Interview with Comrade Swapan Chakraborty, Deputy General Secretary, BNSL Employees Union, New Delhi.
Mazdoor Ekta Lehar (MEL): Dear Comrade thank you for agreeing for an interview despite your busy schedule on account of various struggle that the BNSL employees union is waging against the repeated efforts of the government to privatise BSNL through various means. Can you elaborate on your experience?
Comrade Swapan Chakraborty (SC): Thank you. Yes the struggle has been long running and continuous. Just yesterday on 3 July 2016 Executives and Non-Executives of BSNL and MTNL massively demonstrated against strategic sale in BSNL & MTNL, as proposed by Niti Ayog. Following our struggle they had to retract their proposal. This has been our experience ever since BSNL and MTNL were formed as PSU, separating them from Department of Telecom in late 1990s. It has been the game plan of the government to corporatize the telecom operations and then lead it on the path of privatization through various means.Earlier due to disunity within telecom workers, the government was able to manipulate and separate us from the department, split us into BSNL and MTNL. Following that it has been a continuous struggle to save BSNL from privatization. In the course of the struggle we were able to form and strengthen the BSNL employees union.BSNL Employees Union was formed in the massive Joint Conference held at Visakhapatnam (A.P) on 21-22nd March 2001. We are not just fighting for our own rights, but for BSNL as an entity, in the service of the people and the country, which fulfills social obligation of providing basic telephony and communication service to the masses at affordable prices, unlike the private operators, who are allowed to pick and choose profitable circles, with government favouring these operators.
MEL: Can you elaborate on how the government favours the private operators?
SC: Right from the announcement of the New Telecom Policy (NTP) in 1994, the government did not allow the entry of Department of telecom in the mobile telephony, and allowed only the private players, who charged hefty rates. Eventually after the release of NTP in 1999, the government allowed BNSL to operate in the expanding mobile telephony business, as third operator. Thus it started with a disadvantage. Further in the auction of circles, the BSNL was made to go for pan-India coverage, and pay for it, while the private operators were allowed to pick and choose profitable urban circles. The government created hurdles in the way of technical up-gradation of BSNL by denying tender, under various pretext, including security threat of buying Chinese equipments, while the private operators were allowed to import and use the same equipments. It must be noted that the BNSL provides the backbone to entire telephony and connectivity up to the last mile, with its countrywide spread and presence in remotest locations in the country. The private operators utilize the same, without paying almost next to nothing. The usage charge that these operators are supposed to pay to BNSL never reaches the coffers of the BSNL and gets diverted. Besides this the government did not appoint a full-fledged CMD and a board of directors, for the company, for many years. To tell in a nutshell the government has been conspiring against BSNL to make it sick, and give them an excuse to go for disinvestment, and privatization through various means. It goes to the credit of the entire BSNL employees and executives that we have been able to resist the government moves unitedly, and also provide services to the government and the people at affordable rates.
MEL: BSNL Employees Union is supporting and participating in the 2nd September All India Strike. What preparations are being made?
SC: This is a very important action of the working class and BSNL Employees Union is fully supporting it all across India. Following the decision of the All Indian Convention of Trade Union to organise the strike, we have started organizing conventions at central, circle (states) and SSA (district), in the same manner as we are organised in terms of operations of our work. Further mobilization will be done through gate meetings.
MEL: What are the demands of the BNSL workers?
SC: There is a common charter of 12 demands of the entire working class, which has been agreed at All India level, which from the Part-A of our Charter of demand. In addition to that we have put forth specific demands of the telecom workers, which are mentioned in Part-B of the Charter. This includes dropping of the proposal of strategic sale/disinvestment in BSNL, which is another name for privatization. While raising these demands we also have to explain the importance of these demands to the workers.
MEL: There are news reportsin media that the BNSL is making a turn around, after many years of running in losses, buts this can be sustained only through reducing manpower, increasing productivity and offering VRS scheme - What is your opinion?
SC: This again is a big lie. Yes BSNL is now making profits, but that is result of the hard work put by the workers and executive at all levels. We are able to offer better services to the customers and are proactively reaching out to them, through various campaigns. Now more customers are joining than those leaving for other operators. Considering the size and turnover of BNSL and its outreach, in fact we are understaffed, there have been no recruitment in past many years, while there is reduction in number due to retirement and other causes. All this we have explained to the management as well as the government. Unlike the private mobile operators BSNL has switching stations spread all across the country, which cater to the needs of telephony, and also provided back bone to the private operators, besides fulfilling social obligation. We will not allow any cut in manpower or let the VRS scheme to be implemented in BSNL.
MEL: On the 2nd September All India Strike, what is your message to the working class?
SC: It is important to state that this is an action of the entire working class of India and we are committed to make this a bigger success, than the last year. I appeal to all the workers to participate in this strike against the anti-working class, anti-people, anti-social, and neo-liberal policies of the government, and display the unity of the working class.
MEL: Thanks you again for sparing time and best wishes for preparation for 2nd September strike. We will be covering the preparatory activities towards the All India Strike and publish it for the benefit of workers in all sectors and all parts of India. We request you to share information related to actions taken by the BSNL employee union, for wider dissemination.