59. SUSTAINED STRUGGLES AGAINST CORPORATISATION
Government started initial preparations for corporatisation of DOT services as the first step towards privatisation. Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) was formed for providing telecom services in the major cities of Delhi and Mumbai. Since it was expected that better salary will be received, there was no opposition from the employees. Overseas Communications under DOT was converted to Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL), another PSU.
Next step proposed by government was to form another telecom PSU for providing services in the entire country, except in Mumbai and Delhi, where MTNL was the service provider. Recognised Federations viz. NFTE and FNTO took a soft approach to this move on the basis that this was a policy decision of the government, which need not be opposed.
However, sensing the seriousness and genuine apprehension of the workers, E.III / E.III (N), T.III, Administrative Unions along with SNEA opposed the corporatisation move and organised agitational programmes. Since Bhopal AIC, such struggles were continuously decided and implemented.
Against the recommendations of the Athreya Committee to corporatize and privatise telecom services, one day strike was organised on 31st December 1993 and got assurance from government that the recommendations will not be implemented.
One day strike on 23rd May 1994 was organised against the decision of the government to grant licence for providing mobile services to private companies as per National Telecom Policy – 1994. A series of agitational programmes were organised including Protest Demonstrations on 5th July, submission of Memorandum to the Prime Minister and State Governors on 19th July and Protest Dharna on 29th July 1994.
A decision to go on Indefinite Strike taken from 17th August 1994 was deferred by the three Federations on the plea that Communications Minister Shri Sukhram has given certain assurances. In fact, there was no concrete assurance. Hence, E.III and similar minded unions organised massive dharnas on the same day on which strike was to start.
A complete strike took place on 23rd January 1995 jointly called by the three Federations and Unions against the decision of the government allowing private companies to start pilot projects.
Unfortunately, the Federations withdrew from future struggles. In such a circumstance, E.III union took initiative in forming the Door Sanchar Sangharsh Samithi (National Action Committee) with about 10 unions including unions in Indian Telephone Industries (ITI) and continued the struggle against corporatisation. I was elected as Convener of the joint front.
A National Convention was held at Mavlankar Hall, Delhi, participated by more than 2,000 delegates to discuss about the agitational programmes to be organised against corporatisation. Prominent personalities, Central trade union leaders, experts in telecom sector and Parliament Members including Justice Bhagavathi, Kumaramangalam M.P., A.B.Burdhan (AITUC), Neelotpal Basu M.P., former Secretaries of DOT, S.M.Aggarwal, D.K.Singhal and others addressed. After due discussions, decisions were taken for organising Protest Day on 5th May 1995 wearing badges and organising dharna, formation of Sangharsh Samithi at lower levels, organise rallies and conventions and also submit a memorandum to the Prime Minister.
It was difficult for the recognised Federations not to ignore these developments and keep silent. Call was issued by the Federations and all unions including those in the Sangharsh Samithi for Indefinite Strike from 19th June 1995. Three and half lakh employees in the crucial telecom department were going on strike. There was much enthusiasm amongst workers. Workers stood firm against the threat of government to impose ESMA as also arrests, dismissals and terminations. Central trade unions, political leaders and many M.P.s supported the decision to strike and demanded the government to concede the demands.
The strike started with full participation and was a big success. However, the Federations without consulting others negotiated with the government and withdrew from the strike without any important settlement. The same day, government granted licence to the private companies to run telecom services. It became clear that the Federations were not acting up to the expectations of the workers.
Since the Federations have withdrawn the strike, it was not possible to continue the same immediately, though workers wanted it. E.III (N) Union in consultation with other units of Sangharsh Samithi, filed a case in Supreme Court against formation of the corporation proposed by the government. Senior Advocate Smt. Kamini Jaiswal argued our case. Did not charge any fee. Some NGOs also filed cases. On the other side, vested interests had arranged a galaxy of top senior advocates. Our cases were dismissed by the Supreme Court.
Organised Sanchar Bhawan March on 26th October and One Day Strike on 12th November 1998 as per call of Door Sanchar Sangharsh Samithi against corporatisation.
Government announced National Telecom Policy – 1999 on 23rd March 1999. Privatisation was the main aim. Provided more relaxations and facilities to private companies. Private companies were allowed to provide international telecom services as pressurised by World Trade Organisation (WTO). Against these anti-people measures a Seminar was organised in Mavlankar Hall, Delhi on 4-5 April 1999 which was addressed by prominent public men Shri Rabi Ray (former Speaker, Lok Sabha), Krishan Patnaik, Prabhat Patnaik, S.P.Shukla, Dr.Ashok Mitra, Prabir Purkayastha, S.M.Aggarwal, D.K.Sanghal, V.A.N.Namboodiri and others.
Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) was constituted on 29th December 1997, with the declared aim of openness and also regulating issues between the various telecom companies. But the real intention was to safeguard interests of private companies, as we will see later.
As per call of Sanchar Sangharsh Samithi or National Action Committee (NAC) as it was called, another one day strike was organised on 8th June and a two days strike on 24-25 August 2000. Workers massively participated in these strikes, as they knew what will happen if corporatisation takes place.
None of the three Federations called for these strikes. They kept silent. The massive participation in these strikes, including that of their members made them anxious. Federations were also compelled to go on agitation. They declared indefinite strike with effect from 6th August 2000 against corporatisation. This was done even without consulting or intimating the unions which are part of the National Action Committee, while every strike organised by the NAC was informed and consulted well in advance with the Federations. I was away on tour and in train and got the information only on reaching Delhi in the morning of 8th and after consultation, immediately called for strike.
Federations did not want us to join the strike since they had their own plan. As jokingly or seriously told by Guptaji to me later, our joining the strike would make it difficult for an agreement. They urgently sought for a meeting by the night of 8th and came to an agreement with the government for corporatisation on assurance of government pension and regularisation of contract workers etc. The strike was withdrawn in the night itself. The Federations cheated the workers who were prepared to continue to struggle against corporatisation.
The door was open to the government for corporatisation of telecom services maintained by DOT. If the Federations had stood firm, it was difficult for the government to continue with corporatisation. As everybody knows, without the support of the 3.5 lakh workforce, converting such a technical department services to a corporation would have been almost impossible. (to be continued).