Starting March 22, over one lakh government employees in Manipur have ceased work to protest the delay in implementing the 7th Pay Commission. The strike has crippled the state’s administration so severely that the N Biren Singh government has had to get retired employees to fill in.

It’s also a political crisis for the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had promised to implement the “7th Pay Commission for all employees in the state” during its campaign for the Assembly election early last year.

Promise not fulfilled

In July 2016, the Central government formally rolled out the 7th Pay Commission’s recommendations – higher salaries and greater benefits for government employees. In most states where the BJP rules or is the senior partner in the ruling coalition, the recommendation have either been implemented or are being implemented. But in Manipur, the protesting employees pointed out, it has not even set a timeline for implementation.

In Tripura, where the BJP recently displaced the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from power after about 25 years, one of its main campaign pitches was that it would implement the 7th Pay Commission. Soon after taking office, it appointed an expert committee to “formulate the modalities” to roll out the new salary structure. A major grouse against the communist government in the state, largely dependent on the government for employment, had been its failure to implement the new pay commission.

In Manipur, this is the second time the BJP government is facing protests for not fulfilling its campaign promise to implement the new pay structure. Last October, the state’s employees went on mass casual leave and only returned after Biren Singh met their representatives.

This time, the employees have refused to relent without the government specifying an implementation timeline.

‘This is blackmail’

But the government is unmoved. “This is blackmail,” said Irengbam Arun, media adviser to the chief minister. “This is the end of the financial year, everyone is busy, the chief minister has not said we will not give, he is just asking for some time. A committee has been set up to look into the demand.”

Arun said the government wanted time to work out the modalities as the “state’s finances are weak”. Manipur, like most states in the North East, is largely dependent on Central funds. According to the daily Sangai Express, published from Imphal, the Manipur government’s current salary bill is over Rs 200 crore. If the 7th Pay Commission’s recommendations were to come into effect, the amount is estimated to cross Rs 1,400 crore. The state currently pays 98,845 regular employees and 45,523 pensioners.

Rising salary bills have swelled budget deficits in other states in the North East. In Nagaland, which implemented the new pay structure last year, an additional salary bill of over Rs 1,100 crore is set to increase the net accumulated deficit to Rs 1630.67 crore by the end of the next financial year.

Arun said the Manipur government would be forced to take “a tough stand” and “take appropriate action according to service rules” if the protesters did not return to work. “They have even been asked by the chief secretary to discuss, but they didn’t come,” he claimed. “It’s been made clear: no work, no pay.” made multiple attempts to contact Biken Singh Laitonjam, secretary general of the Joint Administrative Council of the All Manipur Trade Unions’ Council and the All Manipur Government Employees’ Organisation, but they proved unsuccessful. A journalist from Imphal who asked not to be named said Laitonjam had gone into hiding, fearing “retributive arrest”. None of the other office-bearers of the two organisations were available for comment either.

On the offensive

Meanwhile, the opposition Congress said the BJP government had betrayed voters by not implementing the pay commission. “Why did they make that promise in their vision document if there was no money?” asked Khumukcham Joykishan, the Congress legislator from Thangmeiband. “Chief Minister N Biren Singh was an important part of the previous Congress government too. Didn’t he know the condition of the state’s finances? They make big promises before the elections only to let everyone down.”

He also criticised the government for threatening to replace the agitating employees if they continued with their protest. “Is it democratic to punish people asking for their rights?” he asked.