One can hear the tunes of history rhyming, if not repeating, with the defence ministry likely to corporatise 41 ordnance factories and 16 other associated organisations. Last time, the melody of bringing competitiveness and self-reliance through corporatisation was heard in the year 2000, with the incorporation of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), which assumed business from the erstwhile Central Government Departments of Telecom Services (DTS) and Telecom Operations (DTO). With no one to listen, the workers clamoured against it then, and they are doing it now.
The employees of Ordnance Factories across the country, on August 6, observed “No Corporatisation Day” by holding massive demonstration with black flags and black badges as a part of their strike preparation.
The employees’ unions have already submitted a notice of a month long strike commencing from August 20. Cutting across political affiliations, the strike call has been supported by all the 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).
Also read: Ordnance Factories’ Workers Plan Strike Against Move for Corporatisation
Be it the factories at Jabalpur, Chandigarh or even at Bhandara, which also played a vital role in the launching of ‘Chandrayaan-2’, all the sites have been marked with regular bike rallies and effigy burnings, to oppose the corporatisation move of the Modi government 2.0.
Interestingly, in a letter dated July 26, which was sent to register employees’ discontentment to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, corporatisation of BSNL finds a mention, a public sector enterprise whose employees are now fighting against the ruling government to save its foundational characteristics.
The letter warned: “The experience of BSNL [shows] even though it is a revenue earning service PSU… [it] is struggling even to disburse the monthly salaries to their own employees, what will be the fate of the Ordnance Factories which totally depends on the orders from the Armed Forces and the Government.”
The experience of BSNL was enlisted under the head “Why the Federations oppose corporatisation of Ordnance Factories?” making it imperative, at this juncture, to take note of the commitments and promises that were made during the incorporation of BSNL and assess them in comparison to the commitments that are being reported now, in the case of corporatisation of ordnance factories takes place.
BSNL was formed on October 1, 2000, which was facilitated by the Group of Ministers (GOM) constituted under the chairmanship of the then Minister of Communications Ram Vilas Paswan. The Press Information Bureau dated September 1, 2000, of Government of India outlines the “important decisions” taken by the GOM with regards to the demand of the employees’ federations.
“Financial viability of the BSNL to be full taken care of… for achieving its social objective in regard to spread of telecommunication network in the country,” the GOM decided.
Almost two decades down the line, these words - now translated to a mere joke - seem to have faded away from the memory of the BJP government which aims to benefit its corporate patrons by pushing an ill-intentioned narrative of BSNL’s financial crisis.
Speaking about a government whose actions don’t match their words, Sebastian K, General Secretary of Sanchar Nigam Executives’ Association (SNEA) told NewsClick about the hollowness of the promises that were made before the incorporation of BSNL and the struggle of the employees since then. He commented, the government assured all the unions then that under no circumstances it would allow BSNL to become non-viable as it has to be kept always in strong and healthy conditions.
“With no capital infusion from the government for all these years and no other market avenue opened for us to raise capital, look at the financial condition of the 100% government owned enterprise which is not even able to pay its employees on time,” he added.
Moreover, the financial viability of BSNL was also hugely compromised due to the “second class” treatment of the central government towards it. According to the union, an amount of around ₹ 2,200 crore is yet to be disbursed that was paid to the government as excess pension contribution. This is in addition to the non-allotment of 4G spectrum, a long pending demand of the union.
Also read: Ensure Financial Viability of BSNL for It’s Revival, Say Unions
The reports of the retrenchment policy adopted by the BJP government are still fresh, which was fuelled by the mainstream media’s narrative of the need to bring down the high employee cost of BSNL. As per union members, such policies stand in clear contradictions as to the assurances of the job security of every employee “even after their absorption in the corporate entity” that was given by the GOM at the time of the incorporation of BSNL.
With Indian ordnance factories likely to lose their character of “attached office” under the department of defence and become a private limited company, the apprehensions of federations regarding the fate of the proposed company are legitimate.
Earlier this year, Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) chairman Saurabh Kumar has recorded his concerns regarding the service condition, pay and pension in the proposed corporate structure of OFB. The federations too, from time to time, have noted their fears based on the experience of the past two decades in letters to Ministry of Defence which shows “corporatisation is a route to privatisation.”
Speaking of privatisation, the federations have alleged that the efforts to privatise the ordnance factories can already be seen with the Modi government outsourcing more than 250 items to the private sector by declaring those items as ‘non-core’ and forcing the army to cut down the supplies by 50% from ordnance factories.
While the financial stability of one of the ‘mini ratnas’ (BSNL) of the government is already in doldrums and the other is right now resisting the attempts to go down the same path, it is high time to shut down the nightingales of corporatisation and privatisation who only sing for soothing the corporate barons.