July 05, 2020

Coal Workers Strike

J S Majumdar

IN an unprecedented display of workers unity and spread of movement, as the biggest industry wise action during Covid-19 lockdown, about 1.5 lakh coal workers, irrespective of their trade unions affiliation, were in the field actively participating in the all India protest day on June 10 in all 535 collieries in eight coal-bearing states and offices of all the subsidiaries of public sector Coal India Limited (CIL) and centre-state joint sector Singareni Collieries Company Limited (SCCL) in Telangana. The action was in protest against private commercial coal mining and against the first time auction of 41 coal blocks in Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, which was to take place on June 11, 2020.

The call to observe protest day on June 10 and black day, by burning effigy, on June 11 was given by four recognised coal workers federations of CITU, AITUC, INTUC and HMS. The workers and unions of the other federation of RSS-affiliated BMS also joined the protests at most of the places. Same evening the government postponed the scheduled auction of the coal mines. Yet, effigy burning on June 11 took place in about 150 major collieries.

The prime minister, Narendra Modi personally took upon himself the responsibility of coal mines auctioning after the failed auction on June 11. In an unusual move, the government announced that the PM would inaugurate e-auction of 41 coal mines on June 18. On June 14, again the coal workers federations met and sent notice to the prime minister and the coal minister stating that if the government went ahead with auctioning of coal mines on June 18, the workers would resort to direct action.

On June 18, the PM inaugurated e-auction of those 41 coal mines through video conferencing which the government announced as part of ‘Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan’. This auctioning of the 41 coal mines for private commercial mining was jointly organised by the union ministry of coal and the federation of Indian chambers of commerce and industry (FICCI). The star-studded panel in this inaugural session of coal mines auction included Vedanta Group-Anil Agarwal and N Chandrasekaran of Tata Sons and others.

In his inaugural address PM Modi said Covid-19 crisis must be converted into an opportunity by ‘unlocking’ the coal from the nationalised sector to private sector for commercial mining. “This will be one of the big stepping stones towards our journey towards a $ 5 trillion economy,” said Tata’s Chandrasekaran in this event. “FICCI is happy to be the industry partner at the launch of this major initiative,” said FICCI president, Sangeeta Reddy.

This coal mines auction will be different in all aspects. In a statement coal ministry stated, “The auctions have terms and conditions which are very liberal, allowing new companies to participate in the bidding process, reduced upfront amount,…liberal efficiency parameters, …100 per cent FDI through automatic route …” The private commercial coal mining shall be on revenue sharing basis instead of earlier fixed rupee/tonne basis as was announced by the finance minister, Sitharaman in her fourth of the five tranches of Covid relief package.

In another unusual move, after the inauguration of the auction on June 18, actual e-auction will take place on August 18, 2020. This two months time is taken for mobilisation of bidders and selection of the biggies, most of whom are reluctant to invest due to problems related to land issues and the opposition of the workers and the people. The government announced that the bidding process will be held in two stages. The coal ministry will hold meetings with potential bidders between June 25 and July 18 before the bidding and the last date for bid submission is August 18.

The government has already selected the private companies pending formal bidding. “With easy entry and exit norms for commercial coal auctions the government expects participation from Indian companies like Hindalco, JSW Energy, Jindal Steel & Power, Adani Group and Vedanta besides global miners like Peabody, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, reported The Economic Times.
The Modi government has lined up foreign and domestic corporates for private sector commercial mining of coal. As against that the workers are lined up to strike supported by solidarity action by wide sections of the people.

About three lakh permanent and 2.5 lakh contract workers of CIL and SCCL are all set for a three-day strike from July 2-4. Responding to the joint call of all five recognised coal workers federations, including that of BMS; all other federations and unions of other central trade unions and independent unions, including all rival factions of some unions, submitted, joint or separately, 3 days strike notice to the management, ministry and labour authorities. 

Coal Mines Officers Association of India also raised the same demands, supported the coal workers strike on July 2-4 and decided to hold solidarity actions in all coal companies on strike days.

CITU, central trade unions and Bhumi Adhikar Andolan (platform of all farmers’ organisations) extended support and called upon the working class and farmers to stand in solidarity with the coal workers’ demands and strike. Electricity employees’ federation gave a call to their workers for solidarity action on strike days. Left parties in Jharkhand – CPI, CPI(M), CPI(ML) and Marxist Coordination Committee – expressed support and called upon the people of Jharkhand to stand in solidarity with the striking workers. At the national level, Left parties expressed support for the coal workers' strike.

The day after PM Narendra Modi inaugurated the auction of 41 coal blocks, the Jharkhand government filed a case in the Supreme Court praying for cancellation of the present auction process. Addressing a press conference on June 20, Jharkhand chief minister, Hemant Soren referred to the ongoing agitation by the coal workers unions and justified filing of case in Supreme Court on the ground that there was no pre-consultation with the state governments when land is a state subject; that there was no prior socio-economic assessment of its devastating impact on the vast tribal masses and on other residents; and that it will have devastating effect on the environment due to the huge forest coverage of these blocks. While the prime minister said that Covid-19 is an opportunity for the auction; Jharkhand government’s petition said that the pandemic would prevent fair participation, auction and price.

For staging joint demonstration in front of PSU Coal India’s subsidiary BCCL’s headquarter at Dhanbad on June 18, to submit notice for July 2-4 strike against coal block auction; FIR has been filed against 50 trade union leaders at Saraidhela police under several provisions of Disaster Management Act on alleged ground of violation of ‘social distancing’ norms. FIR has been filed on the written complaint of a magistrate deputed under the act. However, Jharkhand government has given instruction to deputy commissioner of Dhanbad not to pursue the FIR.

The sarpanchs (chiefs) of 22 panchayats in Chhattisgarh, in separate letters to the prime minister demanded rescinding the decision of auction to protect forest and agricultural lands.

As most of the coal blocks are in the forest area, including elephant reserve forest, the Chhattisgarh forest and environment minister wrote to the union coal minister not to auction these coal blocks in Chhattisgarh.

Maharashtra forest and environment minister, Aaditya Thackeray in a twitter message said, “I have written to the union minister for @moefcc Prakash Javadekar ji on the issue of the proposed auction of a mine site near Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, opposing the auction. We cannot have such destruction of our wildlife corridors.”