‘The government has no business to remain in business’. It was a clarion call to set the ball rolling for the Centre’s ambitious disinvestment drive, envisaged under this year’s Union Budget, and it came from none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, earlier last month.
The turn of phrase, summarising what the Centre’s adopted policies intended to achieve, tickled pink domestic and international investors, who were surely all ears during the webinar organised by the Department of Investment and Public Asset Management (DIPAM) at which Modi spoke. However, the same words had another section – government employees – in jitters.
Prompted by this very nervousness, on March 15, nearly 10 lakh employees of Public Sector Banks (PSBs) and older private banks will strike for two days. The bank employees are expected to be joined by staff members of the General Insurance Corporation (GIC) and Life Insurance Corporation (LIC), who will abstain from work on one day – March 17 and 18 respectively.
Why Are They Striking?
In her Budget speech this year, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced the privatisation of two PSBs (in addition to IDBI Bank) and one general insurance company in the 2021-22 fiscal year. She also reiterated the Centre’s commitment to initiate the partial Initial Public Offering (IPO) of LIC – all in a bid to achieve the disinvestment target of Rs. 1.75 lakh crore for the upcoming fiscal.
Acting in protest, the employees accused the Modi government of launching a privatisation spree with an “ill-motive” that will not only hurt those employed by Public Sector Enterprises (PSEs), but will also compromise the social welfare of the citizens. Their argument is backed by the sentiment that private players go “solely after the profits” while public enterprises are more concerned with providing “social benefits” to the citizens.
Farmers, Other Employees’ Unions Against ‘Corporate Loot’
While not many would vouch that a similar sentiment of ‘profit’ is the sole concern of private corporations, the farmers certainly would. Led by the fear of “corporatisation of agriculture” they have been camping for over hundred days at the outskirts of Delhi in protest against the Farm Laws.
On March 4, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha – the umbrella body of farmers spearheading the ongoing movement – extended its solidarity to the strike action by financial employees, further giving a call to mark the day as “Anti-Privatisation”, “Anti-Corporate” day.
A joint statement by the SKM and the ten Central Trade Unions had then noted that “corporate loot” of farmers and workers through the “usurping” of land and other national resources is a “big challenge”. Resultantly, both the groups have decided to raise the issue by holding demonstrations at railway stations across the country.
Likewise, protests will staged by the employees’ union of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), among others.
The Centre has already kicked off a new policy of maintaining “bare minimum” presence of the public enterprises in four strategic sectors – in a move that was first announced earlier last year in May, under the much touted ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ package, when the country’s economy was still all ravaged by the pandemic-triggered shocks.
Air India, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL), Shipping Corporation Limited (SCL), CONCOR, among others, constitute the big-ticket disinvestments in the pipeline under the same policy. Aside from them the NITI Aayog – the government think-tank – is only coming up with more lists of government-owned undertakings to be privatised.
Protest No More Limited to Govt. Employees
According to Tapan Sen, general secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the Centre’s aggressive bid to fast track the privatisation of PSEs across sectors can only be fought by changing the “language of struggle”, in a shift “that is now visible on ground”.
Play on words is necessary. For example, “the public companies shouldn’t be privatised”, has now become, as Sen would put it, “public companies won’t be allowed to be privatised.”
Furthermore, he added, that the protests are no more limited to only governemnt employees but has “expanded to the society at large. But even then it is only concerning to note that the centre is not considering its disinvestment policies. It is destroying the productive capability of our economy,” Sen lamented.
That said, the Modi-led government must be prepared for resistance for with the passing of each day those protesting its policies are only coming together.