- BSNL – STRUGGLES FOR EXISTENCE (1)
Mention has already been made in earlier chapters about the struggles and strikes organised by E.III/E.III (N) union along with likeminded unions under the banner of National Action Committee during the 1990s against corporatization / privatization of telecom services hitherto maintained by Department of Telecom. After formation of BSNL in 2000, there were lot of problems connected with service and wage conditions of employees as also problems arisen due to transfer of services from a government department to a PSU. These were dealt with suitably by the union through negotiation and struggles.
It may not be preferable to go in detail about the struggles and organizational activities as part of a life story, but it will not be correct also to omit these sustained struggles participated by lakhs of workers in order to safeguard the interests of the public and for existence of this prestigious PSU, BSNL. I also was part of this great crusade.
Most important issue was the existence of BSNL. Both BJP as well as Congress governments, which succeeded one after another, conspired to privatize this much profitable public utility. While all facilities and subsidies were granted to private telecom companies, ignored its own company. Government had understood that growth of BSNL is always a threat to private companies. The latter were eagerly waiting to grab the thousands of acres of prime land and buildings of BSNL, mainly in the cities and major towns across the country.
BSNL received licence for mobile services only in 2002, about long 7 years after same was granted to private companies. But within few years, reached second position and was going to be in first position. Made yearly profit of around Rs.10,000 crores. BSNL was expanding with the full support of workers, despite corporatization.
Well realizing that joint effort is a must to continue expansion and better service, as the recognized union, BSNLEU contacted all unions and associations in BSNL and MTNL and took initiative in forming Joint Forum of BSNL- MTNL Unions/Associations, which organized innumerable struggles for the above purpose. I got the opportunity to work as the Convener of the Joint Forum 2004 to 2015. Although vacated the post of General Secretary of BSNLEU in 2010, continued till 2015 as Convener on the insistence of all the constituents. Though functioned first as Joint Forum of BSNL – MTNL unions/associations, due to certain developments changed to Joint forum of BSNL unions/associations later. A short report is given in the following paragraphs about the struggles and agitations organized under the joint Forum/ Forum etc.
First programme organized was a mammoth March to residence of Communications Minister on 21st December 2004. The main demand was that the Access Deficit Charge (ADC) to be collected from private companies and to be handed over to BSNL, as assured at the time of corporatization, should not be reduced. ADC was intended to compensate BSNL for the huge expenses it was incurring to provide services in the remote areas and villages, where private companies refused to enter. Reduction going to be made was to favour private companies. A Memorandum on this and other issues was given to the Prime Minster on the same day.
Organised demonstration at all levels on 8th February 2005 protesting against increase of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in telecom sector from 49% to 74%.
Government was moving to merge BSNL and MTNL in to one company. Joint Forum insisted that the shares sold by MTNL should be bought back and loans taken by MTNL should be written off before merger is done. Eventually government dropped the plan.
Joint Forum leaders along with Members of Parliament, Coms.Basudeb Acharya and Neelotpal Basu met Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh on 2nd March 2005 and submitted a Memorandum on restoration of reduced ADC, against FDI increase, against BSNL-MTNL merger, for justified allotment from USO Fund, the unjustified discrimination against BSNL by TRAI etc and discussed for more than half hour. Prime Minister assured that government is duty bound to give all help to BSNL and MTNL and that the issues included in the Memorandum will be favourably considered. It was significant that this was the first meeting the unions had with the Prime Minister after formation of BSNL.
One issue which the Joint Forum has brought to notice of Prime Minister was settled immediately. DOT issued orders on 13th March 2005 stating that the pension of DOT officials absorbed in BSNL will be fully paid by the central government. Another demand raised that the copper cables of BSNL should not be privatised was also accepted.
But at the same time, news came in the papers that the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs has decided to sell shares 6 profitable PSUs, including BSNL. Fully justified ‘Navaratna’ status was denied to BSNL. ITS officers were not absorbed in BSNL, which was against growth of the company. Anti-BSNL decisions were being taken one after another. Raising these and other issues, notice for strike on 5th January 2006 was served.
