By B. Sivaraman
It might look a curious case to many that even before the first full-fledged meeting of the new council of ministers of the new Modi Government scheduled for 12 June 2019, a hurried inter-ministerial meeting was convened by Amit Shah on 11 June attended by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Labour Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar and Commerce and Railway Minister Piyush Goyal among others. The meeting decided to pass the pending labour reform legislations to convert 44 labour laws into 4 consolidated labour codes in the first parliament session itself as part of the first 100-days plan. Well, what was the urgency? Obviously, Modi wants to send a first encouraging signal to the industry at the expense of the working class in view of the bleak scenario into which his first term has landed the economy.
Though the Draft Wage Code Bill was tabled in the Lok Sabha in August 2017 and a parliamentary committee could hold discussions only on this and submitted its report to parliament as far back as on 1 May 2018, the Modi Government, in its first term, didn’t dare to pass it during the rest of its term. The other three draft codes were not even finalised. The trade unions and opposition parties were opposing them tooth and nail. There was a general strike in January this year opposing these four draft labour codes. The Draft Code on Wages had no provision to guarantee minimum wages to all workers and failed to introduce Rs. 18,000 as the floor minimum wage as demanded by workers and as recommended by the Seventh Pay Commission and even implemented by the government for government employees.
On 13 December 2018, the Labour Ministry said that the other three codes were in various stages of consultation and have not been finalised. Trade unions continued to strongly oppose these three Draft Code Bills too and now the group of ministers say that the consultations are over and they would be passed in the current session of the parliament itself.
The Draft Code on Industrial Disputes makes strike virtually impossible in Indian industry as it says there cannot be a strike when the matter is before conciliation and if conciliation fails until the matter is pending before the courts. In the spirit of the Draft Code on Social Security, Modi offers a pittance of Rs. 3000 per month to unorganised workers after 40 years and that too if they save money. In 2058, that might not be sufficient for one square meal! The draft code on occupational safety doesn’t even attempt to upgrade ridiculous levels of compensation of maximum Rs.1,40,000 for death at work, Rs. 1,20,000 for full disability for life and one-time payment of 25 per cent of monthly wage for partial disability and that too after fixing a ceiling of Rs. 8000 for monthly wages. This means a worker who gets burns or a fracture at the workplace would get not more than Rs.2000! Such were the rates fixed under the colonial law of Workmen’s Compensation Act 1923. So, in the name of consolidation of 44 labour laws, the Modi Government actually wants to curtail the legal rights the workers have won over the decades.
Another major agenda of the Modi Government 2.0 is to privatise or shut down 48 public sector unions (PSUs) as revealed by Niti Aayog Vice-Chairman Rajiv Kumar. Presently, among PSUs, there are 8 Maharatnas, 16 Navratnas, 75 Mini-Ratnas and 53 loss-making PSUs. Not coming up with a plan to revive the 53 is by itself a big blunder. But coming up with a plan to sell them off or close down within 100 days is a height of recklessness. Nobody with any basic idea of the stock markets or the financial intricacies of privatisation can come up with such a plan. It is a colossal betrayal of public trust besides treachery to the workers of those PSUs. Why this desperation?
The immediate reason is the PSUs are floating on mountains of debt. The steel PSUs alone account for 24 per cent of total NPAs of public sector banks. The total debt of BSNL has crossed Rs. 90,000 crore, Air India Rs. 55,000 crore, oil PSUs Rs. 1.62 lakh crore, FCI Rs. 2 lakh crore and NHAI Rs. 1.2 lakh crore to cite only a few examples. The debt bomb of the public sector enterprises are no less explosive than the non-performing assets (NPAs) of public sector banks (PSBs). Government must infuse Rs. 40,000-Rs. 50,000 crore into public-sector banks (PSBs) this fiscal for recapitalisation, having already provided Rs. 1,06,000 crore in 2018–19. Instead of providing subsidies in cash from the budget, the government made Fertiliser Corporation of India, Food Corporation of India etc., raise money to meet the fertiliser and food subsidy cost by issuing bonds. Similarly, NHAI was forced to raise huge amounts that way to invest in highway projects as a means of pump-priming the economy. Their redemption is now due. The government cannot close down these PSUs. So they want to sell some PSUs to keep others afloat and to sustain its own growth policies and subsidies.
The more basic reason is that the GDP figures for the last quarter of 2018–19 fiscal released in the first week of June showed that the GDP growth rate has fallen to 5.8, nowhere near the 8 per cent growth Modi needs to meet even a part of the fiscal challenges. The only way he could think of is to borrow more money or raise more funds by other means like through PSUs sales to keep up investments though such pump-priming gives decreasing returns in terms of growth and jobs creation. For the same reason, despite three strikes by bank employees against banks merger, Modi wants to go ahead to create massive banks which can leverage more finance to fund an inflated bubble economy.
A spate of anti-labour legislations, privatisation and closure of PSUs—the 100-day agenda of Modi is heavily loaded against the working class. Hopefully, the trade unions would also come up with their own plan to halt Modi in his tracks within these 100 days. (IPA Service)