Thirteenth meeting organised by Kamgar Ekta Committee in the series “Unite Against Privatisation!”
Kamgar Ekta Committee (KEC) organised a public meeting on June 20, 2021 to oppose the privatisation of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). It was attended by more than 200 trade union leaders from steel, railways, port & docks, electricity, petroleum, BSNL and activists from people’s organisations. This was the 13th meeting in the series “Unite against Privatisation”, started in September 2020. Previous meetings dealt with the privatisation of various PSUs and government establishments.
Com Mathew, Secretary of KEC, welcomed the participants and explained that through these webinars KEC was attempting to forge unity around the common struggle against privatisation. He then welcomed the invited speakers, Com Chandreshwar Singh, General Secretary, National Federation of Telecom Employees (NFTE)-BSNL, Shri Sebastian K, General Secretary, Sanchar Nigam Executives Association (SNEA)-BSNL, Com P Kamaraj, Tamil Nadu Circle President and Secretary, Central Head Quarters, National Federation of Telecom Employees (NFTE)-BSNL and Com Ranjan Dani, Maharashtra Circle Secretary, National Federation of Telecom Employees (NFTE)-BSNL.
He also welcomed the large number of national leaders from various all India federations and associations of different sectors who were attending the webinar. He welcomed Com L.N.Pathak, Zonal Secretary, Northern Railway, All India Federation of Indian Railwaymen (AIRF) and General Secretary, Rail Coach Factory Men’s Union, Rae Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, Com Krushna Bhoyar, Joint Secretary, All India Electricity Workers Federation and General Secretary, Maharashtra State Electricity Workers Federation (AITUC), Com K. N. Satyanarayana, General Secretary, Hindustan Petroleum Employees Union, Vishakapatanam Refinery, Com John Varghese, Assistant General Secretary, BSNL Employees Union (BSNLEU), Com G. Anil Kumar, Organising Secretary, National Confederation of Officers Associations, Com Kishore Nair, General Secretary, Bharat Petroleum Technical and Non Technical Employees Association – Mumbai Refinery, Com R. Elangovan, ex General Secretary, Dakshin Railway Employees Union (DREU), Com V.V. Satyanarayana, General Secretary, Vishakhapatanam Port Employees Union (All India Port and Dock Workers Federation) and Joint Secretary, Hind Mazdoor Sabha, Com Kanta Raju, General Secretary, All India Rail Track Maintainers Union (AIRTU), Com Amzad Baig, Central President, All India Pointsmen Association (AIPMA) , Com Shyam Nair, Zonal Secretary, Western Railway, All India Loco Running Staff Association (AILRSA), Com D. K. Saha, Co- Convenor, National Coordination Committee of Electricity Engineers and Employees, Assam, Com P.S. Seshodia, Central Vice President and Director Education/Trade Union/Uttariya Railway Mazdoor Union/NFIR, Com Ajit Pradhan, Nilanjal Ispat Nigam Limited(NINL), Orissa, Com Custodio Mendonca, General Secretary, All India Port and Dock Workers Pensioners Association, Com Chetan Parvatia, Organising Secretary and Com. Pranav Kumar, Working President, Mumbai Division, All India Rail Track Maintainers Union (AIRTU), Com Antony Swamy- Amchi BEST Amchi Mumbai, Com Geeta Mahajan – Bharatiya Mahila Federation, Com J. Vishwakarma- Socialist Unity Centre of India- Communist and Com Snehal Kamble, Forum against Privatisation.
The first presentation was by Com Girish of KEC gave an overview of the telecom sector and pointed out how all the parties that have led the government since 1991 have made sure that the policy of Globalisation through Privatisation and Liberalisation has been implemented. (See box.)
This presentation was appreciated by all the invited speakers as well as by the other participants in their interventions. The speakers also appreciated the fact that workers and leaders from other sectors as well as people at large had come to express their support to the BSNL workers.
The presentation was followed with the speeches of the invited speakers. (See the boxes)
There were a number of interventions including those by Com Krushna Bhoyar, General Secretary, Maharashtra State Electricity Workers Federation (AITUC) and Joint Secretary, All India Electricity Workers Federation, Com Shyam Nair, Zonal Secretary, Western Railway, All India Loco Running Staff Association (AILRSA) and Com.P.S.Seshodia, Central Vice President and Director Education/Trade Union/Uttariya Railway Mazdoor Union/NFIR. Speakers clearly expressed the need to fight against privatisation for the sake of our people and the need to involve people in this fight. Many strongly expressed the view that a united struggle of all the employees in Government and public sector along with the consumers is the need of the hour and with this we can definitely halt and reverse the Government’s anti-worker, anti-people and anti-national policy of privatisation of the public and government sectors.
