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Monday, January 24, 2022

MSRTC strike: 54 days and counting…

Several attempts to persuade the striking employees with higher pay and threaten them with suspension, dismissal and imposing stringent laws like the Essential Services Act (MESMA) have failed to deter them.

Written by Vallabh Ozarkar | Mumbai |
Updated: December 20, 2021 7:42:17 am
MSRTC employees protest at Azad Maidan in Mumbai. (Photo: Amit Chakravarty)

More than 90000 employees of Maharashtra State Transport Corporation, one of the largest inter-city bus systems in the country, have been on strike for 54 days, affecting thousands of travellers. The Indian Express looks at the reasons behind the strike and the state’s constraints in meeting employees’ demands.

The iconic red and yellow buses of the MSRTC were the king of the state’s roads, assuring low-budget travellers a safe trip from cities to far-flung interiors of the state. However, thousands of drivers and conductors on its payroll, who had mastered the secrets of the state’s urban and rural streets, are off the roads for the past 54 days, making it the longest strike by MSRTC workers in Maharashtra.

Several attempts to persuade the striking employees, who are demanding the merger of corporation with the state government, with higher pay and threaten them with suspension, dismissal and imposing stringent laws like the Maharashtra Essential Services Maintenance Act (MESMA) have failed to deter them.

Ups and downs of MSRTC

In 1950, a Road Transport Corporation Act was passed by the Union government, which delegated powers to states to form their road transport corporations with the Centre contributing one-third of the capital. Thus, the Bombay State Road Transport Corporation (BSRTC) was formed and later changed its name to MSRTC with the re-organization of the state. From its initial fleet of 30 Bedford buses having wooden bodies and coir seats, the MSRTC fleet has now expanded to 16,000 buses and 96,000 employees and runs inter-city and inter-state buses.

This time, employees, who were hit hard due to the impact of the pandemic, are on strike since October 27 not only to ensure that they get higher salaries but are keen that MSRTC is absorbed into the state government.

While the transport corporation has been successful in providing low-cost travel options to lakhs of people in the state, it has not been able to remain profitable.

According to the records, the MSRTC was running in profit till financial year 2011-12, however, it started accumulating losses from the financial year 2012-13, which went up to Rs 1,299 crore in 2014-15 and by 2019-2020 it ballooned to Rs 5,319 crore.

According to official statistics, during the pre-Covid period (till March 2020) the corporation was earning around Rs 600 crore per month from ticket sales. Employee salaries, fuel and other related expenses would amount to around Rs 700-750 crore but there had been no issues in releasing salaries of the staffers.

A MRSTC official said till March 2020, the corporation was getting revenue of around Rs 20 to 22 crore per day. From the end of March 2020, due to the lockdown transport service was completely shut and as a result, daily income was lost. In these eight months, the corporation lost Rs 5,280 crore in revenue, however, the expense in terms of salaries was there and it was paying around Rs 220-290 crore in salaries. In the eight months, Rs 2,200 crore of expense was incurred for the payment of salaries.

The bus services slowly resumed in December 2020. While they were trying to return to normal at the end of February 2021, the services were shut owing to the second wave of Covid-19. The services restarted after the second wave, but due to poor response from passengers, daily income went down to Rs 10 crore daily from Rs 22 crore earlier.

The corporation claims that due to all these reasons, the accumulated loss at the end of the financial year 2021-22 is expected to be around Rs 12,000 crore.

Reasons for the strike

While the corporation suffered losses over the past few years, it had never faced any issue in paying salaries of staffers on time. But after the Covid-19 induced lockdown, salaries were delayed for months, and this allegedly triggered suicides of a few staffers due to debts and financial strain.

The state government has so far provided financial assistance of Rs 3,549 crore to MSRTC in different instalments in the past one and half year to pay salaries.

Despite this capital inflow, the corporation is facing a loss of nearly Rs 9,000 crore and had difficulty in paying salaries after the pandemic struck. Post-pandemic, nearly 40 of its staffers are reported to have committed suicide due to financial woes.

