Every year since 1999, July 26 is celebrated as Kargil Vijay Diwas to honour the brave soldiers of the Indian Army who fought against the infiltrating Pakistani troops. The memory of this year’s 20th anniversary of the Operation Vijay has not faded away easily, especially in this day and age of commercialisation of nationalism.
However, amid these recollections of the desolate battlefields of Kargil, lakhs of defence civilian employees of Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) – a government-operated production organisation which was once appreciated by the Indian mandarins for its “commendable performance during and after the Kargil crisis” – are demonstrating against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government’s likely decision to corporatise the ordnance factories.
In a bid to register their discontentment, the three national-level trade unions of employees and workers of 41 ordnance factories have now come together, despite their different political affiliations, to go on a month-long strike from August 20. A strike ballot was taken on July 30 in which 100% votes were cast in favour of the strike.
The three unions are All India Defence Employees’ Federation (AIDEF), Indian National Defence Workers’ Federation (INDWF) and even the RSS-affiliated Bhartiya Pratiraksha Mazdoor Sangh (BPMS).
According to the unions, the move is “a clear violation of the assurances given to the Federations [by the government] and the agreement reached in the past on different occasions when the proposal of converting the Ordnance Factories into a Corporation /PSU (Public Sector Undertaking) was considered.”
Operating for the past 218 years, the Indian Ordnance Factories are engaged in production and development of a comprehensive range of defence hardware and equipment – from ammunitions to army uniforms – for the Indian armed forces. It currently functions under the Department of Defence Production of the Ministry of Defence.
Also read: Privatisation Plagues Armed Forces, Ordnance Factories to Shut Down?
However, under the smokescreen of major economic reforms as part of the 100 days programme of the Modi 2.0 government, these ordnance factories are up for corporatisation, putting questions over the job security of lakhs of defence civilian employees.
As per this move, Government of India will pay for the salaries and other perks for the first five years after the corporatisation, after which the onus will be shifted to the Corporation itself to earn enough to meet the expenditures, according to a report by Times of India, which has accessed the government document that outlines the corporatisation plan.
The main objection of the unions here is the application of market principles in the case of Defence Industry which is volatile in nature. The commercialisation of the demands of the Indian armed forces will also increase the risk to national security by exposing it to be influenced by the vicissitudes of the market.
In a letter dated July 26, sent to Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, the federations stated, “In a purely commercial term, maintaining idle capacity [to take care of surge demands in emergent war situations] would be detrimental to the business interest of the Corporation / PSU. Therefore, Ordnance Factories should continue as a Departmental Organisation.”
The federations have also taken note of the struggles of other Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) under the Modi regime in covering their basic expenditures, such as disbursement of monthly salaries.
“The experience for the past two decades is corporatisation / PSU is a route to privatisation against the service conditions of the employees who are basically recruited as Central Government Employees / Defence Civilian Employees,” the letter added.
Speaking of privatisation, this is not the first time that defence civilian employees are peeved with the Modi government which has often clamoured about the financial crisis of the PSUs and then has sold them to private players for a song. Sadly, even the defence industry is not exempted from this drill paraded by a government which claims to have never compromised with the national security.
NewsClick has earlier reported on the Modi government’s decision to outsource more than 250 items manufactured previously by the ordnance factories to the private sector by declaring those items as ‘non-core’. The federations had protested against this decision as well.
In June 2018, the army was forced to cut down its supplies by 50% from ordnance factories as the ruling government failed to provide additional funds to the army. The federations objected again, asking the government not to encourage private sector at the cost of ordnance factories.
Also read: Three-day National Strike of Defence Civilian Employees Brings All Units to Standstill
The defence civilian employees staged a three-day strike earlier this year condemning the government for not making any further investments in the OFB and other defence public sector undertakings.
While a series of demonstrations have been waged by the employees of ordnance factories, in a bid to safeguard the national security interests, it is high time to highlight the mismanagement of the national assets by the ruling government and shift the narrative from the financial crunch of PSUs to Modi government’s incompetence.