When meeting of JF was being held at about 20.00 hours on 4th January, call came from Shri J.S.Sharma, Secretary DOT, asking to meet him immediately at Sanchar Bhawan to discuss the strike issues. Indication was given that he was calling from the office of the Prime Minister. Though the JF was of the opinion that there is no use in a discussion in last minute, decided that Convener alone can go and come back after confirming our strike decision. Officers were waiting at the gate of Sanchar Bhawan. Took me to the DOT Secretary’s room immediately. He was alone. He asked what the important demands of the strike are. I gave him copy of the notice and explained. He called Shri Yeshwant Bhave, Additional Secretary, who was in the next room and dictated a letter which was typed in the computer and copy given to me. It assured that:
- There is no proposal regarding disinvestment in BSNL
- Unbundling of the local loop is not under consideration
- All efforts will be made towards obtaining ‘Navaratna’ status to BSNL
- Views of the union will be considered as and when the Draft Telecom Policy is formulated.
He stated that other demands also will be sympathetically considered.
Returned immediately, reported to JF the developments. JF decided to defer the strike as some of the major demands have been accepted. It is significant that none of these assurances have been violated so far, even though certain moves were there.
As per call of Joint Forum, protest demonstrations were held all over India on 1st March 2006, against the continued concessions being given to the private telecoms reducing payment to ADC as well as revenue sharing. JF issued press statement against proposal of the government to share BSNL towers with private companies.
Met Shri Dayanidhi Maran, Communications Minister on 12th July 2006 along with senior M.P. and leader of CPI (M) in Lok Sabha, Com. Basudeb Acharya and discussed issues. He stated that even capitalist US had not unbundled cables and assured that it will not be done here also.
Thousands of telegrams were sent to Prime Minister on 27th July 2006 demanding that shares of BSNL/MTNL should not be sold, no unbundling of cables, no sharing of PSU infrastructure, no increase in FDI, no reduction in ADC and revenue sharing, grant of Navaratna status, autonomy for PSUs, expansion of mobile services and immediate absorption of ITS in BSNL.
More than 12,000 BSNL-MTNL employees organized a mammoth Parliament March on 3rd August 2006, on the above demands, which was addressed by Members of Parliament Basudeb Acharya, Sitaram Yechury and Roop Chand Pal.
Agitational programmes were organised and discussion held with Secretary DOT on the decision of DOT that if pension amount is more than 60 % of the taxes, Licence Fee, Dividend etc. paid by BSNL, then the balance of pension will have to be paid by BSNL (60%-40%). JF demanded that the earlier decision to pay pension in full by government should be ensured. It was also demanded that the CGEGIS should be refunded to the employees.
At this time, BSNL management had floated global tender for 4.5 crore mobile phones (GSM) to meet the increased demand, but the same was questioned by the private companies in the Supreme Court on various flimsy grounds and got stayed. By one year the SC cleared the tender dismissing objections. Unfortunately, Communications Minister A.Raja intervened and cancelled the tenders on the plea that the cost is high compared to the MTNL tender earlier. It was not that he did not know that this tender was technically superior than earlier tender. It was only to support the private companies.
Joint Forum opposed the decision and decided on agitational programmes including indefinite strike from 11th July 2007, since this was an issue which will have serious repercussions on the growth of the company. Discussions with the Secretary, DOT failed to resolve the issue. Minister met the JF leaders on 10th July evening and gave some vague assurances, but that too not in writing.
The strike started in the mid night of 10th/11th as given notice of. The entire workforce of 3,40,000 executives and non-executives went on strike. The biggest strike after formation of BSNL. Even in Corporate Office, all except top officers on strike. Telecom services all over the country paralysed. Workers understood that this was a do or die struggle. All newspapers published the news in front page with priority. Editorials criticizing government were published. The country heard with shock the cancellation of the mobile tender for 4.5 crores which would have benefitted the people at large. Central government was in the dock.
The strike had lightning effect. Minister called and discussed with Joint Forum and assured that immediate action will be taken on tender. Within one week fresh tender was placed, but only for 2.275 crore, which was half of the earlier tender. At least immediate requirement was met.
Government again started for implementation of VRS, for 20,000 employees this time. Management had to retreat due to strong opposition from the Joint Forum and threat of agitation and assured that VRS will not be implemented without discussion with unions.
A vastly attended Seminar was held at the Eastern Court premises Delhi on 7th September 2007 on the development and expansion of BSNL services attended by thousands of workers. Presidents of all constituent unions/associations of JF presided. Veteran leaders M.K.Pandhe (CITU), Sitaram Yechuri M.P.(CPIM), Gurudas Dasgupta M.P.(AITUC), Harish Rawat M.P.(Congress), Kuppusamy M.P.(DMK) and others addressed. Leaders of unions/associations addressed and explained the issues.(to be continued).