The meeting ended on a very optimistic note.
Highlights of the Presentation by KEC
India’s telecom sector is the second largest in the world. It has 118 crore mobile subscribers. India also stands second in the world for downloading mobile applications. It has 75 crore internet subscribers and it generates an annual revenue of Rs. 2,70,000 crore. That is why Indian and foreign monopolies are interested in Indian market.
In 1995, the telecom sector was completely in public sector but by 2020, 90% of it has become private. This was brought about step by step.
In the period 2000-2020, out of 16 private companies, many have been forced to close down or merge, so now, there are just 3 big private players. According to the latest report of September 2020, Jio holds 35% of the market share with 40 crore subscribers, Airtel has a market share of 29 % and 32 crores subscribers, Vodafone and Idea together have a share of 26% with roughly 29 crores subscribers. BSNL is left with 11% market share and only 11 crores subscribers.
Two years ago, to finish off the competition and create a monopoly, Jio was launched and it gave free services because of which other private companies incurred huge losses. Airtel lost Rs. 63000 crores from 2019 to 2021, Vodafone Idea lost Rs. 88,000 crores from 2019 to 2020 and BSNL lost Rs. 38000 crores from 2018 to 2020. The total debt of these companies mounted to Rs. 4.4 lakh crores by 31st March 2020. However. none of these private players invested much of their own money; they took huge loans from the banks which have already become or are in danger of becoming NPAs.
BSNL had 2,40,000 employees in 2014 which has been reduced to 69,824 by 2020. The executives have reduced from 48,000 to 30,000 but the non-executive staff has reduced from 160,000 to 40,000. Similarly, in MTNL the executive staff has reduced from 5,000 to 1,200 and the non-executive staff has reduced from 31,000 to less than 5,000. So non-executive workers have suffered the most.
The government wants to sell off BSNL to private players at throwaway prices. According to the government’s annual report, the total worth of BSNL assets is Rs. 146,758 crores. But, the value of land owned by BSNL in various cities alone is worth Rs. 3 lakh crores at current market prices. It has laid more than 7.5 lakh km of optical fibre network across the country and owns 66,000 network towers. It took more than 15 years to set up this infrastructure.
In this situation the first and foremost thing that needs to be done is to come together and expose all the parties that have ruled so far as well as the intentions of these private players. They are deliberately spreading lies about the workers of the PSUs and that needs to be stopped. The condition of BSNL is similar to that of the electricity sector. The government has reduced the investment required for its proper functioning. This in turns affects customer services and then it is portrayed as though the workers are lazy.
All the PSUs are facing the same threat, so all need to come together to fight. There is also need to explain to people that it is the public sector that provides services even to the remote areas of our country and the reason that the services are poor is because the government has stopped funding them as it is only interested in privatising those sectors.
Highlights of the Speech by Com Chandreshwar Singh, General Secretary, National Federation of Telecom Employees (NFTE)-BSNL
In 1994-95, when the Congress was in power it brought a bill aimed at the corporatisation of two of the three departments that comprised the Telecom sector. At that time this was opposed by the parties in opposition like BJP. However, on coming to power in 2000, both telecom services and operation were corporatized by the BJP government.
Before the corporatisation there were 3,50,000 employees in the telecom service and operations put together. The workers protested for 3 days and got a written agreement from the government that these employees would continue to get pension, their employment would be protected and that the economic burden of providing socially necessary telecom services would be borne by the government. However, now the Government is going back on these promises.
Private players were allowed to enter the telecom sector in 1995. BSNL, through formed in 2000, was not allowed to enter the mobile market till 2002. BSNL workers brought it to the number ONE position in the country. The absolute profit in 2005 (when it was number one) was Rs 10,000 crore. BSNL was profitable till 2007-08. It started going into losses from 2008 onwards solely due to the government policies that restricted its operation and expansion. Over the years, there has been a substantial cut in the funds BSNL used to be provided with for providing necessary services. From the day BSNL was formed there was no budgetary support at all. Rs. 7,500 crores were given at the time of the formation of BSNL and the government had said it won’t take back this money. But, Rs.14,000 crore was taken back from BSNL ignoring the promise. Despite this, BSNL had Rs. 35,000 crore surplus in the bank. The employees were not worried and worked without stress. They reached places where there was no electricity and opened telephone exchanges. There was not enough revenue from these places to even cover the cost of operations. However, as a PSU, BSNL considered its duty to provide communication service even at such places.
