As the Centre invited preliminary bids for the privatisation of state-owned oil firm, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL), its staff has been presented with a task, which seems more like a “challenge” to many: they have decided to protest the decision, ever since the strategic disinvestment was approved by Union Cabinet in November last year. This, however, comes at a time when much of the power of the union bodies has eroded.
Faced with this reality, the employees, numbering about 12,000 who are reportedly almost equally divided between executives and workers, are mulling over possible actions in an effort to oppose the Modi government's plan to sell the entire 52.98% of the government’s stake in the company.
The workers, mostly permanent, led by petroleum federations are planning another two-day nationwide strike across all units of BPCL in the month of April, after striking work for one day in the month of November.
The executives too, led by the officers’ association, has provided “moral support” to the April strike of workers, NewsClick has learnt. The officers’ associations, which had earlier rejected the action to strike work, reportedly wants the government to drop the idea of privatising BPCL, the third biggest refiner and the second largest fuel retailer in the country.
The inability to chart a common action programme between the workers’ federations and officers’ associations “worries” the president of Petroleum and Gas Workers’ Federation of India (PGWFI) Pradeep Mayekar, who believes it is “important” for the executives and workers to come together in their protest.
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“We are against privatisation,” he said, adding that with limited power, “we can only register our protest.” He also said that, “internal meetings have been conducted with the officer, correspondences have been exchanged with the ministers. We tried to create a political pressure. It is a do or die fight, however, it is tough.”
Despite the limitations, Mayekar is determined to continue with the workers’ strike in April. “The BPCL employees will go on strike on April 20 and 21. We have received support from other oil sector unions and federations. Conventions are scheduled to be held till then at different cities. We hope to secure large participation in the strike,” Mayekar told NewsClick.
When asked about the participation of the BPCL officers, he said, “they are in opposition to the idea of privatisation. They have extended moral support to the strike as of now.”
Along with that, the officers under the banner of Federation of Oil PSU Officers (FOPO) and Confederation of Maharatna Companies (COMCO) have earlier written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi opposing the Centre’s privatisation decision of profitable PSUs.
In a first ever press conference in the month of December last year, the two federations also called the BPCL sale to be a blow to the government's social commitment as well among other things.
Not just BPCL, tensions prevailed in petroleum workers of different arms of the oil industry, as the central government is allegedly looking to exit the oil business – after strategic disinvestment of Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL) also cleared by the Union Cabinet and reports surfacing that suggested the Centre is mulling to reduce its stakes in Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) to below 51%. The three public oil companies own more than 75% of the Indian fuel marketing business, according to the petroleum workers’ federations.
Also read: Govt to Hold BPCL Roadshows in London, US and Dubai in December for ‘Strategic Sale’
The unions have raised concerns over “infiltration” of the private oil and gas giants – domestic and foreign – which will allegedly bear severe economic repercussions on the nation’s energy security. The one day strike earlier in the month of November witnessed participation of employees of BPCL, HPCL and Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Limited (MRPL), a subsidiary of Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC).
Despite the concerns raised, the BJP government at the Centre went ahead with its plan and invited expressions of interest for the strategic sale of BPCL on Saturday, which can be sent till May 2. Indian state-run entities, in which the government owns a stake of at least 51%, won’t be eligible to participate in the bidding, reported Bloomberg Quint while referring to the document posted on the Department of Investment & Public Asset Management’s website.
Alleging that the government has “favoured” private entities by compromising with the valuation of the state owned oil firm, Mayekar said. “The economy is not in healthy position and the international oil market prices are never fixed. In such cases, not many private companies will be up for bidding.”
“It is clear that the government is only selling profit making companies like BPCL only to meet the fiscal deficit targets,” he added. The Modi government, for the fiscal year 2020-21, targetted raising Rs. 2.1 trillion from sale of government holding in the state-run companies.
Swadesh Dev Roye, Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU) Secretary called the idea of privatisation as “corrupt”. He said, “Even under Vajpayee’s BJP government, attempts were made to privatise BPCL, however, they were met with strong reaction from the employees. The Modi government is fulfilling these ambitions only for some private players.”
Also watch: 'Selling BPCL Is Like Selling the Country'