By our Mumbai Correspondent
Ever since the then Congress government launched the globalisation through liberalisation and privatisation program in 1991, successive governments have aggressively pursued it. While they have had to face tremendous opposition from the workers of many sectors, the monopoly controlled media as well as the government spokesmen have done a lot of propaganda about how privatisation of such and such a service would improve the quality and reliability and in general benefit the users. With this backdrop, the Thane Committee of the Lok Raj Sangathan decided to organise a meeting on the topic, “Is Privatisation of Public Services in the Interest of Society?” The meeting was held on Sunday, 5th August in Thane. The activists of Lok Raj Sangathan had done a lot of work to publicise the program and to invite union leaders from various sectors to talk on the topic.
The initial presentation by the Thane committee explained how privatisation is being carried out in different ways – by outrights sales, disinvestment, outsourcing, opening up sectors reserved so far for public sector to private sector, turning state subsidised goods or services into commercially priced ones and through the so-called Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) path, which in reality means losses borne by the public and profits gobbled up by the private partner. Lack of funds is a standard argument given to justify privatisation. Actually the targeted organization is starved of funds and made to deteriorate and ultimately be sick. Public opinion is built against it and then it is claimed that there is no option but to privatise. Air India, BEST, Power generation, transmission and distribution companies, etc. are examples of this.
It was pointed out that public services are meant to satisfy social needs. They should be accessible, user friendly and affordable; the quality of service should be high; safety and security of the user should be taken care of as a priority; they should be integrated with other services; they should be environment-friendly and should support growth and development of the society at large. It is evident that the private sector can never fulfil these requirements because the owners care only about maximising their profit and to hell with everyone and everything else!
Sectors like the railways, banking and health were examined in greater detail and it was brought out that privatisation would be against not only the concerned workers, but against the users of these services and hence the society at large. The real aims of privatisation are to provide new avenues of profit to the Indian and foreign monopolies. Privatisation is anti-national as well as anti-social and should be opposed unitedly by users as well as workers. It was explained that the immediate struggle against privatisation is part and parcel of the struggle to establish a society where real political power is with the people.
The leaders of all the unions, parties and organisations who were present thanked Lok Raj Sangathan for organising this program. Girish Dhabadge, Vice President of the Air India Employees Union declared that Air India was intentionally made sick by giving off all the highly profitable routes to the private airlines and by purchasing a large number of aircraft that were not needed. He pointed out that private players have no social commitment. When Indians were stuck in Singapore when bird flu was rampant there and claiming many lives, and when Indians were stuck in Kuwait at the time of the Gulf War, no private airline was ready to evacuate them. The workers of Air India risked their lives and fulfilled their social commitment.
Vijay Kamble of the CPI has been actively leading the struggle against Torrent Power in Bhiwandi. He talked about how not only the power rates, but the meter readings themselves have been inflated, and false cases of power theft been lodged after privatisation of power distribution. While the MSEB used to collect Rs. 33 crore per month, Torrent collected Rs. 100 crore in the first month itself. And the government is giving it further subsidy! Many small factories have been closed down and lakhs of workers thrown out of jobs because the owners cannot afford to pay the inflated electricity bills.
