Rohtak/Haryana: On October 16 last year, well over 20,000 Haryana Roadways workers went on a strike against the Manohar Lal Khattar–led Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state. The strike lasted for 18 days drawing massive support from workers of all sections of society. The government responded by imposing Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA), arresting hundreds of workers and suspending another 500. The High Court intervened in the matter and the case is still pending.
Twelve months down the line, the roadways workers are now conducting public meetings across the state. In the upcoming assembly elections in the state, the roadways workers have vowed to “teach BJP a lesson”.
“All the political parties, as a matter of fact, in the state have flocked together in privatising the Haryana Roadways,” said Sumer Srivastava, 50, “the Khattar government only accelerated the process.” Sumer is a sub-inspector in the state’s carrier service. He is also a part of the Haryana Roadways Workers’ Union and among those who were arrested at the time of the strike.
“The strike helped in bringing the common people of Haryana together to express their anger against the Khattar government, and now is the time to act upon it,” he added.
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Haryana Roadways—also known as Haryana ka jahaj—has been a major force behind the development that the state has witnessed. Serving nearly 13 lakh people everyday, the roadways has bagged numerous awards for many years. Speaking of the privatisation process, it was started in 1992-93, under the then Congress government in the state led by Bhajan Lal when state carriage permits were issued to private operators for the first time.
“The objective behind the decision was to connect the rural parts of Haryana,” said Jaykumar Dahiya, 46, a mechanic in the Roadways, “however, looking back, it is seen to be as first among other decisions to privatise the public transport service.”
According to him, mostly co-operative buses were added to the fleet size. However, over the years, the subsequent state governments tweaked the policies to let these buses expand their business.
“The buses which were brought on to the roads to connect villages within the district sre now taking away business from the state’s bus carrier by running between the districts,” he said.
Things changed in 2014. The BJP came to power in the state for the first time and contrary to what was promised, the shift in the power dynamics in the state worsened the condition of the public bus service and its workers.
At first, the government issued an online tender with an aim to give 720 bus permits to private operators. The government said that the number of buses are less and that Haryana Roadways is currently recording losses in its books.
“In an attempt to justify its decision, BJP misguided the public,” Dahiya told NewsClick, adding that the private buses would have costed more to the public exchequer.
The private operators who were awarded the permit quoted exorbitant costs of running the buses which would have resulted in increase in the ticket prices. When the matter went to the High Court in the aftermath of the 2018 strike, corruption to the tune of around Rs 900 crore were revealed, Dahiya added.
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The decision proved to be a disaster even on the jobs front. According to the terms and conditions set by the BJP government, in the private buses, barring the post of the conductor, every other operation would have been outsourced. With outsourcing of the job, eventually it would be the worker who will be at the losing end, receiving no social allowances or any job security. Dahiya called it a complete “mockery” of the ‘equal work, equal pay’ promise of the BJP in 2014 Assembly elections.
NewsClick also spoke to the passengers who use bus service to commute. “Private buses are only good for private players and not for the public,” said Jagbir, a first year B.Sc student, adding, “the private buses don’t accept the student pass.” On the other hand, Haryana Roadways boasts of giving subsidies worth Rs 662 crore every year to numerous sections of the society including students, disabled persons, and senior citizens, among others.
The Haryana Roadways workers are now approaching people and distributing pamphlets, in the run up to the 2019 Assembly Elections, in an attempt to generate awareness among the voters to vote only to the party that speaks of the material needs of the state’s citizens. The workers claim that even though they initially receive a positive response, it is not the case always.
“The conversation starts with the questions surrounding employment, safety or education, however, it soon takes a turn to a commentary over Article 370 or national security,” admitted Sumer.
Also read: Haryana Roadways’ Workers’ Strike: ‘Largest Solidarity of Workers against Privatisation’
As far as the Haryana Roadways are concerned, even the Opposition have remained silent more or less. Congress, in its 2019 manifesto, has announced free rides for women on Haryana Roadways but they haven’t made it clear as to how they will do it. Only the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) has promised to not privatise the public transport.
“People in Haryana are angry and they want to teach Khattar government a lesson,” Sumer said, “but whom should they vote for – the answer is still not clear to them.”