On a day when President Ram Nath Kovind addressed the joint sitting of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha to begin what would be a stormy Union Budget session this year, trade union leaders reiterated their displeasure with the Centre and attached no hopes for the workers’ condition from the government’s upcoming plans for the next fiscal year.
“It was the working class of this country that received the heaviest blow by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent ill-management by the government. Yet, we don’t think that the Centre will drift away now from its ‘anti-worker’ and ‘anti-people’ policies. We don’t really expect much from this budget,” said Tapan Sen, general secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).
The country went into a pandemic-triggered lockdown in March last year, which had dealt irreparable shocks to the economy. On Monday, the first Union Budget in the post-COVID situation will be presented in the Parliament.
Sen, while flaying the Narendra Modi-led central government for not “paying heed” to the multiple demands that were raised by the Central Trade Unions in the recent past, rued, “The government expenditure on social services has gone down like anything in the last year.” It was ironic, he said, because last year – with private sector struggling to cope up with the challenges presented by the pandemic – the spending by the government “should have actually increased.”
The Centre will further its agenda of “more disinvestment of the public companies”, and “more concessions for the corporates” in the upcoming budget, Sen added. “And with that, the whole economy will be put to collapse,” he said.
In the run up to the Union Budget, media reports suggest that Sen’s fears are not unfounded. The Centre is expected to set a disinvestment receipt target – for yet another time – at around Rs. 2 lakh crore for FY22, the Financial Express reported on Wednesday. Presenting the Union Budget last year, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had surprised everyone after setting an ambitious asset sale target of Rs. 2.1 crore – three to four times the usual targeted amount.
Cut to one year later, the disinvestment revenues are likely to be at a much-lower level, with COVID-19 pandemic derailing the Centre’s stake-sale ambitions. But won’t this exact situation further – now even more aggressively – the disinvestment process in the upcoming fiscal year?
Amarjeet Kaur, general secretary, All India Trade Union Congress believes so. “The experience of the lockdown should make it very clear by now at least that it is the public sector that stands with the country in its difficult periods and not the private companies,” he said.
Having said this, Kaur, however, lamented that the ruling dispensation is “hell-bent” on “stripping the nation of its strategic assets”. “This was very clear even with the policy decisions that were taken in the name of achieving the so-called self-reliance,” he said.
In May last year, the Finance Minister announced an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ package, under which a new public sector enterprises policy was announced: a maximum of four state-owned companies in strategic sectors, with public firms in other segments, to eventually witness privatisation.
In addition, in September 2020, the Centre also steamrollered the three – out of the total four – labour codes in the Parliament, in another move that invited flak from the workers’ organisations.
“We believe that in the upcoming budget session the Centre will again beat around the bush and will falsely tell the nation that such reforms are necessary,” Kaur told NewsClick. On the contrary, the unions and labour experts have maintained a position that the codification of labour laws will “take us back to the 19th century.”
The Central Trade Unions have called for a nationwide protest on February 3 where copies of the four labour codes will be burned. “We shall also register our protest against the budget. We are sure that this pro-corporate government would not have considered our suggestions,” Kaur said.
Speaking about the suggestions, Kaur said that the trade unions had demanded the Centre to provide income support of Rs. 7,500 to non-tax payee families. “We had also demanded that the corporate tax rates must be restored to its previous levels and a wealth tax be introduced – money which can be then used in expanding the social services,” she said. The Centre must also focus more on reviving the “major job providing” MSMEs, she added.
Tapan Sen said that in the pre-consultation budget meetings with the Centre, the trade unions had submitted a charter of demands. “It was the same for which multiple protests, including a general strike, have been staged across the country by the trade unions in the past year,” he said. The charter includes a demand to raise work days under the rural employment guarantee scheme, along with ration support and withdrawal of New Pension Scheme (NPS), among others.