The lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the country's economy hard and Maharashtra is no exception. But this the impact on state treasure has translated into a struggle for survival for those employed by the Maharashtra State Transport Corporation (MSRTC) and have not been paid salaries since July.
As the employees are unable to speak to the media fearing government action, NewsClick spoke with their family members. Sangita Kambale, wife of a ticket conductor at Panvel depot of Raigad district, tells NewsClick that they are struggling to make ends meet as her husband is not getting his salary. Sangita was a housewife, but these days she sells ladies clothes near her house in Kamothe, Navi Mumbai.
"We will have to run the house. If my husband is not getting his salary, I will have to work and help him for all of us. We need to pay for groceries, our son's education, as well as medicines for the mother-in-law. We request the state government to pay the dues or else there will be a lot of difficulties ahead," said Sangita.
Anuja Sontakke, the wife of a driver from Osmanabad district, has started selling vegetables in Paranda city to survive. "Earlier I used to look after my family. We have two daughters. One is in 4th standard now. These days, many people who lost their jobs are selling vegetables or chicken on the road. My husband has not lost his job. But not getting his salary is almost equal to that," she said.
The story is similar for the families of 98 thousand employees of the MSRTC, which is also popularly known as ST. The salary bill of these employees runs into Rs 275 crore per month. In March, they received 75% of their salary, in April 50%, and full salary in May. But then, the delay started in June and since July, these employees have not received a penny.
On the other hand, ST services were not completely stopped. Buses were running to carry the labourers till the borders of the state during the peak of labour exodus. Buses were also running to bring the students from Kota in Rajasthan, as well as labourers from Chattisgarh, Telangana, Gujarat and Karnataka. The state government and health employees also travelled via ST buses in Mumbai and suburban areas.
According to the data given by the ST corporation, the transport services used to earn Rs 26 crores per day before the pandemic hit the country. But this has reduced to just Rs 4 crores per day now. Even though the state government has allowed inter-district transportation, people are scared to sit in public transport buses. Also, colleges and schools are closed and that is affecting the business of the MSRTC.
However, by not paying the employees, the government is going back on its own words. The Union as well as state governments have issued letters in public interest to the private companies to pay full salary to their staff during the pandemic. But here, the employees of a semi-government corporation themselves have been deprived of their rightful salaries for three months.
The employees’ unions have now started planning protests to get their dues cleared.
"We have decided to launch the fasting protest at all ST depots from October 15. Families of ST employees will sit on fast at these depots so that the government listens to our prayers," said Srirang Barage, general secretary of Maharashtra ST Employees Congress.
The ST employees are also planning 'Gandhigiri style' protest on October 2 in the state ruled by a coalition of the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress.
"We will stick the letters on all ST buses. These letters will give an idea to the public about our demands, the situation and also it will appeal to people to speak for us," said Sandeep Shinde, leader of Maharashtra State Transport Kamgar Sangathana. He also said that by October 7, his union will start sit-in protests across Maharashtra.
The meetings between the government and employees’ unions are taking place since August. The unions have demanded the immediate release of salaries. The state Transport Department has requested the government for more funds. The transport minister, finance minister and secretaries of both their departments held meetings over this. The state government in principle has accepted the demand for more funds, but nothing has been released to the ST corporation yet.
"We are waiting for this additional fund. Once this comes, we will immediately start clearing the due salaries of employees," said Shekhar Channe, Managing Director of MSRTC.
The ST employees’ unions have been demanding the merger of the transport corporation with the state government for years. As it is a corporation, these workers become semi-government employees.
"The merge could give us security. It will also bring financial stability to the corporation. But no government is taking this decision," said Shinde.
Not too long ago, having a job in ST corporation was still one of the prestigious thing for a common man in Maharashtra. That shine has gone and that glory is almost over as the employees now struggle to survive by any means possible.