People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 52

December 26, 2010


BSNL Employees Stage Historic Strike

                                                                                                                                                                                                                   V A N Namboodiri


STARTING on December 1 and called off on December 2 night, the strike in the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) was a powerful declaration by three lakh BSNL workers that they would never agree to its disinvestment and to retrenchment through voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) or otherwise, which were being deliberated at the highest level in the government. The strike also focussed on the urgent necessity of procuring adequate mobile phone equipments for providing telephones to the people who are waiting for long.




As per the call of the joint action committee of executive associations and non-executive unions, an indefinite strike starting from April 20, 2010 was organised on the basis of a charter of demands which included the above issues among others. The massive participation in the strike compelled the minister of communications to call the JAC for talks on the first day itself. He gave written assurances for settlement on all the issues raised, on a time bound basis. While there has been substantial progress on some of the issues, the assurances were not implemented on other issues. Workers grew restive due to the delay in implementation of the urgent demands.


The UPA II government has resorted to fast track disinvestment of the public sector undertakings (PSUs). Disinvestment of BSNL is an important agenda of the Disinvestment Department and the Sam Pitroda committee recommendations to disinvest 30 per cent shares of the BSNL and retrenchment of one lakh workers were part of this scheme. In the meantime the BSNL management had already adopted a resolution for disinvestment, well knowing that workers are completely against it. The multinationals (MNCs) and India Inc were eager to get control of the BSNL and its assets, so that their cartel could fully control the telecom sector. They are no less interested in grabbing the lakhs of acres of BSNL’s prime land in the centre of every town or city.


In order to implement the Sam Pitroda recommendations, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) set up another committee under the member (services), telecom commission. The Joint Action Committee of BSNL Associations/Unions presented its views on the recommendations and strongly opposed any move to disinvest or introduce IPO in BSNL, or to retrench employees through VRS. Though the other committee’s report remains unpublished, it is understood that considering all the aspects including opposition from workers, the committee was not in favour of disinvestment or VRS. Yet, in order to proceed with disinvestment, a meeting of top officers of the Planning Commission, DoT, IT, finance and industry departments was being planned.


In this context the JAC met, took stock of the situation and decided to launch a sustained struggle against these anti-worker policies. It conducted an intensive propaganda among the workers as the strike’s demands concerned the growth and expansion of BSNL.


To prepare for the strike, the JAC organised an all-India convention at New Delhi on July 19, 2010, with participation of delegates from all parts of the country. M K Pandhe (CITU), G Sanjeeva Reddy (INTUC), and other leaders of the central trade unions and members of parliament, in addition to the association/union leaders, addressed it. The convention demanded that the major issues facing the workers must be settled, and decided to launch a powerful nationwide strike from October 19 to 21.


Unions affiliated to the JAC also organised state level conventions in most of the circles, attended by large numbers of workers in each circle. Circle level committees printed also circulated pamphlets in regional languages.




During their meetings with the BSNL management as also member (services), telecom commission, JAC leaders strongly opposed the Sam Pitroda recommendations. They submitted to the member (services) a detailed memorandum on the JAC’s views on these recommendations, forwarding to the government.


Though the three-day strike was to take place from October 19 to 21, the JAC decided to postpone it to December 1-3 in view of the festival season as also the upcoming elections in Kerala and Bihar.


On November 15, more than 3,000 workers reached Delhi for participating in a March to Parliament, which started from Bharat Sanchar Bhawan, corporate office of the BSNL. On their way to the parliament, the police stopped them and then they held a rally near the Parliament Street Police Station. CPI(M) MP Basudeb Acharia inaugurated the rally, supporting the demands of the BSNL workers and assuring that he would take up the issues in parliament. JAC convenor V A N Namboodiri explained the demands aimed at saving and expanding the BSNL. Other leaders also addressed and later presented a memorandum of demands to the prime minister as also to the Lok Sabha speaker.


As for the strike, the BSNL management kept silent even after the notice was given. Later some discussion took place, but no favourable decision was taken. Lunch hour demonstrations were held on November 29 at SSA/Circle levels in preparation of the strike.


