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Defence Employees Observe ‘Black Day’ as OFB Corporatised

The workers fear that the move will affect their service conditions.
Defence employees boycotted lunch during lunch hours on Friday. Image Courtesy - Special Arrangement

Defence employees boycotted lunch during lunch hours on Friday. Image Courtesy - Special Arrangement

Defence employees across the country observed ‘Black Day’ on Friday after the 246-year-old Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) was dissolved into seven new defence public sector undertakings (PSUs) following the contentious decision taken by the Narendra Modi government.

Nearly, all of the 70,000 defence employees on the OFB roll at the 41 ordnance factories, with whom the move to corporatise the board hasn’t gone down well, wore black bands and boycotted their lunch.

Defence Employees staged a demonstration on Friday during lunch hours. Image Courtesy - Special Arrangement

Defence Employees staged a demonstration on Friday during lunch hours. Image Courtesy - Special Arrangement

The Kolkata-based OFB, an erstwhile defence ministry entity, presided over these factories. The units supply critical arms and ammunition to the armed forces and the paramilitary. 

With effect from Friday, the production facilities have been restructured into seven state-owned corporate entities. “Government of India has decided to transfer, with effect from October 1, 2021, the management, control, operations and maintenance of these 41 production units and identified non-production units to seven government companies (wholly owned by the government of India),” the ministry of defence had said in an official order dated September 28.

The move to corporatise the OFB, ever since it was included in one of the “transformative ideas” that were to be implemented in the first 100 days of Modi’s second tenure in 2019, has been opposed by the recognised defence federations. Their major apprehension is that the move will affect the service conditions of the employees, who were recruited and regarded as Central government employees till Thursday.

“The government has taken this decision without taking the defence federations and the employees into confidence. Today is a very sad day for all of us,” said Vinod Kumar, a defence employee with the ordnance factory in Ambajhari, Nagpur (Maharashtra).

Kumar, who had joined the unit in 2011, added that “nearly all the employees” at the Nagpur facility protested on Friday. “Every employee here had passed the exam to get the jobs. We do not trust the government’s assurance that our service conditions won’t change,” he said.

The Centre had indeed given such assurances with Ajay Bhatt, Union minister of state for defence, informing the Rajya Sabha in a written reply to a question in August that the services of the defence employees will be safeguarded and they “shall continue to be subject to all rules and regulations as are applicable to the Central government servants”.    

However, in a referendum conducted under the guidance of the two recognised defence federations—All India Defence Employees Federation (AIDEF) and the RSS-backed Bharatiya Pratiraksha Mazdoor Sangh—along with the Confederation of Defence Recognised Federation last month, around 99% of the 61,564 defence employees had voted against the corporatisation of the OFB.

The Indian National Defence Workers Federation, another recognised federation affiliated to Congress-backed Indian National Trade Union Congress, however, had shifted its position earlier in August reportedly to support the OFB’s corporatisation.

Arnobdas Gupta, who is employed with an ammunition production unit in Jabalpur’s Khamaria town, in Madhya Pradesh, said that the employees “understand” the Centre’s objective. “For the last two years, the workload of the defence employees has reduced and now the OFB has been corporatised. This is nothing but a step-by-step plan to privatise the ordnance factories in the future,” Gupta, who had joined the OFB in 2007, said.

The newly established defence PSUs are Munition India Limited, Armoured Vehicles Nigam Limited, Advanced Weapons and Equipment India Limited, Troop Comforts Limited, Yantra India Limited, India Optel Limited and Gliders India Limited.

A Union Cabinet decision in this line, on the corporatisation of OFB, was taken earlier on June 16. Subsequently, the defence federations had called for an indefinite strike in July. It was, however, followed by the Centre deciding to penalise the striking workers with the introduction of The Essential Defence Services Ordinance, 2021. The ordinance was replaced by the Essential Defence Services Act (EDSA), 2021.

C Srikumar, general secretary, AIDEF, told Newsclick that the ‘Black Day’ saw an “overwhelming participation” from across the country. “This shows the resolve of the defence employees. The protesting federations will continue their struggle through legal means,” he said.

Currently, both the OFB’s corporatisation and the EDSA have been challenged by the AIDEF in the Madras High Court and the Delhi High Court respectively.

On Thursday, the All India Trade Union Congress condemned the “unilateral decision” of the Centre. It will have a “serious impact on the national security of the country by forcing the Indian Army to be at the mercy of private corporates,” the union had said in a press release.

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