March 22, 2015

Strike in Public Sector Insurance: A Resounding Success

V Ramesh

THE call for one day strike on March 9, 2015 received overwhelming response from the employees of the Life Insurance Corporation and the four public sector general insurance companies across the country. This massive strike action was not just a protest against the totally undemocratic action of the government but was also a powerful message that insurance employees are determined to carry forward the struggle to protect the interests of the national economy, the insuring public and the public sector insurance industry.  The employees spectacularly exhibited their unity and resolve to fight the anti-people policies of the government through this strike.

The All India Insurance Employees Association (AIIEA) has always argued that a robust and vital insurance sector is very important for the economic development of the country. Insurance industry mobilises the savings of the people for a longer period and invests this capital for infrastructure development of the country. Insurance business is for not just mobilising the savings alone. It has a wider responsibility of providing social security to the people.  For this very purpose, the life insurance business was nationalised in our country in 1956. The public sector LIC, after its emergence, successfully served the country and continues to contribute to its objective of nation building.   Similarly, the public sector general insurance companies too rendered invaluable service to the nation since its nationalisation in the year 1972.

But the successive governments since 1991 under the garb of neo-liberal market economy unashamedly wanted to hand over this crucial sector to the private hands, both indigenous and foreign. Despite the untiring campaign by the insurance employees, and setting aside the opinion of 15 million people, the BJP led NDA in the year 1999 opened up the insurance industry to private players with 26 percent of FDI. Since then the greed for profits by the Indian entrepreneurs along with foreign capital to loot the domestic savings wanted further liberalisation of this industry. The Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill 2008 was introduced by the Congress led UPA-I in Rajya Sabha to facilitate this demand of finance capital by raising the FDI cap from 26 percent to 49 percent and paving way to disinvest public sector general insurance companies. But, due to the campaign unleashed by the AIIEA which was unprecedented in the history of the trade union movement, it could successfully stall this move for more than two decades with the support of the Left particularly the CPI (M).

The passing of the Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill 2015 in Lok Sabha despite opposition, both in the house and outside, clearly showed the shameless eagerness of the BJP led NDA to create conditions for maximisation of profits by the big Indian corporate houses and the foreign capital by exploiting the household savings of the people. The government response to the debate in the Lok Sabha lacked substance and conviction. The success of the campaign by insurance employees was clearly visible when members of the opposition raised questions on the necessity of FDI hike from 26 percent to 49 percent, ridiculed the argument that Indian partners lack resources for investment, and termed the excuse of low penetration as being far from the existing reality. Some members pointed out that despite a low per capita income, the life insurance penetration in India is better than most of the developed nations.  They also questioned the wisdom of the government to permit disinvestment of the most profitable public sector general insurance companies.  The most heartening feature of the debate was the unanimity that LIC is the finest institution in terms of claim settlement and other servicing standards.  The government was asked to share the circumstances that led to a U-turn by the BJP from being a strong opposition to the UPA version of the Bill to turning into strong advocates of the same Bill.  The government had no answer to any of these questions and only utilising its brute majority in the Lok Sabha it could succeed in securing the passage of the Bill.  Subsequently, the BJP led NDA government passed the bill in Rajya Sabha on March 12, 2015 with the support of the Congress party.

The insurance employees remain undeterred.  The struggle now will be taken from the parliament to the public domain.  The success of halting the FDI hike for more than 10 years when it was first proposed in 2004 by the UPA I government gives confidence to take the struggle forward.

The strike call was enthusiastically responded to, by the insurance employees.  The East Central Zone recorded a strike percentage of 97 percent followed by South Central Zone with 92 percent. Almost all zones have reported a strike participation of nearly 85 percent.  This is a huge strike indeed.  A large number of divisions have recorded strike participation of over 90 percent. (Strike percentage reflects the wage cut and excludes those employees who were on leave for some essential reasons).

The success of the strike has clearly demonstrated to the government that the passing of the Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill 2015 will not subdue the struggle of the insurance employees.  The insurance employees will continue to fight to defend the national sovereignty, interests of the public sector insurance industry and its huge number of policyholders. 

The struggle of public sector insurance employees has been continuing for the last two decades against the neo-liberal policies of the government and against opening of insurance industry to private players. These struggles gave space for the public sector insurance to gain commanding positions and enabled it to maintain leadership in the insurance market. Beyond this, the campaign and struggle also made the public sector insurance as the choice of the people. The government would have made up its mind to further liberalise insurance industry. But the insurance employees continue to fight against these policies to protect the public sector insurance industry by mobilising public opinion in their favour. Already the insurance employees have started their next phase of struggle to protect public sector insurance industry. Insurance employees appeal to the people of this country to INSURE ONLY WITH PUBLIC SECTOR INSURANCE INDUSTRY and   save the economic sovereignty of the country.

The writer is the general secretary of the All India Insurance Employees’ Association