If one relies on the Indian national media, one would be forgiven to think there was calm in the state of Maharashtra, the reality is that a massive strike of transport workers is currently taking place, and it has paralyzed India’s richest state! 

By Adhiraj Bose – Mazdoor Inquilab – India

From the 27th of October, thousands of workers of the state-owned Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) went on strike. Out of 250 bus depots across the state, 225 have been shut as a result of the strike. The corporation employs 96000 employees across the state and caters to the transportation needs of 6.8 million people, including critical services which connect the countryside with the city. The strike, therefore, has had a crippling effect on the state, highlighting the importance of this service. 

The strike began on the 27th of October around four core demands i) hike of dearness allowance, ii) house rent allowance, iii) salary increment, and iv) merger of the corporation with the government, this would effectively make it a government service run from the transport ministry. 

The results of the demonstration on the 27th were immediate, and the government rushed to try and make peace with the workers. Three of the four demands were conceded, but the fourth demand, namely the merger of the corporation with the government was rejected. This was when the strike continued. It has been fifty days now, and the strike has not ceased in its momentum despite every effort of the government to break the strike. 

The background

Despite providing a critical service to the people of the state, the MSRTC has been run poorly, as is the case with most public sector undertakings, the bourgeois government is not interested in running it efficiently or profitably. The company has had long-standing debts amounting to Rs. 3,500 crore (35 billion rupees), and has been strained to pay their staff and employees. The pandemic made this situation worse, as recurrent lock-downs and suspension of public transportation piled up losses of several thousand crores. The Indian Express has reported that the present debt stands at 9,000 crore rupees (90 billion rupees). As a result, workers dues could not be paid, and many were down to their last penny. Salary payments were delayed, and many went hungry, 30 workers committed suicide under these conditions. 

Even after ‘normalization’, workers dues were not being paid, while living costs continued to skyrocket. The bus workers unions came together and called for a hunger strike on the 27th of October placing their four demands before the government.  i) hike of dearness allowance, ii) house rent allowance, iii) salary increment and iv) merger of the corporation with the government. The last demand was crucial for the workers, as it aimed at a lasting solution to the problems of the MSRTC. The government would be able to absorb the debt of the MSRTC and pave the way to pay the workers their long-pending salaries, as well as ensure the sustainability of the company. 

Thus, the workers left the negotiating table and would return to strike on the 3rd of November. As they did, the government turned its back on any more concessions and resorted to strike-breaking tactics. Mass arbitrary suspensions were carried out, aimed at coercing the workers to return to their jobs. So far 10,030 workers have been suspended as of 9th December, and about 2000 workers have been transferred following ‘disciplinary actions’. In Pune, private bus operators are supporting the government by providing buses. 

The industrial court had ruled in favour of the company, calling the strike illegal, and the High Court asked the unions to refrain from proceeding with the strike action. The workers, however, remained undeterred on the strike action. The strike is continuing with a majority of workers and depots remaining shut. 

The core issue of the strike 

The strike highlights how dysfunctional the bourgeois state is when it comes to public services. Public transport is an essential need of our time, no society can function in this day and age without proper mass transport. It is also an essential part of fighting global warming and creating sustainable systems. It is no surprise then, that the state is least interested in encouraging affordable mass transit. The Indian state is notorious for its mismanagement of public enterprises, even more so when it comes to the realm of transportation. After the turn towards neoliberalism in the 1980s and ’90s, there was a much greater impetus to encourage car ownership which led to road transport policies that favoured cars over public transport like buses or trains, even though Indian cities, with their narrow roads and old neighbourhoods, were singularly unfavourable for this kind of growth. 

The result was the establishment of weak, often dysfunctional public transportation, which had high costs, and limited reach, and the steady and rapid transformation of Indian cities into one of the most polluted in the world. It is telling that most major Indian cities did not have a mass transit system, and the mass transit systems which did exist (in the form of tram lines) were undone in all but one city, Calcutta. There too, successive governments favoured private buses and car centred transport policies, and now the trams are threatened with closure, while the metro rail, the country’s first, is overburdened. The condition of rail transport isn’t much better, with the Indian railways suffering losses, suffering from poor quality, and management. India’s rail system remains one of the most accident-prone in the world, and this is the transport that a vast majority of India’s population, its workers and peasants, uses for transport. 

This brings to light the other aspect of public enterprises under the bourgeoisie. While they are indispensable, they are never treated with the due respect they ought to get. Public enterprises suffer from bureaucratic corruption and mismanagement, often tailored to favour the capitalists. Weakening public transport directly benefits the lobbyists for private cars, and companies like Uber and Ola, which offer car rentals. It is the working class which suffers the most from this policy, as they are either forced to put themselves in debt to buy their own transport or rely on ramshackle public transport, which often fails them. 

The nationalization of public mass transit, as well as its steady improvement, is of essential importance. The capitalists and their puppets in power aren’t interested in it, the task must therefore fall on the workers themselves. As a start, we must make the government respect the transport worker, who struggles every day to ensure the transportation needs of the masses are met. 

Need for Solidarity! 

The transport sector is a very sensitive sector, as it is a jugular vein of the economy and one of great strategic value. A strike in such a sector is never easy, and opinion can easily turn against the striking workers, no matter how just their demands be. In such conditions, it is necessary that we arouse solidarity in support of the workers, both nationally and internationally. 

The state of Maharashtra is ruled by a coalition of opposition parties, including the Congress, the Shiv Sena and the regional party, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Despite their posturing against the reactionary BJP at the centre, when it came to the question of workers strikes, this government is no less vicious in suppressing it. We must counter this with support and solidarity, it is the only way we can defeat the machinations of the government. 

FULL SUPPORT TO THE MSRTC WORKERS! 

END THE SUSPENSIONS! NO MORE PUNITIVE ACTIONS! 

NATIONALIZE ALL PUBLIC TRANSPORT!

FREE TRANSPORTATION FOR ALL!

PAY THE WORKERS ARREARS NOW! 

Further reading : 

https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-msrtc-depots-shut-protest-strike-maharashtra-7612737/

https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/pune/pune-msrtc-staffers-demand-merger-refuse-to-end-strike/articleshow/87918258.cms

https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/mumbai-news/msrtc-strike-black-paint-thrown-on-maha-transport-minister-amil-parab-s-house-101637659717403.html

https://www.freepressjournal.in/mumbai/msrtc-strike-are-st-buses-running-in-maharashtra-heres-what-we-know-so-far

https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/pune-news/msrtc-strike-hits-day-50-process-for-dismissal-of-those-not-working-begins-101639758719044.html

https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/death-on-the-rails-indias-track-record/article20551287.ece

https://thewire.in/urban/if-the-bengal-govt-is-serious-about-electric-transport-why-is-it-killing-kolkata-trams