On Monday, several Telangana State Road Transport Corporation union leaders were taken into custody briefly and the state government stands accused of attempting to weaken the unions. Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao’s threat to sack close to 50,000 RTC staff did not help rein in the agitating staff but instead ensured that opposition parties also extend support to the RTC employees.
As the crisis shows no sign of abating, the question arises if the state government misread the resolve of the unions to carry on with the strike this time around.
Trouble began for the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) when friendly neighbour and Andhra CM Jagan Mohan Reddy decided to give 52,000 APSRTC employees status on par with state government employees. The announcement in Andhra Pradesh has become a headache for KCR with almost all unions, even those considered friendly to the TRS, joining the strike.
The unions, representing 50,000 odd employees of the RTC, are all of the view that all promises made by KCR to the employees before Telangana attained statehood have not been fulfilled. The unions allege that not only has KCR forgotten the promises made to the RTC employees, but that he has chosen to neglect the corporation after coming to power in 2014.
The unions say that the demand for merging RTC with the state government was a promise made by KCR during the Telangana statehood agitation. Another unkept promise was to give TSRTC employees (then part of the APSRTC) wages at par with that of central government employees. After coming to power, KCR would often direct the GHMC to bail out the TSRTC, but the payments rarely came. Though KCR has time and again talked about taking steps to pull RTC out of a financial crisis, it never materialised.
The unions have, in the past, made similar calls for a strike, but the issue would always end with a compromise. This time, the call for strike made in September fell on deaf ears. Sources with the labour department told TNM that the RTC management misplaced the strike notice issued by the unions, causing a delay in response.
Preliminary talks between stakeholders that should have happened through September took place just 48 hours before October 5, the day the statewide strike was set to begin. The lack of response from the CMO, the transport ministry and the RTC management upset the staff, and the rushed talks held between the unions and a state government-appointed committee also failed.
The unions have made a total of 26 demands to the state government, but the state government has sought more time. This was a move the unions considered a delay tactic to get through the festival season when there is a higher demand.
While the demand to merge TSRTC with the state government is only one of 26 demands being made by the unions, most of their demands are focussed on means to make RTC profitable.
What the unions want
The unions are demanding that the state government repay pending dues to the RTC in the form of special services extended to the state government. Besides, they want the state to scrap the Motor Vehicles tax, help reduce the burden of diesel costs, allocate 1% of the state budget for the TSRTC to strengthen the corporation and release the budget for the corporation on time.
The employees are also seeking a salary hike, as their last hike was in 2017. They have also demanded new buses, vacancies to be filled, basic job security and maternity benefits for women. TSRTC employees have said that they want the state to consider the RTC as a public service rather than as a profit-making entity.
Telangana transport minister P Ajay Reddy has had very little role to play in trying to resolve the crisis. The minister reportedly told the unions leaders that any decision on RTC will be taken by KCR.
How KCR responded
KCR responded to the TSRTC employees by verbally sacking nearly 50,000 of them on Sunday.
The CM had reportedly said there was no question of reinstating those who did not report for duty by 6 pm on Saturday — the deadline given by the state government. As of Sunday, only 1,200 RTC employees showed up for work, and the CM intends to now fill the 'vacant posts'. KCR has appointed a committee to develop a public-private partnership model to operate TSRTC. A move that has angered the unions further. The unions have even dared the CM to issue an order sacking them, and that they would challenge any such order in court.
On Monday, unions across the state began protests before bus depots. Police were deployed at various key depots to prevent protests. In Hyderabad, the unions attempted to protest at Dharna Chowk despite not receiving permission from the police, and a few of the RTC union leaders were taken into preventive custody.
Speaking to the media while being detained, TSRTC JAC Chairman Ashwathama Reddy said, “Till yesterday (Sunday), we fought for the protection of TSRTC. Now we are fighting for the protection of democracy. We urge the people of the state to see this high-handedness by the government and support our cause.”
“KCR became CM because of the sacrifices of the TSRTC labourers. Now, we are not allowed to visit the martyrs’ memorial,” he added.
The unions, for now, appear to be firm on their demands and have received backing from opposition parties like the Congress and BJP.