Reliance’s JIO is being supported by the government at the highest levels. The current Prime minister even became the brand ambassador of JIO which gave its product for free. Despite rules, JIO was allowed to maintain its promotional scheme beyond three months.
BSNL workers gave a good fight to JIO despite receiving no support from the government, with the slogan “BSNL at your doorstep”. Workers went house to house and explained to people and tried to stop the JIO onslaught. But since it was free, BSNL lost a good portion of its customer base.
Highlights of the speech by Shri Sebastian K, General Secretary, Sanchar Nigam Executives Association (SNEA)-BSNL
The Telecom sector has undergone rapid technological changes – from analogue to digital transmission, from 2G to 3G in 2008 and to 4G in 2014. It will soon go to 5G.
Huge investments have been made in the telecom sector, second only to the infrastructure sector. The sector provides huge revenue to the government, to the tune of lakhs of crores of rupees in the form of Spectrum charges, Licence fee, USO Fund and GST/Service Tax. At the same time this sector owes nearly 6 lakh crores to the banks, which is a reason for worry.
BSNL was formed in 2000 to provide a level playing field to private operators. As a separate corporation, it would have more freedom to do business which as a government department it could not, it was said. The formation of BSNL also reduced the government liability of salary payment to 3.5 lakh workers, who were transferred to BSNL.
Though private operators were allowed to start mobile services in 1997, BSNL and MTNL were not allowed to do so. BSNL employees fought in the Delhi High Court which then ordered the Government of India to provide license to BSNL and MTNL for mobile operations. Their entry into this sector forced private companies to lower their tariffs from Rs. 16 per call to Rs. 1 per call.
From 2000 to 2008, BSNL realised a total profit of Rs.43,976 crores rupees. However, the government started interfering in its working from the financial year 2009 and turned it into a loss-making company. It started cancelling tenders worth crores that had already been finalised. It stopped compensating BSNL for rural operations. The company incurs a loss of Rs. 4000 crores per year to maintain its 18000 exchanges in rural areas.
When business was booming and other operators were adding millions of connections per month, BSNL was starved of the resources needed for growth. It was adversely affected by government policies, political interference, non-allotment of 4G spectrum, non-appointment of Board of Directors and bad management decisions. BSNL with a revenue of Rs.30,000 crores did not have a Director of Finance from 2013 to 2020!
BSNL has not got a single paise from the Government for the last 19 years for operations. All expenditure is met from its internal resources. About 65000 employees and their families, as well as 2.5 lakh pensioners depend on BSNL. It also gives jobs to 1.5 lakh people indirectly. BSNL’s land assets at prime locations are worth more than Rs. 1.15 lakh crores in government books, but more than three times that as per their market value.
After lot of struggles for almost 3 years by the BSNL employees, Union Cabinet approved the BSNL Revival Plan on 23/10/2019. 4G spectrum will be allocated administratively through equity infusion on 2016 price (Rs. 14,155 Cr).
While all other operators were allowed to start 4G services with foreign equipment in 2014 and all of them upgraded by 2017, the Make in India policy was implemented only for BSNL, which could not start 4G operations, because there was no Indian supplier!
The existence of BSNL and MTNL is very important. BSNL is plays the role of a strong tariff regulator. Without BSNL these private players will make a cartel which will drive up the tariff.
Highlights of the speech by Com P Kamaraj, Tamil Nadu Circle President and Secretary, Central Head Quarters, National Federation of Telecom Employees (NFTE)-BSNL
Right from the beginning of the liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation program BSNL was targeted by the MNCs, working along with the local capitalists. In 1984 itself PM Indira Gandhi signed an agreement with France Alcatel and started importing electronic circuits. That started private entry into the Telecom Department. The next year they had closed down all the production in ITI and gave away the franchise to everybody. This resulted in the supply of substandard materials for all kinds of telecom equipment. There was massive private looting of the telecom sector from 1984 to 2000. A Congress minister who later joined the BJP was caught with a loot of thousands of crores of rupees.