Narasimha Murthy, a manager of Punjab National Bank, pointed out that public sector banks are deliberately being shown as loss making so their privatisation can be justified. There is a proposal to inflate their NPAs by reducing the default period from 180 days to 90 days. The intention is to help big industrialists by writing off their loans after making them NPAs. For example in case of Alok Industries, banks had to take 83 percent ‘hair-cut’ (amount of loan waived off). Industrialists are happy when their loan is declared NPA as banks stop charging interest on these over-due loans. We must demand that no loan is written off and that all the wealth of the industrialist concerned should be confiscated to recover money, he said
Yashwant Rao of the BMS spoke on behalf of the ST (State Transport) workers. The Government of Maharashtra established the ST Mahamandal in 1950, with the slogan, “गाव तिथे रस्ता आणि रस्ता तिथे ST” (Road wherever there is a village and ST wherever there is a road). The government gave up this principle from 1995 and allowed private players though the High Court had explicitly ruled against that. (This raises the question – even when the High Court gives pro-people orders, the government of the day is free to violate them!). The ST gives 23 different concessions to people, like subsidised fares to students, journalists, etc. The government is supposed to reimburse this amount, but Rs. 100 crore is pending with it. The ST gives training for 48 days to its newly recruited drivers and hence its safety record is the best. But private owners do not want to “waste” their money on such training, he said. The speaker pointed out that women feel much safer in traveling by ST. For death in accidents, the ST pays compensation of Rs. 10 lakhs while the private operators pay nothing. If the passenger is injured, his full treatment is paid for. Now the government has introduced the Shivashahi line which has contract buses and is run on the PPP model (of course the profit is private). The private player can make free use of the huge infrastructure – the depots, workshops, etc. that are built with public money. He pointed out that by giving private operators good routes, ST will be made sick and closed. Already contracts worth crores of rupees are being handed out. The ST has 22 unions. He stressed that the need is to unite across unions and fight against privatisation.
Com. Sanjeewani of the Communist Ghadar Party of India stressed that it was important to recognise that today we are ruled by around 150 big monopoly houses that appoint various governments as its managers. It is important for workers from various sectors to unite irrespective of union, party, community or any other considerations. While we fight for stopping and reversing privatisation, we should also fight for a system where people are the decision – makers and not a handful of big monopolies.
Avanish Kumar of All India Railway Trackmaintainer Association drew attention to the role good track maintenance has in ensuring the safety of passengers and railway workers. If proper and regular maintenance of tracks is not done, trains are bound to get derailed. Yet, railways have started engaging large number of contract workmen for track maintenance instead of filling up vacancies. Contract workmen are not adequately trained. Track maintainer’s job is hard and dangerous. Last year itself, nearly 600 workers lost their lives while carrying out their duty. Contractors show more workers on the job to collect money while actually employing less. He said there is a lot of corruption involved in the way railway is privatising track maintenance.
The spokesperson of Kamgar Ekta Committee (KEC) said that their organization is committed to build the unity of all workers and their organizations irrespective of their political links or ideologies. KEC has been working on the basis of the principle that ‘An attack on one is an attack all’ and bringing various unions together to support the struggles of each other. Only the unity of workers can stop the attacks on rights of workers. KEC has held number of programmes over the years to oppose privatisation in any form and fully supports the initiative of LRS to bring workers and users to oppose privatisation.
Com Tyagi of SUCI (Communist) and a leader of Railway Employees Union, stressed that it is not the question of BJP or Congress pushing privatisation but it is the agenda of a few 150 or so families. This is what we must understand and convince both users and workers why privatisation has to be opposed.
The representative of Purogami Mahila Sangathan particularly drew attention to the very bad impact privatisation has on women who face double oppression and are the first ones to be thrown out of job after privatisation. The representative of Spark, an initiative of the youth of LRS, pointed out that unemployment is already the biggest problem faced by youth today and privatisation would make it worse if experienced workers are thrown out of jobs after privatisation. Inexperienced youth will not be able to compete with experienced workers who would also be looking for jobs.
The meeting noted that the awareness of ill effects of privatization on users of the services is very limited and hence it is important to carry out wide scale awareness campaign amongst citizens, so that they along with the workers can reverse the privatization drive.
The meeting ended with the resolve to spread awareness of the dangers of privatisation particularly of public services, by holding meetings in various places and writhing and distributing leaflets about various services to make users aware of how privatisation is already being carried out and how it will affect them. It was proposed that we should also take advantage the forthcoming elections in 2019 by insisting on every candidate standing for election to take a public stand about privatisation and demand that she/he oppose privatisation, if elected, in assembly/parliament, irrespective of the stand of her/his political party. All agreed that the task of building unity of all workers’ organizations must be continued even more vigorously and that we should continue to strengthen the unity of workers and users of products and services to defeat the programme of privatisation.