People's Democracy

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


No. 52

December 25, 2011

BSNL Employees Organise Magnificent Strike


V A N Namboodiri


THE one day strike by BSNL workers and employees on December 15, 2011, has once again demonstrated that there is not going to be any let-up in sustained struggle against the neo-liberal policies being implemented by the government with the motive of weakening the public sector undertakings (PSUs) and gradually privatising them. The full participation of the workers in the strike --- as per the call of the Joint Action Committee of BSNL Associations / Unions of Executives and Non-Executives --- is in itself a warning to the government against its anti-BSNL decisions and its plan to disinvest and privatise this institution.




Since the very formation of the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) in 2000, the government has been making all-out efforts to disinvest and then privatise this telecom major and one of the most profitable PSUs. While a telecom PSU, the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL), was privatised several years ago and is now a Tata group company, in the case of another PSU, the Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL), the government was able to effect disinvestment to the extent of 46 per cent. However, it could not disinvest even one per cent of the BSNL assets due to the strong opposition and continued struggles by BSNL workers. No wonder, them, that the government has been conspiring in league with the BSNL top management to weaken the organisation, so that it could be made loss-making and thus a justification is cooked up for its disinvestment and eventual privatisation.


Accordingly, within a few years of the BSNL’s formation, the government began to go back upon its commitments about ensuring the financial viability of the company. The reimbursement of licence fee, payment of ADC and liberal grants from the universal service obligation (USO) fund, which were all the assurances of the government, have been stopped, thereby reducing the revenue of the company by more than Rs 8,000 crore a year.


At one stage, the BSNL had had about Rs 40,000 crore surplus cash in banks. This was an eyesore to the government which, through clever manipulations, took away almost all this surplus cash within the last few years. In the name of a notional loan (which was never given to the BSNL, nor was there any need for it), the government took away Rs 7,500 crore and in addition to it an interest amount at a higher rate of 14.5 per cent. These totalled to about Rs 15,000 crore. Later, in the name of 3G and broadband spectrum, an amount of Rs 18,500 crore was compulsorily taken away, without giving any chance to the BSNL to participate in the auction or bid for the circles where it wanted to provide services. This was the government’s bid to provide an opportunity to private companies without any competition from the BSNL. Furthermore, the BWA (broadband) spectrum allotted to the BSNL was of inferior quality and not suitable for providing services in advanced technologies like 4G etc. Thus, almost all the surplus of the company has been looted by the exchequer.




Another method to weaken the BSNL was to curtail its procurement of equipments essential for providing services and for maintenance. Despite the fact that the BSNL was given a licence to provide mobile services by 2006, six years after they were granted to private companies, the company has earned the second position and has been competing with the leader, Airtel, for the first position. Since there was a market of more than 500 million rupees yet to be tapped, the BSNL floated a global tender for 45 million mobile lines. But when the tender was about to be finalised, the government compelled the BSNL to cancel the tender in order to favour the private companies. In 2010 again, the government enforced cancellation of the next global tender for 93 million lines, making the BSNL completely helpless in giving mobile connections. A third tender for a humble 5.5 million mobile equipments was also got cancelled in 2011. This situation was fully utilised by private companies to provide maximum possible mobile connections, which pushed the BSNL down to the fourth position in mobile market share. Naturally, the revenue also came down drastically.


While there is a good scope for increasing the broadband connections, in which BSNL is still the leader by a long margin, not much improvement could be made due to the non-supply of modems required for providing the connections. Nor could new landline connections be given due to the non-supply of cables, telephone instruments etc. The inefficiency of the top management, mainly of the ITS officers, and their lack of commitment has made the situation still worse. Most of these officers are on deputation from the Department of Technology (DoT) and were not absorbed in the BSNL.




The Joint Action Committee (JAC) has often approached the government and also discussed with the management the need to take necessary action to improve the situation, but all this has been of no avail. As a result, for the first time the BSNL posted a loss of Rs 1,850 crore in 2009-10 and it increased to Rs 6,000 crore odd in 2010-11. The company’s revenue dropped to Rs 29,000 crore from the earlier Rs 40,000 crore. It was in this situation that, as  responsible stakeholders, the constituent unions of the JAC,  started the campaign of “Customer Delight Year 2011-12” from May 2011 onward. They made maximum possible efforts to improve the services and to make the management procure mobile equipments, cables, broadband modems, telephone instruments etc, which are most necessary for the company’s growth and development. Workers took extra pains to make the services as better as they could. As a result, the negative trend that continued for two or three years was stemmed and the situation changed to slightly positive, both in providing connections as well as in revenue.


Instead of appreciating the efforts made by the BSNL workers and employees, the management purposely started attacks on the workers by freezing the leave travel concession and leave encashment and by cancelling the medical allowances hitherto being given. Bonus too was denied to the workers. In addition, the BSNL board proposed to the DoT for retrenchment of one lakh workers through the so-called voluntary retirement scheme (VRS), on the plea that the corporation’s losses are is due to the salaries being paid to a large number of workers. But the fact is that even when the BSNL had one lakh more workers on its rolls, it was earning more revenue and more profit. Reducing the workforce can only deteriorate the services, as have been seen in the case of the MTNL where the VRS has been implemented thrice. In their own wisdom, the BSNL management forgot the commitment given by former communications ministers that the VRS would not be implemented without consultation with the unions. This move about the VRS and withdrawal of the existing facilities to the staff were subtle moves on the part of the government and the management to demotivate the workers so that their ‘Save the BSNL’ campaign could can be defeated and the slide-down of the BSNL could continue, thus preparing the ground for disinvestment and privatisation.


It was to avert such a situation and compel the management and the government to take urgent actions for improving and expanding the services and to desist from resorting to anti-worker decisions that the JAC had called for a one-day strike on October 10. At that time, the unions deferred the proposed strike on the management’s assurance that they would take necessary action on some of the demands. However, the unions decided to go on a strike on December 15 when the management did not take any substantial decision on the issues involved, as it had assured.




The JAC organised a serious campaign in preparation for the strike and also approached many members of parliament belonging to various political parties that they must take up the BSNL-related with the government in order to avert the present crisis in the organisation. Central trade union organisations and all-India federations too were approached for support and solidarity. Media were utilised to make the people aware of the issues.


Eventually the workers were left with no option but to go on strike when the management, during their discussion held with the JAC representatives on December 12, refused to settle the issues involved.


The strike was a complete success throughout the country. Most of the BSNL offices were deserted and closed due to the strike. Thousands of striking workers demonstrated in Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi and other major cities. In many centres, the striking workers organised massive rallies addressed by trade union leaders. Support came from other trade unions as well. More than 95 per cent of the workers participated in the strike, giving a stern warning to the government and the BSNL management to change their anti-worker policies and to concede the demands of the workers.


If the issues are not settled urgently and action not taken to procure equipments etc in order to improve and expand the services to the customers, the JAC would soon meet to decide upon the further course of action.