Employees of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL), whose names continue to be on the rolls of the two companies, have started the new year amid concerns and apprehensions as to how the remainder of their service career will pan out.
This, when the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and the two companies’ management, individually and, at times, together are holding meetings after meetings to execute the most inclusive and extensive voluntary retirement scheme in our country so far. Under this, January 31 will be the last working day, at one go, for over 92,000 employees – over 78,500 in BSNL and nearly 13,500 in MTNL.
On February 1, BSNL will have a staff strength of around 70,000 i.e. 47% of the present number and MTNL will have on its rolls about 1,500 employees – just about 10% of its current strength. MTNL is to become an arm of BSNL under the VRS-cum-revival package announced by communications minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on October 23, 2019, after being cleared by a cabinet meeting presided over by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. VRS was open from November 4 to December 3, 2019.
BSNL’s director (HR) Arvind Vadnerkar will hold a meeting with representatives of the BSNL Employees Union (BSNLEU) on January 13 when the latter will seek clarifications from the management on three issues: utilisation of non-executives in the post-VRS scenario, transfer policy for non-executives and their retirement age. These, according to BSNLEU’s deputy general secretary Swapan Chakraborty, are crucial concerns of the employees who will remain in service.
Also read: BSNL Employees Go on Hunger Strike, Allege Forced to Opt VRS
“It’s going to be an altogether different situation after January 31. Will it be an oppressive deployment strategy? Will it be a drastically different transfer policy? Will the retirement age be lowered? In other words, will a situation arise when further reduction in staff strength will appear to the Centre’s unspoken objective?,” questioned Chakraborty, while talking about the apprehensions of the employees in the new year. He added that the union is looking forward to straightforward answers from director.
“VRS has been virtually pushed down our throat. Employees were warned about the consequences of not responding to the scheme; payment of statutory dues, such as, Provident Fund and Gratuity may get inordinately delayed if they were to retire in the normal course. For all practical purposes, it has proved to be a ‘Forced Retirement Scheme’ or FRS and not a VRS,” Chakraborty told NewsClick. General secretary of the National Union of BSNL Workers, K Jayaprakash, agreed that the scheme was enforced, rather than voluntary, while talking to NewsClick from Hyderabad.
Their main fear seems to be that a situation may arise when “further right sizing” will become inevitable and a ‘White Knight’ will want to play the role of a rescuer. Several people unhesitatingly identified RelJio promoter.
Meanwhile, on October 23, the communications minister has gone on record while announcing the revival-cum-VRS plan that “neither BSNL / MTNL is being closed nor are they being disinvested nor are they being hived off to any third party”. The minister also said there will be significant improvement in BSNL’s financial years in two years as a result of the government’s financial support and monetisation of assets. However, those believing in the ‘White Knight’ theory said they had made note of what minister Prasad said that day, “but we have our suspicions”.
Also watch: Modi Govt Is Destroying BSNL to Help Jio: BSNLEU Asst. Gen Sec
A senior officer of DoT had indicated then that 4G spectrum to both the companies will be allocated “administratively” within a month but nearly 10 weeks have passed and there has been no announcement yet. Two private operators are under extreme stress after the Supreme Court upheld DoT’s Adjusted Gross Revenue concept. As a result of this, operators are required to bear a hefty additional financial burden.
“The allocation of 4G has been inordinately delayed. If DoT expedites allocation and as a result there is a perceptible improvement in the company’s services, we are pretty optimistic reverse migration will happen”, deputy general secretary of BSNLEU said, adding,
“Similarly, there is no word yet on providing sovereign guarantee for issue of bonds by BSNL as a measure to raise resources. It is in the finance ministry’s domain.” It’s a space problem, according to a PTI report in January 2 edition of some newspapers.
Another concern of the union members is whether the existing bulk customers, such as, Union government departments, centrally administered public sector undertakings, government-funded educational institutions will continue to make use of BSNL’s services. For obvious reasons, they expect defence and para-military establishments to use the company’s services. The Indian Army has signed MoUs with BSNL. Some units of the Indian Navy have acknowledged BSNL’s expertise in installing sophisticated communication systems involving established private sector companies as suppliers.
Their appeal to the Centre to nudge its bulk customers to continue to utilise the company’s services have not produced any result. The Railways, which has in-house telecommunications for operations, signed an MoU with RelJio for mobile telephony and allied facilities with effect from January 1, 2019, after the expiry of its MoU with Airtel. RelJio has also bagged service contracts from several airports. “When we appeal for help in retaining bulk customers, there is no response. But, we hear words being put in for Jio’s services. This is depressing,” said P Abhimanyu, general secretary of BSNLEU from Puducherry.
Also read: BSNL: No Wages in 10 months, 7 Contract Workers Kill Themselves
Now, employees and unions await the recommendations of the group of ministers (GoM) on speedy and smooth implementation of the VRS-cum-revival package, which consists more than usual GoMs which have three-four ministers. Apart from Prasad, this GoM comprises Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Home Minister Amit Shah (he headed a GoM on the same subject earlier), Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Railways and Commerce & Industry Minister Piyush Goyal, and Petroleum & Steel Minister Dharmendra Pradhan.
Meanwhile, Indian Telecom Employees Federation, a unit under the umbrella of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, is of the view that the Centre has offered a good VRS package. With the high skill level of BSNL’s employees, the company should be able to regain viability over a period, according to the federation’s vice-president Utpal Ghosh Dastidar.