People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
July 22, 2007
BSNL EMPLOYEES STRIKE
Strike With A Difference, Scores Mighty Success
V A N Namboodiri
THE July 11, 2007 strike by nearly 3,40,000 executive and non-executive employees of the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) was virtually total, with most of the telephone exchanges and offices remaining closed and employees striking work. It was for the first time since the formation of the BSNL in October 2000 that such a total strike action has taken place in the enterprise. It was also the first time that all the executives, except ITS officers (who still continue as government officers on deputation to the BSNL), plunged into direct action. The fact that the strike was called at short notice did not have any adverse impact on the action. It was as if the workers were mentally prepared for a serious action on the issue, which is widely perceived as a life and death question for the BSNL and its workers.
MOVES AGAINST THE ENTERPRISE
What was the issue on which the workers went on strike action? It was not any economic demand like wage hike, payment of bonus, or the like. The issue pertained to removal of the hurdles placed in the way of expansion of BSNL mobile services. It was only to ensure that the telecom public sector unit, BSNL, is able to serve the people, to provide mobile service to all those who want it. It was also to ensure that the BSNL is not made irrelevant in the telecom sector by the inaction of the government.
At the time of BSNL’s formation, the government had promised many concessions and assurances like reimbursement of license fee, payment through access deficit charge (ADC) and also a universal service obligation fund (USOF) for the huge loss being incurred in the process of providing telephones in remote areas, villages etc, for which the private sector was not coming forward. But now it has been exposed that these concessions were only ploys to mislead the people and workers into accepting that corporatisation was for their own benefit.
During the last seven years, the government has been taking anti-BSNL decisions one after another to help the private telecom companies. The BSNL (DoT) was denied a license for 5 years for providing mobile connections, while the government permitted the private companies for the same. Reimbursement of license fee was reduced year after year. ADC was reduced and will be completely stopped from April 2008 onwards. But the BSNL is to pay more amount to the USOF than it receives, though it is the only company which provides connections to lakhs of villages in the country. FDI was increased from 49 to 74 percent for private companies, allowing them to get flush foreign fund despite security concerns raised by the defence and home ministries. It was only after sustained struggle, including strike notices by unions, which compelled the government not to implement the TRAI recommendation to share the BSNL infrastructures including towers, cables, buildings etc for the benefit of private operators.
Private companies like Reliance, caught red-handed while fraudulently depriving the BSNL of thousands of crores of rupees by manipulating ISD and STD calls as local calls to avoid paying ADC, were let off with a paltry penalty of Rs 150 crore without initiating any action against them. In short the policies and decisions of the government and TRAI were fully in support of the private telecom operators and against the two PSUs --- BSNL & MTNL.
While the BSNL has to give free connections to the central government, form telephone advisory committee in all SSAs, circles and centre resulting in extra expenditure, the private companies are free of such obligations.
The issue at the moment is something more. Despite the
fact that BSNL was allowed to provide mobile connections only 7 years after
private operators started, it came to the second position in a short time and
was competing for the first position with an increased market share. The
declaration of the then communication minister Dayanidhi Maran, made with much
fanfare in 2005 that BSNL will purchase 6 crore mobile lines for providing
connections to cater to the increased demand, was hailed by the media as the
biggest global tender in the telecom sector so far. The workers were happy that
it will herald a new era where BSNL would be number one in mobile sector as also
as in land lines.
But what followed was not what was expected. The events that followed are briefly given below:
31.08.2005: BSNL board of directors decides to issue a tender for 6 crores GSM lines.
05.10.2005: A committee is formed for preparation of the tender document.
31.01.2006: Tender documents were given for vetting to a team of independent experts.
22.03.2006: Global tender is floated for 4.55 crore lines.
12.06.2006: Bids submitted by 5 vendors (companies).
09.10.2006: Bids opened; Ericsson and Nokia are successful. Motorola approaches Delhi High Court against its technical disqualification.
16.04.2007: Case is withdrawn by Motorola.
26.04.2007: Evaluation of tender (CET) report submitted to BSNL management by the committee.
12.05.2007: BSNL board approves CET report. Advance purchase order (APO) ready for release.
By the time the APO was to be issued, A Raja was appointed as the new minister of communications and IT in place of Dayanidhi Maran. The concerned file was sent to the new minister as was requested before the issue of the purchase order.
By this time, GSM lines available with BSNL were almost finished. BSNL was providing connections at the rate of 15 lakh to 20 lakh every month. This continued up to March 2007. Due to non-availability of lines, BSNL could not provide any significant number of lines in April, May and June 2007. BSNL thus went down to the third position in GSM lines and to the fourth position in total mobile (GSM + CDMA) lines.
