The Narendra Modi government may be headed for another confrontation with central trade unions over their opposition to the Centre’s move to bring down its share in 22 public sector units to below 51%, as part of its disinvestment programme.

Stopping disinvestment in public sector companies and restricting foreign direct investment in strategic sectors form a key part of a 12-point charter of demands submitted by the trade unions to the government. On September 2, the unions had organised an all-India strike against what they called the Centre’s failure to address their concerns.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's trade union wing, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, had withdrawn from the strike after consultations with an empowered group of ministers. But it is now threatening to organise fresh anti-government protests on the disinvestment issue.

“There is no requirement of sale and disinvestment of public sector companies,” said Virjesh Upadhayay, general secretary of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh. “The government cannot take unilateral decisions. We have told government representatives to explain and discuss the details of each proposal with us or else we will organise stronger protests against the proposal in the coming weeks.”

After the prime minister’s office approved the disinvestment plan for the 22 companies last week, the RSS-affiliated union organised a demonstration against it in Delhi on September 20, Upadhayay said. He added that it would organise more protests in the coming days.

Fund-raiser 

The 22 public sector companies – identified by NITI Aayog – where the government is set to reduce its stake to a minority share include three plants of the Steel Authority of India in Salem, Durgapur and Bhadravati, helicopter service operator Pawan Hans Limited, the National Jute Manufacturing Corporation, Cement Corporation of India Limited and Scooters India Limited.

News agencies had earlier reported that the government has set a target of raising Rs 56,500 crores from the disinvestment drive this year. Of this, Rs 36,000 crores is to come from the sale of the government's existing minority stake in some public sector units, and Rs 20,500 crores from strategic sale in both profit- and loss-making public units.

The decision triggered protests at some of the affected plants on September 22 and 23 with workers fearing it could lead to a deterioration in work conditions. At the Steel Authority of India's Salem plant, 950 permanent and 700 contractual workers went on a flash strike last week.

“Vacancies for permanent jobs have not been filled since 2005, and if the ownership pattern changes, only contractual jobs will remain and regular jobs will be phased out,” said P Panneerselvam, president of the Steel Plant Employees Union, which is affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, which in turn is attached to the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Salem, Bhadravati and Durgapur had state-of-the-art technology and trained personnel and there was no need for the government to sell its share, Panneerselvam added.

“This government is trying to revive disinvestment, which was last attempted at the time of the Vajpayee government. We had gone to court and stopped it then, and we will not allow it now,” he said.

Rajya Sabha MP and CPI(M) leader Tapan Sen accused the government of ignoring the unions’ demands. “Are the workers who actually produce gross domestic product, generate wealth, deliver resources to the public exchequer and create profit for the employers not stakeholders in the economy?” he asked. “Are they not citizens of this country? Why are the workers not entitled to be heard on such basic issues that affect the economy?”

According to a report in The Hindu, the prime minister’s office last week also approved the closure of 17 units, including Indian Oil-CREDA Biofuels Ltd and CREDA HPCL Biofuel Ltd, both jatropha oil-focussed subsidiaries of state-owned petroleum companies. Employees at these plants will be offered voluntary retirement.