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48,000 Jobless Telangana Transport Workers Feel They've Been Thrown Under the Bus But KCR Unmoved

48,000 Jobless Telangana Transport Workers Feel They've Been Thrown Under the Bus But KCR Unmoved

Rumours that the corporation could be privatised grew stronger after the chief minister said that the RTC is bankrupt and the strike by workers demanding the bus transport service be merged with the government will put an end to the entity.

Bus driver Venkateshwarlu allegedly committed suicide this weekend by consuming poison. While the death of the Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC) worker in Nalgonda district on Saturday is being linked to spiralling protests over a government order to sack about 48,000 employees, police are yet to confirm the nature of the case.

Venkateshwarlu’s isn’t an isolated incident. The strike and demonstrations have intensified after a few workers, who lost their jobs, allegedly committed suicide, or died of shock. More than half-a-dozen such cases have been reported over the past three weeks. On Monday, reports came in that a female conductor had hanged herself in Khammam district, prompting another burst of protests.

A meeting on Saturday between the administration and protesters, with hopes of reaching the middle ground, turned futile with neither side ready to budge from its position.

“They snatched away our phones when we went in. They clearly told us discussions will happen only on 21 demands. But we have 26 demands which includes a merger. Why are discussions not happening on all 26 demands? We walked out,” said Ashwathama Reddy, convener of the Joint Action Committee (unions’ group).

It all started on October 5, when TSRTC workers issued a strike call with a set of 26 demands – including job security, salary hike, maternity leave for women, etc. But, the most important one was merging the corporation with the government.

Two days into the strike, about 48,000 corporation employees were jobless. They were sacked, or rather dismissed’, as per the chief minister’s office, for not reporting to work within the given time and also for disrupting services during the festive season when lakhs of people use RTC buses to travel to their hometowns.

The transport corporation has existed for over years, before the creation of Telangana in 2014 and in the times of undivided Andhra Pradesh. The service, which runs buses within capital city Hyderabad and also other parts of the state, is the cheapest mode of travel available for the middle class and underprivileged. Another sector of people heavily dependent on the bus service are students, who can get annual passes for as little as thirty rupees. Girls, studying in classes below 10th, can avail a free pass.

The corporation has for long been stuck in a quagmire of losses. In a recent meeting, chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao, popularly known as KCR, said that the TSRTC has been incurring a loss of Rs 100 crore every month and Rs 1,200 crore every year with outstanding loans of about 5,000 crore rupees.

And merging the corporation would transfer the burden of losses to the government. KCR had also called the demand irrational, saying that if the TSRTC were merged with the government, 57 other corporations would make similar demands.

The Andhra precedent

The chief minister, in a recent press meet, blamed the leaders of the transport unions for the situation. He had mentioned at the time that the other “21 demands” would be explored by the committee, except the one for a merger.

The unions, however, had said that there was no scope for a compromise. The primary reason why the protesters have been pushing for the merger is to avail benefits on par with those offered to government employees, and job security.

Another demand is pay hike. In a recent media briefing, KCR had also said that the corporation employees were given a 44 per cent hike after he took over as chief minister. Later, 14 per cent interim relief too was granted. “No RTC in the country has hiked employees’ salaries by 67 per cent in just four years,” he said.

Neighbouring state Andhra Pradesh recently announced its decision to merge the road transport corporation with the government, which fueled a similar demand in Telangana.

“The merger demand has been there for a very long time, but the RTC was never so adamant about it. It was just a proposal. But now, since Andhra has done it, Telangana RTC workers are strongly hoping and fighting for the same here,” Prakash Rao Gone, former RTC chairman, told News18.

According to Rao, the merger demand is impractical with such losses. However, he said that the RTC is the government’s responsibility. “Unions should understand that a merger will never be done. If they’re serious, they can strongly fight for all other demands, which are possible. “Rao said.

He also added that blaming the unions and employees for losses in the RTC is wrong. There are a lot of external factors such as increasing tax and higher diesel costs, which are hurting the corporation’s business, he said.

“The chief minister needs to understand that the RTC is a service for the people. Diesel costs are getting higher and still you want to run the fleet of 10,000 buses with same ticket rates. How will it work out for the RTC? The government does not want to increase RTC rates because it will have an impact on the public,” said Rao.

Political compulsions

According to some experts, increasing RTC ticket rates is quite tricky and could impact the government in the long run. “It’s a political decision. If the government increases RTC rates, then people will obviously be unhappy. So, they will not do it,” a source said to News18.

Calling the protests “useless”, the chief minister had said that the unions are doing these protests for their personal gains ahead of internal elections. KCR had also said that the employees were responsible for losing their jobs.

“If they were so worried about their families, they could have reported to duty instead of going on a strike. Did I ask them to go on a strike and lose jobs?” he said last week.

Analysts say the government did not handle the situation efficiently. “It is quite objectionable the way the government has handled it. This issue concerns people now. The government has to consider the people’s demands. It looks like an ego tussle between both parties. How many days will this go on for?” political analyst Nageshwar Rao said to News18.

Two weeks ago, Telangana governor Tamilisai Soundararajan had also requested the government and TSRTC management to make sure that the dispute does not lead to further inconvenience to people.

What’s the future of RTC?

Workers are unsettled after the chief minister’s recent statement that “there’s no future for RTC”.

Rumours that the corporation could be privatised grew stronger after KCR, at a press meet, said that the RTC is bankrupt and the ongoing strike will put an end to the corporation. “The result of the strike is that the old RTC will not be there: 1,000% it will not be there,” he said.

He claimed that the strike during the festival season resulted in losses between Rs 125 crore and Rs 150 crore to the RTC.

The government is already working on an option to have 20 per cent of the corporation under private management. However, KCR’s recent comments on TSRTC suggest that there is a possibility that a majority stake could be given to private players.

This would mean no job security for the transport corporation employees, and unregulated fares could be a burden on lakhs of people who depend on this mode of transport, say sources.

“Giving it to private dealer is not the solution. RTC is not a profit-making machine. It should be treated as a government hospital or a school, which are for the service of the people,” said Prakash Rao.

Put an end to unions and rejoin RTC, says KCR

To the 48,000 employees who are still jobless, the chief minister said they could rejoin the services. However, they would have to let go off their association with any union.

The corporation had also sent out notifications to recruit new employees to fill up the vacant positions. However, aspirants would have to give an undertaking that they will not be part of any unions.

“TRS (KCR’s party) has a trade union wing. Minister Srinivas Goud was part of unions. Harish Rao was president of Telangana Mazdoor Union. So, have things changed after he came to power for the second time? This is a democracy; he cannot try to kill unions.” Nageshwar Rao said.