Over a lakh defence employees boycotted their lunch on Friday in protest against the Centre’s decision to corporatise the Ordnance Factories Board (OFB) and its listing on the stock market – as part of the Centre’s campaign for self-reliance in wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
The employees, including about 82,000 civilian employees and close to 40,000 contract workers, wore black badges and raised slogans as part of a demonstration that was observed in all 41 ordnance factories across the country.
The protest, which was the first in what is being hailed as the “next phase” of agitations, was called for by all three recognised federations, namely, All India Defence Employees’ Federation (AIDEF), Indian National Defence Workers’ Federation (INDWF) and even the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Pratiraksha Mazdoor Sangh (BPMS). The unions had warned of an “indefinite strike” earlier, in case the “arbitrary” decision is not withdrawn.
In the fourth tranche of announcements on May 16 about the economic relief package, under the Atma Nirbhar Bharat programme, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced reforms for the defence industry, including the easing of foreign direct investment in defence manufacturing and corporatisation of OFB. The factory board currently operates as a government department under the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
“The lunch boycott was successful and saw huge participation across the country. We will not let the Modi government to go ahead with its plans to corporatise the ordnance board,” C. Srikumar, General Secretary of AIDEF told NewsClick.
Mukesh Singh, General Secretary of BPMS, said “the lunch was boycotted in every ordnance factory, by all the staff. During the period, speeches were delivered by the leaders and employees while adhering to social distancing norms, keeping in mind the coronavirus situation in the nation.”
The Friday’s demonstration also secured the support of the Confederation of Defence Recognised Associations (CDRA) which represents service-level employees, Srikumar further informed.
Meanwhile, responding to the employees’ opposition, the MoD on Thursday notified that a meeting of the High Level Official Committee (HLOC) has been scheduled in the month of June to interact with the concerned federations and confederations of OFB regarding the decision to corporatise.
This HLOC was formed in September 2019 following an indefinite strike by defence employees – which lasted six days – to safeguard the interests of employees “due to converting OFB into a public sector entity.” The indefinite strike was against similar proposals to corporatise the ordnance board, which were then part of the Modi government’s 100 days economic reforms.
“Keeping in view the prevailing lockdown conditions due to COVID-19, the representatives may attend the meeting in person or through Video Conferencing,” the Thursday notice, accessed by NewsClick, said.
Calling it an “eyewash”, the three federations, however, have refused to attend the meeting and demanded that it be deferred to a more suitable time when lockdown restrictions, especially those relating to movement, are eased.
“With each state currently having a different set of quarantine norms, how is it possible for all the representatives to travel to New Delhi for the meeting?” asked Srikumar, mentioning that the matter is “too important” to be discussed through video conferencing.
“The matter is related to the future of ordnance factories that have a history of more than 200 years – it must not be taken lightly by the ministry,” he said.
Singh, a representative of the BPMS to the HLOC, agreed. “Meetings that are in person cannot be compromised with in such matters. Since travelling will be tough for all the participants given the current situation, it has been demanded that talks are scheduled only after June 24,” he said.
Unions have also alleged that a “divide and rule” policy is under play with regard to the scheduled HLOC meeting, further raising their concerns over engaging in talks with the centre.
“The service level association [CDRA] is being called on a separate date and even the defence federations are being asked to engage in talks in different meetings,” Singh told NewsClick. According to him, this is a break from tradition that was followed earlier when HLOC meetings were last called for in October 2019.
Srikumar added that the “hasty manner in which this (June) meeting is being organised speaks about the intentions of the Centre. The HLOC, which remained debunked since October, has only met twice. This shows how poorly the Modi government is addressing the issues raised by us,” he said.