The JAC also addressed letters to the central trade unions, independent federations, central and state government employees’ organisations, PSU unions and others, seeking support for its indefinite strike. It received tremendous support from central unions and other organisations. The Coordination Committee of Public Sector Trade Unions expressed solidarity and asked its units to observe December 1, the first date of the BSNL strike as Anti-Disinvestment Day through demonstrations on that date. The Confederation of Central Government Employees & Workers, All India State Government Employees Federation, All India Insurance Employees Association, Bank Employees Federation of India and others asked their units to organise demonstrations in support to the strike. All India BSNL-DoT Pensioners Association and BSNL Casual & Contract Workers Federation extended full support to the strike.


From 6 a m on December 1, BSNL exchanges and offices throughout the country came to a standstill and wore a deserted look. The strike was so massive that in many circles even the chief general managers could not attend office. Huge demonstrations were organised by thousands of workers in Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, Thiruvananthapuram and other major cities. Trade union leaders and BSNL union leaders addressed these rallies.


The management at last called the JAC leaders for discussion. However, no decision could be reached, as most of the items were connected with the DoT and central government.


The success of the strike on the first day enthused even the small number of workers who had attended duty on the first day, to join the strike. The secretary, DoT arranged a meeting with the JAC on December 2 morning. The meeting was attended by leaders of all the unions that had called for the strike. Though the secretary DoT was reluctant to have a detailed discussion, each and every issue was discussed. The positive attitude shown by him to settle the issues and his assertion to have a strong BSNL were welcomed.


The JAC later met the CMD, BSNL on the same day. He gave assurances to sort out  the issues concerning the BSNL. He assured that there is no proposal at present to disinvest the BSNL, issue an IPO or introduce the VRS. He said there would soon be procurement of equipment for 5.5 million mobile connections equipment and that tender would be floated for another 15 million lines within a short time. He also said the cabinet note on pension revision for pre-2007 BSNL retirees would be resubmitted to the government without further delay, after approval of the communications minister, and that there was no proposal for unbundling of the last mile copper. With regard to the 78.2 per cent of IDA pay fixation, though there was some financial difficulty, the issue would be presented to the BSNL board with the fresh inputs given by the unions.


The JAC met again on December 2 evening and called off the strike after considering all the aspects.




The demands of the strike were mainly to ensure the BSNL’s development and expansion, and against the anti-worker policies of the government. Though one or two items concerned the staff’s financial demands, the main thrust was against the anti-worker policies of the government. The strike was in fact a political strike against the neo-liberal policies of the government.


Though there were some assurances on disinvestment and VRS, it is only a temporary reprieve. The government’s policy on these issues is known. A bigger, militant and protracted struggle with the people’s support is required to get the policy withdrawn. Awareness among the common people is necessary for such a struggle.


All the unions and associations constituting the Joint Action Committed stood united from the first to the last. This has given a big blow to the management’s conspiracy to divide the workers. The unions emphatically rejected any separate meeting with management and firmly told that any negotiation could be held with the JAC only. This unity is to be preserved and strengthened further.


The two-day strike has strengthened the movement. Yet, through thorough discussion and exchange of views, we have to take care of any future vacillation in some corner and correct if even minor weaknesses are observed.


BSNL is one of the biggest PSUs in the country and employs more than three lakh executives and non-executives. It also engages tens of thousands of casual and contract workers are engaged by this PSU. It has provided telecom services to the people for about a century and is still the main service provider not only in cities and towns but in lakhs of villages and remote areas too, where private operators are not interested to extend their service due to lack of profit.


Telecom being one of the most expanding services, there is cut-throat competition, unlimited corruption and conspiracy to capture the market. Here we see an unholy alliance of the MNCs, big business, government officials and politicians to weaken the BSNL, so that they could raise the telecom charges and squeeze the people. This nexus has to be broken and BSNL has to survive and expand. It is the responsibility of the working class to intensify the struggle, making it a struggle of the people against the anti-people, anti-worker neo-liberal policies of the government, and to defeat its nefarious game.


(V A N Namboodiri is president of the BSNL Employees Union.)