While MSRTC has seen its employees resorting to strikes in the past as well, none of the strikes lasted very long. The strikes called in 2015, 2017 and 2018 were called off in two or three days.

This time, employees, who were hit hard due to the impact of the pandemic, are on strike since October 27 not only to ensure that they get higher salaries but are keen that MSRTC is absorbed into the state government. This demand is made with the intent that employees of MSRTC would get the benefits that state government employees are entitled to.

The joint action committee of 27 MSRTC workers’ trade unions had called for a hunger strike on October 27 but it was withdrawn on October 28 after the committee met with State Transport Minister Anil Parab.

The strike, however, did not end and is going on without any major union or leadership.

Buses parked at a closed Parel ST depot. (Photo: Amit Chakravarty)

The workers say that they feel “betrayed” as the main demand of merging the corporation with the state government was not put forward by the unions and not accepted by the minister but still the unions called off the strike.

“If the merger demands are fulfilled it will provide us with a status of being government servants and subsequent benefits. There was resentment among the staffers and a belief that since the major unions in the joint action committee, which withdrew the strike, were associated with the political parties like Shiv Sena, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party hence, their demand for the merger was not put forward and the strike was allegedly called off after some kind of ‘deal’,” said Nitin Bhagavat, a staffer, who has been suspended for participating in the strike.

Why govt is not willing to accede to the demand

In 1995, the salaries of MSRTC workers were higher than those of government employees. The MSRTC salaries are revised according to the salary agreement while the salary of the government employees is revised according to the Salary Commission recommendations. The salary agreement of the staffers is signed every four years.

The staffers and union leaders claim that till 1995, the salary of the MSRTC workers was on a par with the government servants, but there have been very little increments post-1995 according to the payment agreements.

This happened due to the Maharashtra Recognition of Trade Unions and Prevention of Unfair Labour Practices Act, 1971, which came into force and according to which only one union is recognised in any corporation.

“Earlier, all the unions would decide on the salary increment unanimously, after which the salary agreements would get signed with the corporation. However, due to the MRTU and PULP Act, only one union was recognised, which had the right to decide on the salary increment. Due to this, the salary hike was less afterwards and now the MSRTC staffers get almost 50 per cent less salary than government staffers,” said Mukesh Tigote, a union leader from the Congress.

Tigote further said that government employees get several allowances like washing allowance, dearness allowance, housing allowance and travel allowance, unlike the MSRTC employees. In absence of these allowances, salaries of the corporation, workers are far less than the government staffers.

Medical facilities and other benefits are also not available to corporation employees. As a result, the striking employees demand that the corporation be merged with the government so that they would get the same benefits and status of state government employees.

“This is the strike of staffers and not of any union or political party. I joined the corporation in 2012 and would get a salary of Rs 15,000. Now, even after nine years, I am getting the same salary. It’s not even sufficient for household expenses. We get only Rs 2,500-4,000 in pension after retirement. Imagine how would an elderly person would survive with this income, and after doing so much hard work,” said Ratnakar Kolambe, a conductor working with the Thane depot.

Though the government is not openly commenting on the merger demand, stating that the matter is in the court, sources in the government have indicated that a merger is not possible as it may set a precedent for all the loss-making corporations, and it would also put a lot of financial burden on the government.

Earlier, during the BJP-Shiv Sena government, the demand for the merger was raised, but the then state Finance Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar was seen saying in a video that the merger is not possible as there is no such provision in the “law”.

However, during the current strike, several BJP leaders including former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, Pravin Darekar and other MLCs like Sadabhau Khot and Gopichand Padalkar have openly supported the strike. Padalkar and Khot actively participated in the strike to press for the workers’ demands but withdrew later after a meeting with state Transport Minister Anil Parab when the pay hike was announced.

The state government had alleged that the BJP has fuelled the strike for political benefit. The BJP has denied this.

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