counter-offer of Rs.552 crores for Balco. Is this viable given the state of its finances?

The offer has been made before the Honourable Supreme Court of India, and has to be taken with all the seriousness that such an offer before the apex court deserves. We could not have made a flimsy offer before the court. There are commercial options available to us. As for those who ask of our financial position, let me tell you that the Central PSUs alone owe the State Electricity Board close to Rs.580 crores.

How has the Sterlite management conducted itself?

The plant has been kept alive by the workers because they are protective of Balco. Unfortu-nately, the same cannot be said of its new 'management'. A systematic attempt is on to sabotage the plant. They would like Balco to go down so that the public assets worth over Rs.5,000 crores can be dispose of. That would be a real kill indeed. How else can one explain the fact that the Cell House (in the smelter) could be kept alive by the workers till the new 'management' took over. They (the new management) are not managers, they are liquidators who have moved in for disposal (of the company's assets), thanks to the Central government.

In the aftermath of the Tehelka affair, is there anything you would like to add about corruption in high places, with specific reference to the privatisation programme?

The Tehelka affair is undoubtedly a divine intervention in the sense that it strengthens the apprehensions of all those who have found the Balco deal to be unclean. In fact, after the Tehelka disclosures, very little is left to be known about at least some of the key beneficiaries of the Balco deal. The privatisation programme needs to be put under the scrutiny of a Joint Parliamentary Committee. We need to go into the compelling reasons that led the NDA government to allow the Disinvestment Commission to die a natural death. Why did they not appoint a new Commission? After Balco, we now know that they were very uncomfortable with the Commi-ssion. Certainly, a Commission is a transparent and independent institutional arrangement, which would have left them with no freedom to manoeuvre, whereas a Ministry could very well contrive and help crony capitalists.

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