By B. Sivaraman
Binu Pandey is a single mother in Ghaziabad with two school-going children. A video footage of her crying in agony before her superior official in BSNL went viral on the Internet on 13 March 2019. She was in hand-to-mouth existence and had not been able to pay even the school fee for her children as BSNL had not paid the salary for February she was saying amidst her sobs. Recorded and released by some colleague, it stirred the social media and the government and the BSNL faced universal condemnation.
For the first time the state-owned telecom behemoth BSNL failed to pay salaries to its 1.76 lakh employees due to a severe financial crisis. Communications Minister Manoj Sinha tried to make it appear simple saying that 85% of the revenues go towards salaries and while the salaries were increasing by 8% a year the revenues remained stagnant. Only after the employees demonstrated everywhere under the banner of All Unions and Associations of BSNL (AUAB),including officers’ associations, and there was a media outrage over the footage of the crying woman employee the government released Rs.1000 crore on 13 March with the instruction to the BSNL top-brass to consider all options including winding up of the company and then February salaries were paid. But the crisis has not blown over and the next month salary is still a question mark. How long can this go on? Why things came to such a pass?
The BSNL workers went on a 3-day strike on 18–20 February 2019. It was a strike not only over employees’ demands like pay and pension revision but also over demands to save the industry like the one for granting 4G spectrum to BSNL. Despite the minister promising an early cabinet decision on allotting 4G on 3 December 2018 itself, the Modi Government was dilly dallying. Some lower level trade union functionaries wonder whether the non-payment of salaries was a vindictive measure by the top management in response to the strike and also to scare the employees from stepping up their protests. It could also be a ploy to adopt a tough negotiating posture over wage revision. These could also be true but the rot runs deeper, say some senior leaders. They explain that it is not just a liquidity crunch but a very basic existential crisis engineered by the government itself.
The BSNL’s losses were Rs.4793 crore in 2016–17 and they jumped to Rs.7992 crore in 2017–18.BSNL’s annual wage bill is Rs.15,000 crore and it used to account for 85% of its total revenues.
It might be true that BSNL might be highly overstaffed and the Sam Pitroda Committee recommended in 2010 that it should shed 50% of its staff. But the TU activists point out that 50% of the employees are due to retire in any case in the next 5–6 years and the government refuses to provide some salary support even for 5–6 years. Even otherwise, the Modi Government is now proposing a paltry Gujarat-style VRS scheme where an amount equivalent to 35-day salary for each completed year of service and 25-day salary for each year of service left till retirement.
No wonder, employees are not coming forward as they don’t find this VRS attractive at all. Some TU activists say that the telecom ministry is creating a fear psychosis among the employees that they should opt for this bad VRS or in future they wouldn’t get even this much. Even implementation of the VRS scheme will have a one-time revenue impact of Rs.6365 crore only. The VRS scheme would have been successful even if the offer had been doubled and still it is not a big deal for the government if this can bring about a turnaround. So the problem seems to be different.
Some leaders opine that the Modi government wants to strangle BSNL for some mysterious reason. The government denied its own BSNL the 4G spectrum and expected it to compete with private monopolies like Reliance Jio and Airtel with one hand tied. No wonder BSNL’s market share has fallen to just 11% of the mobile market. No wonder revenues are dwindling. Just to save the BSNL workers went on successive all-India strikes at the time of giving 2G and then 3G licenses to private corporates and recently they went on a 3-day strike with the main demand being that BSNL also be handed over 4G spectrum so that they could compete with the private companies on a level playing field. The struggle history of the workers of the past 15 years itself is a proof of who wants to save the BSNL and who wants to kill it only to hand over the carcass to some private monopoly. And everybody knows who the only telecom private monopolist left is and how close Modi is to that business baron?
Mukesh Ambani with his predatory Reliance Jio is on a killing spree in Indian telecom—after burying his own brother’s Reliancecomm and finishing off Tata Telecom and Birla’s Idea Mobile, he has inflicted heavy losses on Vodafone and Airtel. In the last 3 months of 2018 alone Vodafone-Idea lost 3.5 crore customers to Jio and Airtel suffered far worse onslaught. But it is amazing that BSNL could somehow withstand the predatory attack and increase its customer base—that too with mere 3G and without 4G!It had started making operational profits and its mounting losses were due to Jio’s tariff war which the government and TRAI did nothing to curb and, worse still, the criminal denial of 4G to it. Some senior leaders of BSNL Employees’ Union think that this perverse policy of Modi is to sufficiently weaken and ruin BSNL so that its massive infrastructure can be handed over to Ambanis on a platter.
They are of the opinion that this fraudulent handout of a PSU to a private monopolist is not privatisation, a simple transfer of a PSU to private hands at market values as prescribed even by neo-liberal economics. This larcenous privatisation is akin to handout of family silver to plain corporate thieves! There must be some organic link between razing to the ground medieval masjids and demolition of the “temples of modern India”! (IPA Service)