There are thousands of contract workers working in the cash-strapped Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) across India who have not received their salary for the past seven months and well over a lakh permanent employees who are still waiting for their August salaries. The situation is so grave that it has reportedly pushed six contract workers in West Bengal and one in Kerala to commit suicide. For others, meanwhile, living is becoming harder with every passing day.
On Tuesday, contract workers in Kerala staged a hunger strike demanding the Central government and the BSNL management to clear the wage arrears. The workers, under the banner of CITU-affiliated BSNL Casual Contract Labour Union (CCLU), have been protesting for the past 79 days in front of the BSNL chief general manager’s office, The Hindu reported.
Similar protests have been reported from other states of the country as well. While in Punjab, September 11 marked the 17th day of the hunger strike of the BSNL contract workers, a 10-day hunger fast was staged last month in the Kolkata Telecom circle.
The Modi government, waking up late to the crisis, has finally given indications about providing a financial package to its ‘mini ratna’. Though no package has been announced yet, plans such as 4G spectrum allotment and Voluntary Retirement Scheme are being considered.
However, when NewsClick spoke to a BSNL employees’ union, the leader shared his apprehensions regarding the effectiveness of the plans in reviving the public sector unit.
Sebastin K, general secretary of Sanchar Nigam Executives’ Association (SNEA), has called the plans mere “cosmetic” attempts by the Centre, which shouldn’t be something to be excited about.
“The crisis is not because of the high employee cost that is being reported by the media,” Sebastin said, “but because of the inability of the entity to generate revenue which has stagnated the growth.”
According to the documents shared by the union, BSNL made record profits during 2004-05 when BSNL had another 1 lakh employees on its roll in addition to today’s strength of 1.63 lakh.
“Now, if we look at what the government is proposing, with the retirement age being reduced from 60 to 58 years and recurring retrenchments of the contract workers, we can observe that these are only the attempts of the Centre to reduce the cost of the employees,” Sebastin added.
On September 6, the union wrote a letter to the Chairman and Managing Director of BSNL explaining the impact of such measures over the operations of the entity. The union instead sought “immediate” closure of loss-making telephone exchanges, estimated to be about 17,000-18,000.
According to the letter, “thousands of exchanges are still maintained by BSNL, incurring huge losses, just to provide Telecom Services to the rural and remote part of the country… when BSNL is struggling to maintain the services due to financial crisis, it is not prudent on the part of BSNL management to maintain such loss making Exchanges, incurring huge losses.”
“This is considering the financial crisis that the BSNL is going through has been due to the central government’s negligence,” Sebastin added.
BSNL was formed on October 1, 2000, which was facilitated by the Group of Ministers (GOM) constituted under the chairmanship of the then Minister of Communications, Ram Vilas Paswan. The Press Information Bureau release dated September 1, 2000, of Government of India outlines the “important decisions” taken by the GOM with regards to the demand of the employees’ federations.
“Financial viability of the BSNL to be full taken care of… for achieving its social objective in regard to spread of telecommunication network in the country,” the GOM decided.
However, after almost two decades, these promises hold less meaning for lakhs of employees of the union who believe that the financial viability of BSNL was comprised at the cost of benefiting the private players.
It was earlier reported by NewsClick that an amount of around Rs 2,200 crore is yet to be disbursed that was paid to the government as excess pension contribution.
At last, it has to be noted that it is the employees who are mostly getting affected as they are the ones not receiving salaries for months. The Modi government is fiddling – like Nero – with its revival plan, as the employees continue to feel the heat of the crisis.