Vijayawada, ANDHRA PRADESH — On Tuesday, when 48,000 workers of the Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC) reported back to work after a 52-day-long strike, they were met by contingents of the state police force at each bus depot.
Though the strike had been called off, they were prevented from returning to work. Two days later, the stand-off between desperate workers and the police continues. State chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao, sources told HuffPost India, is planning to enforce a verbal order he had given on 7 October, which declared the strike “illegal” and the striking workers as having “self-dismissed” themselves from service.
Later that month, the Telangana high court observed that “self-dismissal” does not have legal standing, but the state has decided to enforce the mass sacking, said the sources, who work in the TSRTC.
“The workers were given two ultimatums to return to work. They were also told that the strike call given by their unions was illegal. So we cannot take the workers back without following due procedure. The government has not taken an official stand on the matter now,” a senior official in TSRTC told HuffPost India. A decision will be taken only in a cabinet meeting scheduled for Thursday, the official said.
If the state carries out its threat, Telangana will be the first state after Tamil Nadu to sack thousands of workers for going on strike. In 2003, Tamil Nadu’s then Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa had sacked 1.7 lakh workers including teachers when 80 employees unions went on a strike against cutbacks in benefits, including pension and dearness allowance. The workers were fired by invoking provisions of the Essential Services Maintenance Act, 1968. While the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in the Centre had given strategic support to the Tamil Nadu state government’s mass-sacking exercise, the Supreme Court of India reinstated the workers in July the same year after hearing petitions filed by worker unions.
How did it start?
The transport workers’ strike began on October 5, with three unions putting forth 26 demands to the government. The workers primarily wanted the state to merge the corporation with the government to save the RTC from a debt trap. The demands included higher pensions for retired employees and for the government to set aside 1% of its annual budget for the RTC.
The government retaliated on Day 2 of the strike with KCR ‘sacking’ the workers without prior notice. Though the workers challenged this verbal order in the state’s High Court, the government started enrolling temporary drivers and conductors to operate corporation-run buses across the state.
The government also sent out feelers that privatization of the corporation was the only way ahead, claiming that RTC was incurring losses of Rs 5,269 crores per year.
Respite, and then backlash
In October itself, the workers’ unions were emboldened by favourable observations made by the High Court of Telangana. The court, which took cognisance of the state’s apathy towards workers’ demands, had asked the government to furnish details of fund arrears which it had to pay the RTC. The state government was found to have stalled Rs 2,200 crore that was due.
The strike also got a shot in the arm as political parties including Congress, Telugu Desam Party and BJP lent support to the workers. in many protest sites at bus depots, the workers’ strike was compared to the militant protests that took place during the struggle for Telangana state formation, led, ironically by KCR himself. In public rallies, Congress and BJP leaders were found invoking memories of Sakala Janula Samme, a mass strike which was staged by government workers including TSRTC unions in 2011, when Telangana was still a part of the bigger state of Andhra Pradesh.
The High Court’s intervention and support of other political parties did not go down well with the ruling government, which won a byelection in Huzurnagar constituency by a huge margin while the strike was on. The government after a cabinet decision privatised 5,100 routes out of 10,100 bus routes. KCR also gave an ultimatum to striking workers to return to duty by November 5 midnight, failing which the government would privatise the rest of the routes.
The unions did not heed the government’s threat and continued the strike.
Meanwhile, with uncertainty over their jobs increasing by the day several striking workers died by suicide. Around 11 attempted suicides were also declared in the state. Reports say around 24 workers suffered cardiac arrest due to the uncertainty. As per the count given by workers’ unions under the common banner of TSRTC Joint Action Committee, a total of 54 employees have died during the 52-day-long strike.
Strike called off
With the High Court upholding the cabinet decision to privatise half of the RTC routes in November third week, the unions started losing support of workers who were worried about their jobs. KCR’s call for “boycott of unions” also dampened the spirit of striking workers. On November 25, the Joint Action Committee called off the strike as it became clear that the government would neither relent to workers’ woes nor the demands.
“We surrendered all our demands and asked the government only to give us the salaries for the month of October. This month, all workers were on their job. Now, when the beaten workers who cannot afford a prolonged court battle with the government are returning to work the state wants to shoo them away,” said Thomas Reddy, a representative of the TSRTC Joint Action Committee.
The workers are now hopeful that the union government, which has 31% stake in TSRTC, would pump in funds to support the corporation.
“We want all political parties to put pressure on the state and union governments to release funds to the RTC so that the workers can have their jobs back,” Reddy said. Criticising the government, the workers’ unions claimed that KCR does not want to follow “court order and the rule of law”. The unions also claimed that the union government should take a proactive step to support the RTC.
“Central funding for the RTC stopped in 1993. The arrears should be paid immediately,” Reddy demanded.
Meanwhile, legal experts pointed out that as the “state government had not issued a dismissal order through proper notice”, the employees cannot be prevented from resuming duties. “A verbal order has no legal standing and the state must clarify why it is now preventing the employees from joining work. The employees can also challenge the state’s action in either High Court or Labour Court,” a legal expert who had appeared on behalf of the employees said.
A plea which challenged the state government for its apathy towards workers’ suicides is now pending before the High Court. The matter may be heard once the petitioner, P.L. Visweswar Rao, makes an amendment to the interim prayer which had earlier requested the court to direct the government to hold talks with the striking unions.
The High Court in its last order issued in the third week of November had asked both the state government and the unions to end the impasse by approaching the state’s Labour court.