From 1991 to 2021, four new telecom policies were made by the government to cater to private players. The struggles of the unions forced the government to delay their implementation. The 2012 policy for telecom policy was named as the National Digital Communication Policy and not telecom policy. Today everything is on the internet and people cannot live without it. Already the penetration of internet is 110 crores out of a population of 135 crores. During the last corona wave, usage of data shot up multiple times. The three private players grabbed 92% of the data traffic. Even when BSNL contributes massively to the GDP, it has no money for building infrastructure as compared to JIO. JIO has invested Rs. 6 lakh crore for the development of 5G.
During the pandemic, all the franchises were closed by JIO and Airtel. Everything is done via the digital platform. However, BSNL has an office in every nook and corner of India to physically service customers. People can talk to BSNL workers face to face and this is the difference between the private players and BSNL.
More than Rs. 10,000 crores is pending with the Government of India for rural compensation. BSNL is essential for the functioning of many of the government offices in the rural areas as well as for ATMs and banks. BSNL is maintaining rural lines with lot of difficulties and loss of revenue yet Government is not supporting BSNL.
Tenders of BSNL face multiple hurdles and court cases. BSNL has survived till now because of its dedicated workforce.
There used to be 32 operators in the field of Telecom. Most of them are gone but BSNL has withstood with a market share of 10% and revenue share of 11%. It was denied 4G technology while railways are given 5G technology. This is because private train operators want to use this technology to run their trains and signalling system. Due to their lobbying, 5G was allotted first to the railways.
The whole telecom sector has a debt of Rs. 7.74 lakh crores. But BSNL has only Rs.24 crores of loan. Every other private operator has more than Rs.1 lakh crore of loan.
Instead of supporting BSNL, the Government is supporting JIO. JIO connections have been given to all officers from Secretary downwards, of the North Block and South Block in New Delhi.
Compared to the rest of the world data is cheaper in India because of BSNL. Every year BSNL is fighting to maintain the services to the people and fighting to survive. Without BSNL, cartels would control the rate and make communication services unaffordable for common people. What is happening with trains will happen with telecom too.
All PSUs must be protected for the welfare of people.
Highlights of the speech by Ranjan Dani, Maharashtra Circle Secretary, National Federation of Telecom Employees (NFTE)-BSNL
Today, whatever the private sector has achieved, it is only because of the support of PSUs. Yet, the Prime Minister has openly declared to the nation that the PSUs are bound to die eventually.
The telecom policy of 1994 to 1999 clearly pushed the monopoly over telecom from government to the private players. After that, all successive governments have worked for the privatization of BSNL.
The World Bank and IMF issued various policies which the Indian government accepted. One of their spokesmen even suggested that if required, the constitutions of Third World countries could be changed. Under the pretext of competition, the policies they prescribed and which were followed by successive governments in India focused on destroying the PSUs.
The World Bank and IMF wanted the Indian government to be out of Telecom business by 2007. It is a matter of pride that BSNL exists today, even in 2021. The government had planned to wind it up but because of the strong opposition from the officers and employees, it could not do that. Under the revival package of the government for BSNL, 80,000 employees received VRS, which was actually retrenchment. It tried to justify the firing of 80,000 workers claiming that its losses are due to their salaries.
Now, an outsourcing model has been introduced. This model has utterly failed in maintaining connections, and in giving proper services to the customers. A single employee is now handling the work of 4 employees. Many things were promised in the revival package but the condition is so bad that employees are not even receiving their salaries on time.
We have given 1 lakh fibre optic connections for internet services during covid. We have got 8 Lakh kilometres of fibre optics network throughout India. The private operators all combined together have only 4 lakh kilometres! So, if we are allowed to operate in this market, we can easily get a larger market share. But the model followed by the government for internet services is the same model followed by private players. The private players give out on subcontract or give out on franchise the work of laying out the infrastructure such as optic fibre, wireless towers and connections for end use to Telecom Infrastructure Providers (TIP). BSNL is also adopting the same practice resulting in a massive reduction in the number of workers. This is a faulty policy being followed by BSNL because anytime the TIP’s may switch their infrastructure to private players who may offer them a higher rate.
The role of BSNL is not to make profits only. It helped people through satellites in J&K and in Kerala during floods and in so many other places. Workers have to save BSNL not only for their salaries but to save this nation, to provide affordable internet to the masses, to maintain telecommunication security, to provide good employment.