According to recent media reports, State-owned telecom companies Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) have failed to pay salaries on the due date to their 1.98 lakh employees for the second time in six months. Salary for the month of July had not come by 5th August nor were the employees informed as to when it would be credited. In February, too, the salary was delayed and the backlog was cleared only in mid-March, putting the employees to great difficulties in meeting their financial obligations at the beginning of the month. MTNL’s 22,000 employees, who have not been paid salaries for two months now, protested in front of Sanchar Bhawan on 5th August. The concerned officials of both telecom PSUs have admitted that they have not been able to generate enough revenue and the government has not yet provided any revival packages.
Apart from these repeated salary payment delays, workers of BSNL have also been protesting since 2017 about their pay review. Contract workers have been hit the hardest.
In the beginning of August, contract workers in Silguri BSNL had to resort to blocking the entry of executives into BSNL officers following failure of the corporation to pay them their salary for the last seven months. Almost all of these workers have been working with BSNL for more than 15 years on contract.
On 2nd July, contract workers of BSNL in Tamilnadu had gone on a hunger strike for 2 days demanding their 6 months’ wages. The employees sat on strike in front of the BSNL Bhavans in all the telecom districts. Contract workers are also preparing to fight for their jobs as there are reports in the news media that BSNL may cut back its contract work force by 25%-40%.
Amidst news reports that the government is planning to close down both these corporations, lakhs of workers in these corporations face an uncertain future. 18th-20th February, the employees and officers in BSNL had stuck work across the country, highlighting their long-pending demands. These include a constructive resolution to the financial problems of the PSU, allotment of 4G spectrum to BSNL, payment of salaries as per the Pay Revisions Committees and pension as per government rules. This strike, which was supported by all the major trade unions, followed an earlier strike in December 2017.
Workers have pointed out that both the UPA and NDA governments have followed the same policy of favouring the private telecom companies like Bharti Airtel, Anil Ambani’s Reliance Communications, Aircel, Idea, Vodafone, Tata Teleservices and S-Tel, to the disadvantage of MTNL and BSNL, in the matter of allocation of spectrum licenses. Each time the unions have demanded action from the government, they have been promised that the Department of Telecom (DoT) is in the process of coming up with a revival package. However, the actions of successive governments indicate that the government is hell-bent on closing down these PSUs, throwing lakhs of employees out of work.
In the whole period of privatization of Telecom services, the government followed a deliberate policy of ensuring that private companies were allowed to capture the major profitable sectors in the metros and other towns, while BSNL services were downgraded in precisely these areas. In the countryside, hilly and remote areas of our country, it is BSNL services that work, while in the big cities, the BSNL services are kept at inadequate levels in order to favour the private players. On the other hand, the government has ensured that private players can access BSNL networks without compensating it for the same.
Since its inception in 2000, BSNL had been making profits of around Rs.10,000 crore annually till 2009,. BSNL started making losses since 2009 after tenders were cancelled and due to non-allocation of 4G spectrum in the years 2010-2015. While the Indian telecom industry is all set to provide 5G services- by the second half of 2019, BSNL is still waiting for 4G spectrum allocation! The NITI Aayog is reported to have already added BSNL to the list of loss-making PSUs for disinvestment.
Since 2011, BSNL workers have been opposing the moves of the government to privatize and liquidate BSNL, to benefit private monopolies in this fast growing sector. Even at that time, the workers of BSNL had pointed out that the 2G scam has confirmed how the big private monopolies have been dictating the Telecom policy of the government for their own benefit. They have also pointed out how the government has perfected the art of turning profit making public sector companies into loss making ones and then using this as a justification to privatise these companies.
The case of Indian Railways shows how the government has been taking decisive steps towards privatisation like hiving off and outsourcing some parts and corporatizing some functions, while denying all the time that it is privatizing the railways. In the case of the telecom PSUs, successive governments have deliberately cut their revenue potential and provided full scope to private payers to make profits, declared them “loss-making” and dragged their feet on the “revival package” – all in preparation for closing them down.
The struggle of BSNL workers is entirely just. The Communist Ghadar Party extends its full solidarity with the striking employees of BSNL.