There can be no worse time, if defence federations are to believe, to consider corporatisation of the 219 years old ordnance factories and its listing on the stock market – a move that has always drawn flak from its 82,000-strong workforce, anyway.
The country is reeling under two pressures: fighting against the COVID-19 spread and tackling the reported Chinese incursions in Ladakh. And, both warrant sufficient inventory count of strategic items. In ensuring adequate supply, the 41 ordnance factories – engaged in defence equipment production – across the country play a crucial role.
Converting these factories into a public sector enterprise – as part of the Centre's campaign for self-reliance – will jeopardise nation’s preparations on both the fronts, defence federations have alleged.
Considering the same, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, through a letter dated June 22, have been asked to withdraw the proposed corporatisation move failing which, the employees will strike work for an “indefinite” period.
“More than 99% of the employees who participated in the Strike Ballot have voted in favour of the strike. The Federations have decided to fix the date of commencement of Indefinite Strike after 2nd week of July 2020,” said the letter, signed by all three recognised defence federations, namely, All India Defence Employees’ Federation (AIDEF), Indian National Defence Workers’ Federation (INDWF) and even the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Pratiraksha Mazdoor Sangh (BPMS).
“This was the final appeal made to the Centre. If the arbitrary decision [of corporatisation] is not withdrawn, then we, the defence employees, will be left with no other choice but to go on an indefinite strike against it,” C. Srikumar, general secretary of AIDEF, told NewsClick.
This is in line with other attempts by the Centre to open defence equipment production to private players – “adverse effects” of which are now getting clearer, now that we are faced with COVID-19 and the Chinese attack, he added.
On June 9, three days after the India-China senior military officers’ meet, Department of Defence Production (DDP) asked the OFB to ensure supply of at least 45 key items, including ammunition and warm clothing meant for troops, present stock of which is insufficient. The note was marked as “most urgent”, according to Times of India.
Srikumar explained the shortfall in such critical items as a consequence of Modi-led “poor” policy decisions over the years. “These were among the items, production of which were outsourced to the private players. The ordnance factories were told to divert its production line and retrain the workers,” he said, while speaking about the move to reclassify 275 items as “non-core” by the Modi government, beginning from 2017.
“The government has felt the pinch now since the private enterprises – with less experience – failed in meeting the demands of the Indian army.”
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Centre has also relied on the ordnance factories when it faced shortage of medical safety equipment in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
OFBs along with other Defence Public Sector Units (DPSUs), manufactured masks, hand sanitisers, protective coveralls among others.
If ordnance factories would have been corporatised, such assistance would not have been possible because the decisions then would be driven by the concept of ‘profit’, said Srikumar.
This profit-making environment will also cast its effects over defence production. “The government would ask us to survive on our own – which is to say that we will be competing with the private players. Any such competition always proves disadvantageous for the public company, given the presence of employees’ welfare schemes, for instance – a fate that is similar to that of BSNL,” he said.
The corporatisation of OFB, thus, will not only bring economic uncertainties to its defence employees but will also compromise the needs of the Indian army and the national security, he added.
In the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, on May 16, as part of the Atma Nirbhar Bharat programme, announced reforms for the defence industry, including the corporatisation of ordnance factory board, that oversees the production in ordnance factories. The board currently operates as a government department under the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Last year, the defence employees had called for a month-long nationwide strike in August against a similar proposal, which was then part of the Modi government’s 100 days economic reforms. The strike was called off after an assurance from the Secretary of Defence Production (DP) that “no final decision has been taken by the government” with regard to the corporatisation of OFB.
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