Vol. XLIII No. 20 May 19, 2019
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Highly Successful Three-day Strike in BSNL

P Abhimanyu

THE three-day strike of the employees and officers of BSNL, which started on February 18, 2019, is a huge success. It was called by the All Unions and Associations of BSNL (AUAB). Almost all the telephone exchanges, administrative offices, customer service centres, etc, remained closed throughout the country, on all the three days. The government invoked the draconian ESMA to suppress the strike. However, it could not deter the employees from joining the strike en-masse.

This strike is a part of the series of struggles being organised by the AUAB, to save BSNL and to save the future of its employees. Earlier, the AUAB had given a call for an indefinite strike from December 3, 2018. Issues related to the financial revival of BSNL, pay revision and pension revision were the demands. Based on the assurances given by the minister of state for communications, this strike was deferred. However, these assurances were not implemented and were thrown to the winds. Hence, the employees were left with no other option, but to take recourse to struggle path.

All the private operators have already rolled out their 4G service. BSNL is lagging behind in launching its 4G service because, so far, it has not been allotted with 4G spectrum. This is one issue which has seriously affected BSNL’s financial condition. In the talks held on December 3, 2018, the minister assured that the BSNL would be allotted with 4G spectrum expeditiously, after getting the necessary approval of the cabinet. But, what has really happened thereafter was, all efforts were taken to deny BSNL of 4G spectrum. The Niti Aayog has raised a wonderful objection. It has asked, what was the necessity for BSNL to start its 4G service, when all the private telecom companies were already providing the same? We have to really appreciate Niti Aayog’s patriotism!

Why road-blocks are being created in the allotment of 4G spectrum to BSNL? The answer is simple. Private telecom giants like Vodafone Idea and Airtel are wilting under the onslaughts from Reliance Jio. However, BSNL, with the active support of its workforce, is putting up a brave fight to Jio. From October to December, 2018, Vodafone Idea has lost 3.5 crore customers. The story of Airtel is also not different. Whereas, BSNL is not losing its customers to Jio. Even in January 2016, BSNL has added 26 lakh new customers. BSNL has achieved this with its 2G and 3G technologies. If it gets 4G, BSNL will put up stiffer fight to Reliance Jio. Modi government does not want this to happen.

Private telecom giants, viz, Vodafone Idea and Airtel, are running in huge losses now. This is due to the brutal tariff war initiated by Reliance Jio. BSNL’s revenue earnings are also seriously affected due to the tariff war. Under these circumstances, BSNL is under compulsion to find out alternative sources for revenue generation. The company is having vacant lands in the prime locations of all the cities and towns throughout the country. The value of these vacant lands is estimated at Rs1 lakh crores. BSNL has prepared a road-map to earn a minimum of Rs 5,000 crores per year, by monetising these vacant lands. Hence, BSNL has sought the approval of the DoT for its “Land Management Policy”, through which it can monetise its vacant lands. However, the DoT has kept BSNL’s proposal in the deep freezer.

In view of the above stalemate, the AUAB has raised a fundamental issue in this strike. At the time of the formation of BSNL, the cabinet had taken a decision that, all the assets and liabilities of the Department of Telecom Services and Department of Telecom Operations would be transferred to BSNL. It is already 18 years since the company is formed. As per the decision of the cabinet, only the liabilities have been transferred to BSNL. But, the assets are yet to be transferred in BSNL’s name. Hence, while demanding approval for BSNL’s Land Management Policy, the AUAB has also demanded that, all the assets should immediately be transferred to BSNL.

The Modi government, while extending all backdoor supports to Reliance Jio, to enable it to capture the entire telecom market, is also making all-out efforts to financially cripple BSNL. For example, the DoT is not permitting BSNL to take bank loans. BSNL’s debt as on date is only Rs13,000 crores, whereas, the total debt of Vodafone Idea is Rs1.20 lakh crores. Similarly, the debt of Airtel is Rs 1.13 lakh crores. The private telecom companies are freely availing people’s money as bank loans; but the DoT has not approved BSNL’s proposals to take bank loans for the financial years 2017-18 and 2018-19. Thus, the game plan of the government is to ensure that BSNL starves to death. Hence, the AUAB has demanded that the DoT should allow BSNL to take bank loans.

Another important issue connected with the financial viability of BSNL is the implementation of the government rule, in respect of payment of pension contribution by BSNL. As per the existing rule, BSNL should pay pension contribution to the government, calculated on the actual basic pay of the employees. However, violating this rule, the government is fleecing excess money from BSNL, by calculating the pension contribution on the maximum of the pay scales of the employees. The government has thus collected Rs 2,200 crores extra from BSNL, since 2007. The AUAB has demanded that this amount should be refunded to BSNL and also that, the pension contribution should be calculated only on the basic pay of the employees.

BSNL employees are eligible for wage revision from 2017. However, the government denies this wage revision on the plea that BSNL is a loss making company. After doing everything to push BSNL into a loss, it is ridiculous that the government says that the employees are not eligible for wage revision on this ground. Both the BSNL retirees and the central government retirees are covered by the CCS Pension Rules 1972. While the central government retirees have already got their pension revision, the same is being denied to the BSNL retirees, which is a great injustice.

The highly successful three day strike of the 1.7 lakh officers and employees of BSNL is a wakeup alarm to the government. It should come forward to settle the demands of the AUAB. The government should take expeditious steps to ensure the financial viability of BSNL. It should also come forward to settle the justified demands of pay revision and pension revision. The AUAB is determined to intensify its struggles in the days to come, if the demands are not settled.