Employees of state-owned enterprises in the country are living in increasing worry as the Centre – met with the unprecedented situation of a pandemic – has accelerated its disinvestment efforts.
Having worked tenaciously for years – even more so during the days when the COVID-19- induced lockdown brought the majority of the economic activity to a grinding halt – public sector employees accuse the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government for “taking advantage” of a prevailing crisis which has left the former with lesser options to agitate, or to hamper developments altogether through protests.
In June, a clarion call was made by Prime Minister Modi to ‘turn the COVID-19 crisis into opportunity’; it summarises the state of affairs. If PSU employees are heard, they have little doubt over who will benefit from the said opportunity.
On Monday, NITI Aayog, the government’s premier think tank, was reportedly expected to hold a preliminary meeting to identify the next set of public companies put up for sale. The meeting was convened in the wake of the Centre pushing a new Public Sector Enterprises Policy under its much touted ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ package: a maximum of four state-owned companies in strategic sectors, with public firms in other segments to eventually witness privatisation.
“The idea (of the meeting) is to see which all companies and assets, which are non-strategic in nature, can be pushed for sale in the next round,” The Economic Times quoted a top government official as saying on Sunday. Close to 48 companies, including Air India, Bharat Earth Movers, among others, have already been recommended for disinvestment in the first round, the report added.
Threatened with a change in service conditions if the said disinvestments were to conclude, public sector employees find themselves in a tough bind. The restrictions on assemblies haven’t yet been lifted as yet, with COVID-19 cases not showing signs of abating.
S. Gireesh, general secretary of the employees’ union at defence PSU Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML), said: “The dharnas and rallies have been turned into signature campaigns and other modes, including storming social media platforms with posts,” he rued. “With mass agitations not possible at the moment, the Centre seems to be taking advantage of the same,” he said.
BEML is one among four major PSUs for which bidding is set to be concluded by November this year. Others that make the list include oil-giant Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL), Shipping Corporation (SCI), and railways’ Navratna company Container Corporation (CONCOR).
The Department of Investment and Public Asset Management (DIPAM), the nodal agency for conducting disinvestments, is betting on fetching Rs 60,000 crore from the sale of these four companies, taking the Centre significantly closer to its disinvestment target of Rs. 2.1 lakh crore for the current fiscal year.
The process, which had impacted by COVID-19 as well, has now been restarted with recent stake sales in Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) – a move protested by their respective employees’ bodies.
Gireesh urged the Centre not to go ahead with its plan of divesting stakes in BEML – 26% of the current government shareholding of 54.03%. “The company currently has book orders worth Rs. 10,000 crore; 80% of it were won against global companies,” he emphasised.
“If the government doesn’t listen to us, we will be forced to strike,” he said. The Central Trade Unions have called for a general strike on November 26, which the employees’ union at BEML is contemplating joining.
The body representing over 1,500 employees at CONCOR is also considering serving a strike notice and joining the general strike next month. “Our company has provided crucial logistical support for essential commodities during the lockdown; now, by privatising it the Centre is sending the wrong message to its employees,” Binay Kumar Choudhary, president of the CONCOR Employee Union, told NewsClick.
Engaged in the cargo carrier business, CONCOR currently enjoys a government share holding of 54.8% equity. The Centre is looking to divest 30.8% of it. Choudhary pegged nearly ten lakh jobs – direct and indirect – to be affected by the stake sales. “If our voices are not being heard, then what choice are we left with but to strike?” he asked in anger.
Alok Kumar Roy, president of the National Confederation of Officers Association (NCOA), said that the selling of public companies “will cripple the nation.” The association, with over one lakh members, is a coming together of nearly 100 public enterprise officers’ bodies.
“If there is one thing that the pandemic has taught us is that a nation needs more public companies as ‘social service providers’ to deal with unavoidable emergencies. This has certainly been among the characteristics of PSUs in our country as well. These companies dole out benefits under government policies while sustaining against market vagaries,” Roy explained, concluding that it will be the general public that will bear the ultimate losses dur to privatisation.
At the moment, the campaign led by the association against the move is “remote”. “We are currently following the developments keenly. We don’t think that market conditions are suitable for sale processes to go through, and hence are hoping that the government doesn’t succeed,” Roy, also an officer at the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), said.
He said that the officers’ body has only given “moral support” to the strike on November 26 and will continue with its activities of “educating the masses” about the repercussions of privatisation on their personal capacities.