HYDERABAD, Telangana—With just days to go for Diwali, the Jubilee Bus Station in Hyderabad wore an unusually deserted look. Only a few Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC) buses were parked inside. In a nook adjacent to the bus depot, a meeting was on in full swing. Four striking RTC unions had gathered there on a call for Sakala Janula Samme (people’s meet), primarily demanding the merger of the quasi-government corporation with the state government.
In contrast, the scene was grim in rural Siddipet, 100 km away from Hyderabad. A transport employee, Viswanath Reddy, had climbed atop a public water tank and was threatening to kill himself if the government didn’t agree to the RTC unions’ demands. Reddy was rescued by his striking counterparts and fire servicemen by the end of the day. Before this suicide bid, two other RTC employees—Srinivas Reddy and Surender Goud—had also killed themselves, allegedly over the same issue. On October 23, two other employees who were on strike reportedly died of cardiac arrest.
It was Day 18 of the TSRTC employees’ strike, which has crippled public transport within the state—the corporation runs a fleet of 10,500 buses in the state. While Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao finally agreed on Wednesday to set up a panel to look into the TSRTC Joint Action Committee’s demands, the strike, complete with fiery speeches, anti-government sloganeering and suicide bids, has now become a political rallying point in the state.
Opposition parties including the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation and their regional counterparts, the Telugu Desam Party, Jana Sena Party and Telangana Jana Samithi, have taken over the RTC platform to rake up an anti-incumbency wave against the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) government and CM Rao. Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi had come to power in the state in 2018 for a second consecutive term with an overwhelming majority of 88 seats out of 119.
For the state government, which has been reluctant to relent to the striking unions, TSRTC strike has become a “prestige issue”—an agitation which should be quelled.
There is also a fear that this agitation might just get too big to handle—many of the union leaders had also participated in the Rao-led agitation for a separate Telangana state, and said they were following the protest strategies they used at the time.
What do the unions want?
On September 4, Telangana’s neighbouring state Andhra Pradesh converted its Road Transport Corporation into a government body—the Andhra Pradesh Public Transport Department. The state’s chief minister, Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, took the decision at the end of two month-long negotiations with Andhra Pradesh Road Transport Corporation unions.
A month later, on October 4, TSRTC workers’ unions raised the same demand. Before 2014, when Telangana was still a part of AP, workers belonging to both unions had worked under the Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation. The corporation was bifurcated in June 2014, when the state of Telangana was carved out of AP.
In its October 4 resolution, the TSRTC Joint Action Committee had listed 25 demands apart from the merger of the corporation with the state government. The workers primarily demanded job security, benefits for pensioners, new buses and exemption from taxes. The charter of demands asked the state to clear maintenance dues of Rs 1,400 crore, apart from asking the government to allot 1% of its annual budget to the Road Transport Corporation. The employees who demanded a pending salary hike also asked the state to “bear the burden of increasing diesel costs”. The government should fill vacant posts and provide jobs for kin of deceased workers, the demands read.
The strike has affected school students, migrant workers and the general public who were reliant on TSRTC for travelling within Hyderabad and the state.
The charter of demands also asked the state not to transfer employees indiscriminately and provide alternate employment for those employees who were recruited into RTC even though they were medically unfit and colour blind.
When their demands were not met, 50,000 employees went on strike on October 5. The move backfired when Chief Minister Rao ‘fired’ 48,000 striking workers of the RTC by declaring they have “self-dismissed themselves”—a claim the High Court of Telangana has not yet attested. While hearing four PILs, the court has also asked the state government to hold talks with the unions—an order which has not yet been carried out. A hearing of the case between the State of Telangana and TSRTC unions is posted for October 28.
Meanwhile, the strike has affected school students, migrant workers and the general public who were reliant on TSRTC for travelling within Hyderabad and the state. Schools were forced to declare a week-long holiday for students in the second week of October. Private bus operators have also jacked up ticket prices because of festival season and the strike, TSRTC union representatives said. The unions claim 4,000 villages in the state don’t have any mode of transportation now.
On 17 October, TSRTC officials submitted a bankruptcy plea before the High Court of Telangana. The corporation, which has to pay Rs 239 crore towards salaries per month, said it only has Rs 7 crore in its coffers. In an affidavit filed as a reply to a petition filed by Telangana Jatiya Mazdoor Union, Sunil Sharma, principal secretary for state transport, had submitted before the High Court that TSRTC has incurred losses amounting to Rs 5,269 crore over the years. The corporation had not been breaking even in the past, the affidavit submitted, and has not yet paid its workers’ salaries for September. When contacted, Sharma did not want to comment on the status of salaries, though he said that the affidavit submitted before the court relates the “true financial status of TSRTC”.
He said, however, that the government’s stand on the matter is clear. In the revenue model worked out by the state without the approval of the striking unions, TSRTC will now own and run only 50% of its buses. The remaining 30% of the buses will be hired but will be run by the RTC and another 20% will solely be privately operated.
“This will reduce burden on the state’s coffers and will improve efficiency,” Sharma said.
The workers’ Joint Action Committee (JAC), however, refuted this claim saying that the government wants to weaken and sell the corporation.
“Public transportation is the need of the lay people. The government cannot go for privatization in the sector,” said Thomas Reddy, a JAC representative.
Political polarisation, Telangana sentiment
The RTC union’s strike has raised anti-incumbency sentiment to an extent, especially since the union leaders had all participated in an all people’s protest (Sakala Janula Samme) organised in 2011 in support of forming Telangana state.
On Tuesday, speaking at a meeting held in Hyderabad, Ashwathama Reddy, convener of TSRTC JAC, said, “When RTC employees went on a strike for 26 days for Telangana state formation, the same KCR had come to give us support. At the time, he had said that formation of Telangana will better the plight of the cash strapped corporation. After gaining power, KCR took a U-turn and declared our strike illegal. Our strike is legal under the Industrial Disputes Act.”
The striking unions have been following the protest strategies they had employed during the Telangana agitation, including gaining support from students’ unions and other government employees unions. The workers were seen distributing roses to the general public at the bus depot.
“KCR wants NRIs to return to Telangana. How will he offer them jobs if he cannot give job security for TSRTC employees?”
The protest dais also had the presence of political leaders from across the spectrum including representatives of TRS’s main opposition parties in the state—the Congress and the BJP. Standing amidst fluttering BJP flags, former MLA of the party, Jitender Reddy, said, “KCR wants NRIs to return to Telangana. How will he offer them jobs if he cannot give job security for TSRTC employees?” In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, BJP had gained traction in the state, winning four seats including one in Nizamabad, where KCR’s daughter and former MP, Kalvakuntla Kavitha had contested.
Congress, which won three Parliament seats in 2019, has been supporting the RTC strike since the beginning. This week, Congress workers had staged a sit-in at CM’s camp office in Hyderabad. The Communist parties—CPI, CPI(M) and CPI-ML (Liberation) have also offered their support.
The opposition parties, however, do not seem to have gained electoral traction despite the RTC strike. The strike does not seem to have affected the Huzurnagar bye-elections, which took place on October 8. The constituency, which fell vacant with Congress’s Uttam Kumar Reddy resigning from his Legislative Assembly seat after winning an MP seat in Nalgonda constituency, had recorded a poll percentage of 84.15%. Regional exit polls have predicted a record win for KCR’s TRS in the constituency.