82,000 defence employees working in the 41 ordnance factories of our country started one month strike on August 20. More than 40,000 contract workers have also joined the strike. The strike started as scheduled at 6 o’clock in the morning on August 20, 2019, despite the threats by the government. The defence employees have only one demand – ‘Withdraw the unilateral decision taken to corporatise the ordnance factories in violation of the agreement and assurances given by the government of India’. The strike was total across the country with only Group A officers and those who were exempted for essential duties joining work. Many of those who were exempted for limited essential duties were working without signing attendance. The central trade unions and the organisations of bank, central government, and other employees organisations also extended solidarity and in many places organised demonstrations, street corner meetings, rallies etc in support of the striking employees. The recent general council meeting of CITU held in Hassan passed a resolution extending support to the strike and called upon all its units to actively express solidarity by mobilising workers from different sectors.
The call for the country wide strike was given by the three defence employees’ federations – All India Defence Employees’ Federation which is supported by AITUC, CITU and HMS, the Indian National Defence Workers’ Federation backed by INTUC and the Bharatiya Pratiraksha Mazdoor Sangh supported by the BMS, along with the Confederation of Defence Recognised Associations (CDRA). In addition to the employees of the ordnance factories, the employees of Directorate General of Quality Assurance (DGQA), attached to the ordnance factories have also joined the strike.
The decision to corporatise the ordnance factories is part of the ‘Big Bang reforms’ the Modi led BJP government has assured the big domestic and foreign corporates, to be implemented within 100 days of its second term in office. It is already going ahead with corporatisation of the railway production units and closing of railway printing presses. The government has already granted approval to IRCTC to run two Tejas class trains, between New Delhi and Lucknow and Ahmedabad and Mumbai Central.
It is ironic that Prime Minister Modi whose entire campaign for the 17th Lok Sabha elections hinged upon ‘national security’ has now decided to hand over our defence production to the corporates. The government has decided to allow 100 per cent FDI in the defence sector. The domestic corporates, even those who do not have any experience in defence production will be manufacturing defence equipment by collaborating with big foreign companies. Thus our national security is left to the mercy of the corporates including foreign companies who are more interested in their profits and least in our national security.
Ordnance factories are the production units under the department of defence production of the defence ministry. They have been successfully supplying our armed forces with a wide range of equipment including arms, ammunitions, military transport vehicles, infantry combat vehicles, armoured vehicles, uniforms, parachutes, optical and optoelectronic instruments etc. They form the base of our indigenous manufacturing of our defence equipments. They have been continuously updating their technology and infrastructure. Former defence minister Manohar Parrikar wrote that the ordnance factories and defence public sector units have not only enhanced their production but have also delivered many strategic state of the art platforms to the armed forces.
‘Terrorism’, ‘Pulwama’ and ‘Balakot’ were important factors that swayed public opinion during the Parliament elections. Common people were made to believe that Modi alone can ‘save the nation’ and voted for him, even ignoring the catastrophic demonetisation, GST and others that cost them their incomes and ruined their livelihood.
Where did the local terrorist who rammed the CRPF convoy with his vehicle, killing 40 jawans, obtain the 200 kg of explosives remains a mystery. Privatising arms production poses much more threat to our security from inside the country. A document ‘Tracing the Supply of Components used in Islamic State (IS) IEDs’ published by a London based research unit named ‘Conflict Armament Research Limited (CAR), names several Indian private industries to which licenses have been issued to manufacture defence equipment. CAR states that these companies produced, sold or received critical material such as chemical precursors, detonating cord, detonators, cables, wires and other electronic components and are involved in the supply chain of components used by the IS forces. At least seven Indian companies involved in this supply chain with terrorist forces, some with foreign collaboration, were named by the organisation. Profit is the motive of private sector. It does not bother from where it comes. Making private sector a partner in our defence production is nothing but suicidal and disastrous. It is totally detrimental to our national interests. Only a government of the corporates and for the corporates can take such decisions, not a government committed to the national interests.
Attempts to corporatise the defence sector are not new. But, because of the stiff resistance and united struggles of the defence employees, the governments were compelled to retreat from implementing it. Successive defence ministers, George Fernandez in 2002, Pranab Mukherjee in 2006, AK Antony in 2007 and Manohar Parrikar in 2015 had categorically assured that ordnance factories would not be corporatised. But, the present BJP government is racing ahead with its ‘100 days’ plans’ as part of its ‘pay back’ programme to the big corporates.
The BJP government has been trying to mislead people by arguing that ‘corporatisation’ was not ‘privatisation’. The railway minister is doing it in the case of corporatisation of railway production units. The defence minister is doing the same in the case of corporatisation of the ordnance factories. But the experience of BSNL, which was formed by corporatisation of an earlier department of telecommunications, is a glaring example of the motives of the government. Contrary to the assurances given to the employees at the time of corporatisation, BSNL was discriminated in favour of private telecom operators and made to incur losses. Now in the name of revival, the government is forcing compulsory retirement of the employees, reduction of retirement age, and sale of the land and properties of BSNL.
The decision to corporatise ordnance factories was met with spontaneous resistance from the defence employees. Gate meetings, black badge wearing, demonstrations etc were organised all over the country. The employees welcomed the decision of the three national federations to go on a month’s strike. The proposal received 100 per cent approval in the strike ballot conducted on July 30, 2019. The anger and resentment of the employees compelled the government to hold talks with the leadership of the defence employees’ federations. But except trying to convince the unions to withdraw the strike the government was not ready to withdraw the decision of corporatisation as a result of which the talks inevitably failed. On the eve of the strike the government again called another meeting but only the BMS backed union and the CDRA attended. The government again called for a meeting on August 21.
It is not only the defence employees who are up in arms at the decisions of the Modi 2 government. The workers of railway production units have been in struggle since the government’s announcement of corporatisation of railway production units. The workers in DLW in Varanasi demonstrated half naked when the prime minister visited his constituency. Demonstrations and protest actions are going on in all the production units. Big conventions are being held. The struggle is receiving good support from the people. Steel workers in Salem, Bhadavati, Durgapur are in struggle. The BSNL employees are on struggle. Many sections of employees who have voted for Modi and BJP in the Lok Sabha elections are again coming out in struggles against his policies of privatisation again.
These struggles have to be supported and strengthened. Public sector is not only of the employees of those units. It is the wealth of the people. Grabbing public sector units at throw away rates is part of the attempts by the corporates and their servants in governance to snatch away and pocket people’s wealth. It is the patriotic responsibility of the workers and the people to fight against such robbery.