Employee unions of varying political affiliations went on strike on November 5, after the pay revisions had been delayed for far too long and even the unrevised salaries weren't coming in on time.

White and blue ksrtc buses lying amid grass, looking unused, in broad daylightKerala RTC buses no longer in use
news Transport Saturday, November 20, 2021 - 15:41
Written by  Cris

Prakash, a driver for the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation, was quick to act on that day in June 2019, when in the middle of a journey the bus he was driving caught on fire. The 50-year-old managed to get the passenger doors open, allowing the people inside to escape unhurt. But he could not get out himself, trapped as he was in his seat, getting burnt. By the time he was pulled out, Prakash had suffered 40% burns. Eighteen days later, he died. Four months before this incident, another Kerala RTC driver Saju Mathew, aged 40, had died of a cardiac arrest while he was on duty. But like Prakash, he showed incredible presence of mind and applied the brakes in time, saving the people on board, before collapsing. A year later, the driver and the conductor of another Kerala RTC  bus were among the 19 that died in a collision with a lorry in Tamil Nadu’s Avinashi.

All of them died while on duty, but no member of their family has been offered employment on compassionate grounds as the practice used to be. This is one of the demands of the aggrieved lot of employees of the Kerala RTC: to restart the practice of offering employment for relatives of those who die in harness. The other demands vary from pay hikes and timely pensions to putting back on the road the buses which were pulled off during the pandemic.

A strike broke out on November 5 after the pay revisions had been delayed for far too long and even the unrevised salaries weren't coming in on time. “The last pay revision was in 2011, that’s 10 years ago. Forget the salaries of the employees, even the old pensioners have to protest every time to get their monthly dues. On top of that they removed three thousand buses from service, affecting the jobs of so many,” says an employee. This was just the latest in a series of protests that the Kerala RTC employees have undertaken over the last couple of years.

Strike by employees on November 5

The November 5 strike, that took place in Kerala, involved all the trade unions affiliated to various political parties – the Congress’s Transport Democratic Federation (TDF) affiliated to the INTUC, the CPI’s All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the CPI(M)’s Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and the BJP’s Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS). The TDF continued the strike for another day on November 6.

“The transport minister (Antony Raju) had then claimed that we did not even give 24 hours notice before the strike. Now so many days have passed after the strike and there has still been no action. We have waited for five and half years (when the last pay revision should have taken place), we can’t wait anymore,” says R Shashidharan, TDF’s state president.

The employees draw a basic pay of Rs 8,390 per month and they’d like it to go up to Rs 23,700 a month, considering two pay revisions should have happened since the last one in 2011. They are also unhappy that so many buses (an estimated 2,885 out of 6,185) were suddenly pulled off service amid the COVID-19 pandemic. At least 7,090 employees were counted as surplus and lost jobs, says a report titled ‘How long will we have Kerala RTC’, prepared by a retired official.

“They give the excuse that people are not keen to travel on buses during COVID-19, so we don’t need so many of them running now. But at least five employees work on a bus and if they take so many buses off the road, that many employees would lose their jobs and income,” says an employee.

Buses taken off roads

The report also questions the propriety of the government paying employees of other departments on time, while stalling the RTC workers’ salaries. The Kerala RTC’s losses stand at Rs 10.9K crore while the debts amount to another Rs 8,166 crore. How long will it run like this, questions the report.

“The government pays both the working employees (26,000 in number) and more than 41,000 pensioners. Till last month this was Rs 150 crore per month, from the next it will be Rs 130 crore. Besides this, the Kerala RTC is supposed to pay Rs 1.02 crore every day against the Rs 3,100 crore loan it has taken from various banks. How can a government paying so much, take on an additional amount of Rs 30 crore per month (that will be required after the pay rise), especially after a resource crunch from repetitive floods and a pandemic? Though I do honestly think they are totally in the right in their demands, and I hope a pay revision shall be made before the end of the year,” says Biju Prabhakar, chairman and managing director (CMD) of Kerala State Road Transport Corporation and secretary of the Transport Department.

But the collection has been very poor, he says, quoting the amounts over the past few months. “After restarting the service in June, we got Rs 21 crore that month, Rs 47 crore in July, Rs 76 crore in August, Rs 81.05 crore in September, and Rs 109 crore in October. But in this time the price of diesel, which was hovering around Rs 50-55 (per litre) before COVID-19 rose to Rs 103 and now it is Rs 93. So, from the amount that we collect, a good percent goes towards fuel, and then we need to spend on spare parts, tires and so on. So already about 75% of what you make is wiped out. It is from the remaining amount that the salaries, the pensions and the debts are paid,” Biju adds.

Among his remedies to deal with the crisis is laying off employees. Biju says it has been overstaffed as every successive government hires 6,000 employees for every thousand buses bought. He further calls for digitisation, cutting down on overheads (by bringing 100 establishments down to 14, one for each district), and hiring more “professionals”. The last suggested remedy has been deeply resented by employees as stated in the report. It questions the efficiency of putting the "so-called professionals" with little experience on the board while keeping away trade union members.

Watch: An employee speaks about the issues

The recommendation to hire professionals came from an expert committee led by Prof Sushil Khanna in 2019, which said that the middle-level management, made of conductors and drivers, should be scrapped and replaced by qualified individuals. After Biju Prabhakar joined in June 2020, the employee strength was reduced from 36,500 to 26,000, out of whom 6,500 are daily wage temporary staff, he says. Other changes are also happening, he says. “We are doing a massive behavioural change programme, training over a thousand people. As of now, there is not even a proper HR personnel at Kerala State Road Transport Corporation,” the CMD says.

But he agrees that the demand for pay revision is valid. Even Karnataka had implemented its pay revision in 2016 and Kerala, which is supposed to have one every five years, had not done it in 10 years. “Besides, the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation is a fully functional organisation. Whether it is making a profit or loss, it is running. After the first wave of COVID-19, the employees had waited patiently. The government has been making preparations since November 2020 and they thought it would resume service soon. When it got delayed, their demands rose too,” Biju Prabhakar says.

The employees will not wait too long before calling an indefinite strike, says Shashidharan. “All of the unions agree in principle for calling an indefinite strike. It doesn’t mean we will present a united front, our ideologies are still different. We will just come together for the cause of the workers,” he adds.

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