Employees associated with all major and minor unions in Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, the telecom PSU, went on a two-day strike on 12th-13th December 2017 with two demands. They are seeking a fair wage revision through the 3rd Pay Revision Committee and demanding that BSNL not divest and lease its towers to private operators.
Employees and staff belonging to eight BSNL unions joined the strike. Massive demonstrations were held over the two days in front of all offices of the PSU across the country. All telephone exchanges of the company remained closed. The casual and contract workers in BSNL also joined the strike in response to the call of BSNL Contract and Casual Workers Federation, in support of these demands as well as to raise their own specific demands like implementation of minimum wage. The strike action reflected the unity of the employees, across all sections of workers, resulting in a complete stoppage of work and huge demonstrations across the country.
The Third Pay Revision Committee (PRC) which is applicable to Public Sector Units had submitted its report to the government in February 2017, but its recommendations of wage revisions are yet to be implemented. Further, the scope of the PRC was limited to looking into wage revisions of only the executives. The BSNL Employees Union (BSNLEU) has demanded the constitution of the wage revision committee for non-executives as well. The government has not only delayed action on this issue, the wage revision committee has been formed without any representation from the recognized unions. The BSNLEU has demanded immediate constitution of a Joint Wage Negotiation Committee with representation from the recognized unions.
Employee unions of the BSNL have been waging a long struggle against moves of the government to privatize the PSU. The government has made no secret of its plan to lease out BSNL towers to private operators. This is viewed as a step towards privatising BSNL by weakening its expansion capacity and revenue from core operations. It is a fact that successive governments have been systematically damaging the performance of BSNL through adverse policies in order to privatise the PSU.
A review of the series of steps taken by various governments, since the 1990’s till the present, reflect its intentions to turn the PSU into a “sick” unit and put it up for sale to private monopolies.
Post 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. In 1999, the government allowed BNSL to operate in the expanding mobile telephony business, but it was made to go for pan-India coverage, and pay for it, while private operators were allowed to pick and choose profitable urban circles.
The government has obstructed technical up-gradation of BSNL by denying tender, under various pretexts, including raising the issue of security threat in buying Chinese equipment, while the private operators were allowed to import and use the same equipment.
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.
In a nutshell the government has been conspiring against BSNL to make it sick, and provide itself with an excuse to go for disinvestment, and privatization through various means. In July 2016, the Niti Aayog had in fact proposed a strategic sale of BSNL and MTNL.
BSNL is now making profits. In an interview with MEL in August 2016, the Deputy General Secretary of the BSNLEU pointed out that this is the result of the hard work put in by the workers and executive at all levels to provide quality services to the customers and in proactively reaching out to them, through various campaigns.
Lack of manpower is another issue. Considering the size and turnover of BNSL and its outreach, the Union points out that the enterprise is understaffed; there has been no recruitment in the past many years, while there is a reduction in the staff strength due to retirement and other causes.