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Transport Unions Bring A Weak Government To Its Knees

Picture courtesy: PTI

Fractures in Tamil Nadu’s ruling party means fractures in their labour unions and a united opposition takes the opportunity to bring Chennai to a grinding halt

It is Day 4 of a seemingly unrelenting transport strike in Tamil Nadu. The working class and the poor are getting desperate.

Autorickshaw drivers, sniffing an opportunity, are charging at least double the usually inflated fares. The minimum asking rate, even for a short distance, is Rs 100. Share autos too are fleecing their passengers – a 3 kilometre ride from Ashok Nagar to T Nagar in Chennai which earlier cost Rs 15 is now available at Rs 30. These autos have also begun to extend their routes to the distant suburbs as state-owned buses have not been plying since the evening of January 04.

“I need to travel to Porur from Ashok Pillar,” said R Ganesamoorthy, a regular bus commuter. “The news channels stated that half the buses would ply and I managed to get a bus in the morning so I came to work. Now I need to go back home. I have been sitting at the bus stop for 2 hours and I am yet to get a bus,” he lamented.

Ganesamoorthy says share autos are not an option for him as the hiked rates are pinching his pocket hard. “They are asking for Rs 50 from here to St Thomas Mount (6.5 km). This sudden bus strike has affected a lot of us badly.”

Ola and Uber too are making hay while the sun shines. Due to a sudden and huge spike in demand, peak fare pricing has kicked in and rates are now double and sometimes triple their usual fare, throughout the day and night in Chennai city.

K Lalitha works at Guindy’s Industrial Estate and needs to head from Ambal Nagar near her workplace to Guindy railway station so she can catch a train home to Tambaram. “We asked for leave at our office since there were no buses available. But our company said they will withhold a day’s pay if we did not come in. I will lose Rs 300 if they do that. But half of that amount is going into just traveling by share autos. I have been waiting for an hour hoping to catch a bus but no luck,” she said.

With the harvest festival of Pongal (January 15) round the corner, private interstate and intra-state buses have hiked fares as they do annually. In districts outside of Chennai where private town buses ply, the rates on their regular routes have doubled. Many of these private buses have also taken on the routes plied by government buses – effectively bringing down the number of services within the interiors of districts.

What The Strike Is About

As per the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation (TNSTC), there are 23,000 buses plying across the state. 70% of these have hit the brakes since January 04. In Chennai alone, 90% of over 3000 buses of the state-owned Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) are standing still.

The demand of unions is for a salary hike for bus drivers, conductors and other staff. Provident fund benefits worth Rs 700 crores due to retired TNSTC employees over the past 2 years have not been paid by the government, claim the protesting unions. “Talks have been going on for the past 2 years for getting the benefits due to the retired staff,” said M Shanmugam, General Secretary of the Labour Progressive Federation (LPF), a union affiliated to the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). “In the last round of talks with the government, we were told that all the pending dues would be cleared by the end of September 2017. On January 04, the government called in only those unions which were supporting the government, held talks and said they needed some time to pay the pending dues. We have been demanding 2.57 times hike on basic salary across all grades. But the government has fixed a hike of 2.44 times and got this figure approved by those select unions. The government should not have held talks without the majority of the unions. That is why we have been forced to strike work.”

Fractured Unions

On January 06, in Gobichettipalayam near Erode, a strange sight met the eyes of commuters waiting at the bus stand. Driver SS Sivakumar pulled on a helmet, got into the bus and began the drive from Gobichettipalayam to Coimbatore. “I am not participating in the strike,” he said to The Lede. “I do not want the public to be affected, so I am taking the bus out. My colleagues have threatened me saying I might get pelted with stones along the way by the protesters. So I am wearing this helmet to protect myself,” he said.

Bus driver in Gobichettipalayam wears a helmet to work)

A day before Sivakumar donned his helmet, Andhiyoor bus stand in Erode district witnessed another spectacle. The local MLA Rajakrishnan jumped into the driver’s seat of a bus and drove his constituency’s passengers from Andhiyoor to Bhavani on the request of the people there. While this incident created a flutter, subsequent inquiries by the police revealed that the MLA in fact was in possession of a valid heavy vehicle licence.

Despite such stray incidents, the striking workers are unrelenting and the state is paralysed. Strikes are not new to the state. Even in 2017 when labour unions affiliated to the opposition DMK, Left parties and Congress have struck work for other reasons, the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has managed to ply at least 70% of the buses, using its own labour union, the Anna Thozhirsangam (Anna Trade Union).

But this time, the ruling party’s union itself is split. “Usually whichever party is in power, their labour unions will have more members. But now due to political uncertainty, our own members are refusing to work. The demands being made are also our own demands, there is no dispute over that. Another problem is that when our union members try to take the buses out, the other unions do not allow them. That is why this time, the strike is big,” said R Chinnasamy, General Secretary of the Anna Trade Union to The Lede.

“At the same time, no government has ever given in completely to all our demands – whether it is the DMK government or the AIADMK government. This 2.44 times is the highest salary hike in the history of the Transport Corporation. But still, the 14 unions out of 33 are not ready to accept, although the difference between our demand and what the government has agreed to is very small. The DMK is behind this strike and they want to paralyse the state, make the public angry and cause problems to the government,” he said.

The DMK’s LPF, the CPM’s CITU and the Congress’ AITUC comprise the other three major unions in the state apart from the AIADMK’s Anna Trade Union. All of these have come together and are standing firm despite the government’s pleas.

“The Transport Corporation has taken the money (Rs 700 crore) from our retired employees and spent it,” A Soundararajan, State President, CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) told The Lede. “Now they are asking for time to return the money. If a conductor takes a day’s collections and tells the government that he has used it for his personal needs and requests time to return the money, will the government accept it? We are asking for what is rightfully ours.”

The Government Dithers

The Madras High Court, on January 05, ordered the striking transport employees to return to work. Failing this, the Court told the government to take necessary action against them. These observations were made while hearing a PIL opposing the strike.

“We are taking steps to ply the buses using temporary drivers so that commuters are not affected,” state Transport Minister MR Vijay Bhaskar told The Lede. “60-70% of the buses are now in operation. It is unacceptable for the workers to continue striking. If they do not return to work immediately, we will take strict action,” he said.

But the striking unions have decided to intensify the protests from Monday, January 08. The CPM has announced statewide protests in support of striking transport workers on Monday.

Political watchers feel that Tamil Nadu is witnessing the consequences of a weak and unpopular government. “This government does not need any outside attacks to topple it. It will topple itself thanks to its poor governance,” said Gnani Sankaran, author and political analyst.

With the state Assembly all set to convene on Monday, the ruling party is likely to face intense opposition and attacks over the transport strike.

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