BSNL customer service centres all over India had to painfully inform the needy public that the BSNL had no mobile lines to provide them. They naturally went to the private companies. BSNL began to lose hundreds of crores of rupees every month.
The need of the hour was to get GSM lines immediately. The purchase order had to be immediately issued, so that the supply could arrive at least in a few months. It is at this critical juncture that reports appeared in the media about the minister considering cancellation of the present tender as he felt that the rates per line were higher than the rates agreed to by the MTNL with Motorola. According to The Hindu report on 08-07-2007, the minister said, “MTNL gets 2G and 3G equipments from a company for Rs 2845 per line while BSNL case has quoted Rs 4940.’’ According to the minister, the present tender would cause a loss of about Rs 10,000 crore for BSNL. Hence no purchase order was issued and the stalemate continued.
The workers and their unions wanted an end to this stalemate so that the BSNL could continue to provide mobile lines. An inquiry revealed certain matters that probably did not meet the minister’s eyes:
The order of MTNL is 75 percent 2G and 25 percent 3G (3G is a higher technology with higher cost), while BSNL tender is 50 percent 2G and 50 percent 3G.
The BSNL tender was for having about 25 higher technical major sub-systems like IMS, GRV, SDP, Video gateway, DSS, streaming solutions, DR etc that were not a part of the MTNL tender. Such systems will be costlier.
MTNL area is limited to Delhi and Mumbai metros but BSNL has the entire country, covering rural, hilly and remote and very difficult areas like J&K, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, northeast etc, and the cost on transportation, storage etc will be much higher.
It is understood that the evaluation committee has reduced the tender amount. Even otherwise, when weighed by the three phases of supply, it is expected to come down to about Rs 3500 per line.
In short, the management’s opinion is that there will not be much difference at all between the MTNL and BSNL tenders if all the above points are considered. But any delay in procurement will cause a loss of about Rs 30,000 crore, as also the loss of face. In fact, BSNL will become irrelevant in the mobile market.
Sensing the deep crisis laden situation, the Joint Forum of BSNL Unions & Associations of Executives and Non-Executives decided to bring the same to the government’s notice. Thousands of telegrams were sent to the prime minister as also to the communications minister. Demonstrations were organised in front of offices on July 5 onwards and massive dharnas were organised on July 9 and 10. Workers attended duty wearing black badges. Notice for strike from July 11 was served on the management if the issue was not resolved by that time.
The meeting of the union leaders with BSNL management and the secretary DoT could not come to any fruitful decision. The minister held meetings on July 9 and 10 with representatives of the Joint Forum and the secretary DOT, CMD of the BSNL and members of BSNL management committee were also present in the July 10 meeting. The minister gave certain assurances, and it was decided to be conveyed through a letter to the convener of the Joint Forum.
But the letter given to the Joint Forum by the
secretary, DOT was very vague. The assurances, as stated in the letter, are
“Subject: Notice for Dharna on 9th and 10th July 2007 before offices/exchange at all levels and one day strike on 11th July 2007.
This has reference to the meeting taken by Hon’ble MOC&IT on 10th July 2007 with representatives of Joint Forum of BSNL on the above mentioned subject.
During the meeting, various concerns of BSNL employees were deliberated in detail. After the discussions, following decisions emerged:
BSNL will give its response to all the queries raised within a week’s time (This has already been communicated to you vide BSNL Letter No. BSNL/39/7/SR/2007 dated 10th July 2007).
MOC&IT expressed his concern about BSNL and assured that while taking a decision on response of BSNL, interest of BSNL will be protected.
During the intervening period till receipt of supplies under the tender, appropriate steps will be taken to ensure that BSNL does not suffer due to lack of network capacity.
Serious efforts will be made so that BSNL remains in full readiness to utilize the benefits of technological evolution in 2G/3G/Wi MAX etc.
In view of above, you are requested to withdraw the
strike notice and proposed strike on 11th July 2007.”
The minister held another meeting with the union representatives on the July 10 night itself in an effort to resolve the issue. While the minister stood by what was stated in the earlier meeting, he was not prepared to include the same in the letter.
WAKE-UP CALL FOR GOVT
The Joint Forum which met late in the same night discussed the development in detail. All unions of the Joint Forum decided to go ahead with the strike decision, since the demand had not been accepted.
As stated already, the strike scored an unprecedented success with close to 100 percent participation by workers and officers. The entire workforce rose as one man to ensure that the BSNL survives. It was a wake up call to the management and the government. The Joint Forum met on the July 11 evening and decided to defer the strike for 15 days and watch the developments and implementation of the assurances already given. In case of non-settlement, the unions will meet and decide about the future course of action which may even be an indefinite strike.