Telangana: Historical strike of Telangana Road Transport Workers
K K Divakaran
TELANGANA State Road Transport Corporation workers have been on a historic strike since October 5 demanding solution to their long-pending demands, including merger of the corporation with the government, pay revision and recruitment to various posts. Instead of addressing the workers’ demands, Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao, in a sudden and disastrous move, announced dismissal of 48,000-odd protesting employees, out of a total 49,190 workforce of the corporation. Even the High Court has refused to declare the strike as illegal. In support of the striking workers, solidarity demonstrations have been organised across the country.
WHY THE STRIKE?
The striking unions have demanded merger of TSRTC with the state government as was done in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. The workers are not being paid retirement benefits even one year after superannuation. Provident fund contributions of the workers were utilised by the corporation. The workers are running a cooperative society. The monthly contributions of the workers deducted by the management from their salaries are not remitted by the corporation to the society. The amount of concessions to different sections of passengers that were announced by the government for political mileage is not repaid. The wage revision of workers is due since April 2017. No new recruitment is taken up even though nearly 10,000 workers retired or died in the past five years. Even a regular managing director was not appointed by the government. The government is yet to clear dues of Rs 2,400 crores to TSRTC and failed to keep the promise of reducing tax on diesel to reduce the financial burden of the corporation. The 48,000-odd workers have been on strike on the call of the Joint Action Committee (JAC). The unions exempted the medical staff from the strike as emergency medical care is of utmost importance. The strike surpassed earlier strikes of transport workers in India. All opposition parties and the people at large have extended all-out support to the striking workers.
In TSRTC, about 95 per cent services are operating in nationalised routes. The chief minister announced that private bus operators would be brought into TSRTC to function on public-private partnership and half of the RTC fleet would be private buses. The real intention is to privatise the bus routes following the new Motor Vehicles Act. The central government has filed a statement in the High Court that there is no need for sanction from the centre to bifurcate APSRTC on a petition filed by unions seeking financial assistance under the RTC Act 1950.
The CITU and the All India Road Transport Workers' Federation (AIRTWF) have strongly condemned the authoritarian attitude of the chief minister and repressive measures adopted by the government, and demanded revoking of the decision of mass dismissals of the workers and to hold discussion with the striking unions for settling the legitimate demands.
The government blamed the workers for TSRTC losses and has gone all-out to suppress the workers’ legitimate demands, democratic and trade union rights and adopted repressive and authoritarian measures to break the strike, including arrests of JAC joint convener and CITU leader V S Rao and two other joint conveners.
In all 14 districts of Kerala, solidarity actions like massive demonstrations and rallies have taken place supporting the striking workers in Telangana. Kerala state road transport employees’ association, bus federation, goods lorry workers, light motor vehicle workers, driving school workers and others have conducted their own programmes. In West Bengal, a big rally was taken out. In Andhra Pradesh, a mass rally was held. Solidarity actions were organised in Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Haryana and Assam as well.
TSRTC’s losses were mainly because of the government’s failure to reimburse the corporation’s revenue losses due to imposition of various governmental subsidies on it; increasing diesel prices through central and state government’s increasing taxes; imposition of GST, etc. The JAC since many months has been raising the issues with the state government. As the government failed to respond, the JAC gave the strike notice on September 6 and was compelled to go on strike because of the negligent attitude of the state government. KK Divakaran, along with other office-bearers of AIRTWF, rushed to Hyderabad to stand by the side of the striking workers. They visited the families of the RTC workers who committed suicide. AIRTWF collected solidarity fund to support the workers.
CITU national vice president A K Padmanabhan visited Hyderabad on October 18, met the striking unions’ leaders, conveyed CITU’s support and addressed press conference with JAC leaders. The CPI(M) Central Committee has extended full support to TSRTC strike, condemned TRS government’s repressive actions and extended support to the statewide bandh in support of the strike.
On October 12, an all-party meeting with JAC, attended by CPI(M), CPI, Congress, BJP, Telangana Jana Samithi and TDP leaders, condemned the TRS government’s actions against RTC workers and decided several agitational programmes, including Telangana Bandh on October 19. Besides political parties, state government employees, trade unions, sections of advocates and student unions have extended their support to the strike.
The dawn-to-dusk bandh called by unions of TSRTC employees paralysed life in the state capital. In Warangal, Karimnagar and Medak districts, normal life was severely affected due to the shutdown. The bandh received wide support from various sections of the people, including students and government employees. The 12-hour bandh began at 5 am amid heightened security at most bus depots. About 50,000 Ola and Uber cab drivers joined the strike with their own set of demands that include a better share in fares and establishment of a Cab Drivers’ Welfare Board.
In view of the TSRTC strike and state bandh, the government declared closure of schools and colleges till Monday (October 21). The police also took about 40 union leaders and supporters into preventive custody in the early morning. Several of the political leaders and activists were arrested while staging dharna and picketing across the state. The All India Road Transport Workers’ Federation strongly condemned the illegal arrests of Telangana RTC Union leaders, activists and workers to disturb the peaceful mobilisation in Hyderabad on November 9. Police arrested leaders, students and other activists. But it was successfully organised.
On October 16, the High Court asked the state government and union leaders to hold talks and submit a report based on it on October 28. The government’s lawyer pleaded that negotiation is not possible, to which the court responded that since 50 per cent of the 45 demands do not have a financial implication, the government cannot refuse to listen to them and negotiate. The state government was also directed to pay salaries for September to all the 49,190 employees by October 21. Reiterating that it had no power to direct the state government to hold negotiations with the striking TSRTC employees, the Telangana High Court on November 12 mooted a proposal to constitute a high-powered committee comprising three former Supreme Court judges to resolve the crisis. A division bench comprising the chief justice put forward the proposal, seeking response of the state government.
Is the strike illegal or all of a sudden? No. The unions had been patiently appealing the authorities of the corporation and the government for the redressal of the problems. They have resorted to many peaceful agitations other than strike action. One union has obtained the opinion of the workers through ballot. More than 98 per cent of the workers voted in favour of a strike and pressured the other unions to give a call for strike. Left with no other alternative, three unions formed a Joint Action Committee and served a strike notice as per the provisions of the law. Negotiations with the officials of the corporation and the conciliation process of the labour department have failed. At last, serving the strike notice 30 days in advance, the unions called the strike from October 5. Due to the adamant attitude of the government, five workers committed suicide. Eleven workers died due to heart attack and five family members of the workers died too, taking the total to 21. The TRS government’s repressive action is a threat to TSRTC workers and it is the responsibility of the working class and common people to defeat it.