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Disinvestment: As Centre Suffers Disappointments, PSU Employees Strive for Stronger Struggles

Across the country, while unions within some PSUs are arming themselves with a legal strategy to defend the public ownership of their enterprises, others have scheduled national-level meetings to chart out an action plan for weeks to come.

New Delhi: Employees’ unions within the public sector enterprises (PSEs) are gearing up to put an even stronger fight against what they call the "looting of national wealth", as a series of recent disappointments suffered by the Centre in concluding the disinvestment drive of big-ticket state-owned companies rejuvenates former's movement.

The delay in the controversial privatisation of PSUs, owing to the many hurdles that reportedly remain to be crossed for firms in the strategic sale pipeline, has provided a crucial period for the unions to work towards intensifying their struggle, leaders said while speaking to NewsClick on Saturday.

They add that the focus currently is on pushing forward for the agitations at the level of industries, which is expected to eventually help in sustaining the joint national movement against the Centre's disinvestment policy.

Across the country, while unions within some PSUs are arming themselves with a legal strategy to defend the public ownership of their enterprises, others have scheduled national-level meetings to chart out an action plan for weeks to come, NewsClick was informed on Saturday.

The latest development has come at a time when the impending fear of recession has derailed the Narendra Modi – led Central Government’s stake-sale ambitions.

Last month, the sale of around 53 per cent of its stake in the oil marketing company Bharat Petroleum (BPCL) was called off by the government after the bidders highlighted their "inability" to further participate in the process. It was the third disinvestment proposal to be called off in the current fiscal after temporary brakes were put earlier on the privatisation of Sahibabad-based Central Electronics Limited (CEL) and, more recently, on the helicopter service provider Pawan Hans.

A host of issues have also led to the deferment in the dilution of the government's stakes in other PSUs, including Container Corporation of India (CONCOR), Shipping Corporation of India (SCI), and Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML), among others.

These delays might make it difficult to achieve even a relatively modest disinvestment target of Rs 65,000 for the 2022-23 fiscal. This, however, has been looked at by the unions as "short term wins" while preparations are underway for the larger battle.

For example, trade unions active within the refineries of BPCL are scheduled to meet next week to discuss protest strategies. "We will be discussing how to carry forward the campaign of opposing the privatisation of BPCL. Various strategies like approaching MPs and MLAs for support, signature campaigns, drafting of a joint memorandum, and demonstrations will be discussed," said Aji MG, general secretary, Cochin Refinery Workers' Association (CRWA).

Similarly, the United Forum of Bank Unions (UFBU) has also called for a national meeting on June 8 "to discuss, among other issues, the selling of stakes in IDBI bank,” CH Venkatachalam, general secretary, All India Bank Employees Union (AIBEA) told NewsClick. The Centre aims to conclude the sale of the government's stake in IDBI Bank by March next year, according to one media report.

“Decades of our experience have shown us that public money can only remain safeguarded in a public bank, which also plays a crucial role in implementing government's schemes and in the development of the economy," argued Venkatachalam.

He added that there is no "justified reason" to privatise Indian banks; hence, such moves will be met with "protest, demonstrations, and strikes" by the public banking sector employees.

S Gireesh, general secretary, BEML Employees Union, said that their indefinite demonstration against privatisation at the company's Palakkad facility still continues to this date, crossing over 500 days now, after being initiated last year in the month of January.

Binay Kumar Chaudhary, president of CONCOR Employees Union, told NewsClick that the union is currently preparing for the next round of talks with the DIPAM, CONCOR's management, and Railway Board which is to be held on July 28 in the presence of Chief Labour Commissioner (Central). In light of the disinvestment talk, the latter was approached by the union to demand assurances relating to safeguarding the service conditions of the employees.

The union members at CEL also are busy these days with the "background work" for forming a legal case against the privatisation of the Solar-Photovoltaic (SPV) cells manufacturer. "We are planning to approach NCLAT (National Company Law Appellate Tribunal) in the coming months," said T K Thomas, vice president, CEL Employees' Union.

Earlier, the employees’ union had also approached the Delhi High Court to challenge the sale of CEL to a controversial private firm, namely, Nandal Leasing and Finance Limited. The matter is scheduled to be heard next on July 11.

“The union has also filed a complaint, making DIPAM a party to it, in the office of Regional Labour Commission. The union is demanding answers regarding protecting the service conditions of the employees in case of privatisation," said Thomas on Saturday, adding that the next meeting is scheduled for June 21.

“Across the country, we are seeing that the public sector employees are preparing to intensify their struggles through various means against the disinvestment process," said Tapan Sen, general secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). "Our strategy remains the same, that is, to continue protests at the sectoral level. In the coming days, the central trade unions are planning to meet to discuss possible national-level programmes."

Meanwhile, as public sector employee unions look to strengthen their movement, assistance in achieving so is also being sought from academicians, industry experts, and former bureaucrats.

“We are collaborating with a number of unions to expose the contradictions of the disinvestment policy of the Central government,” said Dinesh Abrol, coordination committee member of Peoples’ Commission on Public Sector and Public Services (PCPSPS).

The aim behind working together with unions is to also bring "a cognitive dimension" to their movement, added Abrol, who retired as a professor from the National Institute of Science, Technology & Development Studies.

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