Be it diverting production capabilities to augment the supply of ventilators, medical oxygen, and other utilities; setting up make-shift care facilities; or, continuing to provide essential services even amid the imposed restrictions on movement – the public sector companies in the country have been at the forefront since last year in assisting the government machinery to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet, when it came to protecting the public sector employees against the infection, their “serving the nation” sentiment was only met with “complete apathy and merciless behaviour” of the Narendra Modi – led central government, alleged the National Confederation of Officers’ Associations (NCOA) on Friday, June 4.
The Centre is not “bothered to make serious efforts” into categorising the employees of public sector units (PSUs) as “frontline workers” and thereby, ensure their vaccination, the NCOA added.
The officers’ body, in its letter addressed to Union Minister of Public Enterprises and Heavy Industries Prakash Javadekar, rued that the delay in doing so is causing “thousands and thousands” of PSU employees to lose their lives, “while discharging their official duties.”
“This only goes on to establish complete apathy and merciless behaviour of the concerned ministry which is unfortunate, because despite the fact [that] thousands and thousands of precious human lives have already been sacrificed by valiant and selfless employees of PSUs in serving the Nation in critical sectors which matter the most while facing a deadly calamity like the present one...,” the letter said.
The letter added that this reality, faced by the PSU employees, is in stark contrast to that in the private sector where “strenuous efforts” are being made.
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There are 29 operating Central Public Sector Enterprises (CPSEs) and four autonomous organisations that administratively work under the the Department of Heavy Industry, while many PSUs also function under other ministries. NCOA, with over 1 lakh members across the country, is a coming together of nearly 100 officers’ associations in these public enterprises in different sectors.
Last year, when the nationwide lockdown was imposed in the wake of spurt in COVID-19 cases, government-owned enterprises were granted exemptions, albeit with restrictions. Their existing infrastructure provided much help in preparing the nation to combat the pandemic, especially at a time when the private sector proved ill-equipped to handle emergencies.
This has been the case even this year, during the resurgence in virus cases, when intermittent lockdowns have been imposed by state governments.
V K Tomar, secretary general, NCOA, told NewsClick on Saturday that the PSU employees have no reservations about being made to work when the whole country is shutdown. “But then, the labour of these employees must be acknowledged. They must be vaccinated immediately,” he said.
Tomar denied having any definite number with regards to how many PSU employees have been infected with COVID-19 and how many have lost their lives so far, but reiterated the figure to be “in thousands”.
Some glimpse of the gravity of the matter, however, can be caught by looking at the data provided by sectoral federations. For example, over 200 employees have so far been infected with COVID-19, while about 30 of them have died, in the four manufacturing units of Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML), according to Gireesh, general secretary, BEML employees’ union.
“We have written regarding the immediate vaccination of BEML employees to the concerned authorities. It is disappointing to note that we haven’t received a positive answer as yet,” he said. BEML, a defence PSU, was earlier this year engaged in mitigating the oxygen shortage in the country.
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Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), the state-owned telecom enterprise, saw around 135 of its employees losing their lives due to COVID-19 in the month of March alone this year. “This figure has increased for the subsequent months – April and May,” P Abhimanyu, general secretary, BSNL Employees Union told NewsClick on Friday.
Abhimanyu added that the union has written twice to the Minister of Communications Ravi Shankar Prasad and twice to the BSNL chairman separately to press for vaccinations at least for the “field officers” of the telecom PSU. “It has all fallen on deaf ears,” he lamented.
Push for Disinvestment Continues
Meanwhile, the push to disinvest the public sector enterprises, that has invited flak from the employees’ associations, continues. On Thursday, news agency PTI reported that NITI Aayog, a government think tank, has submitted to the Core Group of Secretaries on Disinvestment the finalised names of PSU banks that are to be privatised in the current fiscal.
The think tank was entrusted with the task of selection of names of two public sector banks and one general insurance company for the privatisation as announced earlier in this year’s Budget.
“We have submitted the names [of the PSU banks] to the Core Group of Secretaries on Disinvestment,” PTI quoted a senior government official as saying. The said names are not disclosed to the public as yet.