Privatisation Takes Off!

Labour Rights Crashland!

To call it a victory is a self-deception. Rather, it's a sellout, total and shameless. The strike by the workers of airports not only aired the demand for job security but also articulated the demand for a halt to privatisation of airports. The powerful demand of the workers should have ended either in a halt to privatisation or with the opportunist Left's withdrawal of support to the Congress-led UPA government. But, the Left has made a retreat, a shameful retreat indeed. The government invoked ESMA against airport workers' strike but the airport workers launched their struggle undeterred by this and braving police lathis. The central government employees made the Manmohan Government bow down to their demand for a Sixth Pay Commission by issuing a strike notice. If the Left unions had called for a nationwide strike in solidarity with the struggling airport workers, then the government might have bowed down in this case also.

The bourgeois media greeted the Prime Minister for having a 'spine', for having 'won a key battle with the Left' on the issue of airport privatisation. It was a key battle because the UPA has declared that it will not compromise its class interests. It is the beginning of a forthcoming, hitherto stalled, series of sellouts of profit-making PSUs. It's a warning to the Left not to cross the 'Lakshman Rekha' drawn by the multinational and monopoly corporate houses. It's an advice to the Left to confine itself to taking few pennies more through pay commissions and agreements leaving the policies untouched. It's a message, 'This far and no further'. It is not surprising when an analyst called it a 'turning point' saying that the 'The Left is on the back foot. Congress has stared it down and made it blink'. Compromised are the working class interests.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharya promptly apologized to the domestic and multinational capital for the inconvenience caused as a result of the strike. Ironically, the trade union calls it a victory because it has managed to convert the oral assurance given by the minister into a written form. The Left could secure even this insignificant assurance only after striking work for four days. It has neither succeeded in halting privatization nor in arriving at any worthy face-saving formula but for the so-called job security that had already been promised before the strike. Some analysts even question the terms of reference for the tripartite committee that will 'look into the issues and proposals of modernisation of airports by the AAI and employment-related issues, including job security' in the future. They even question the claim of victory of the demand for job security as it is not actually settled but for a reference to the tripartite committee. The committee is to be composed of government officials, representatives of the state-owned Airport Authority of India (AAI) and the Joint Forum of AAI employees' unions. Even the claim of job security is yet to be validated.

The Left boasts that they were able to cut down the percentage of foreign capital from the proposed 74 percent to 49 percent. This reduction does not make much difference as the foreign capital can still maintain its supreme position by the mere fact that it will be the single largest stake holder in the company while domestic corporate house would have 26 percent and the present sole proprietor AAI would own only 25 percent. AAI cannot claim any effective control over the foreign player who would be economically and politically dominant and the role of AAI would be reduced to a junior player.

Airport consortiums GMR-Fraport ( Frankfurt based) and GVK-ACSA (Airport Consortium of South Africa) have assured the government that 60 percent of the workforce would be absorbed while the rest would be sent back to the AAI after initial three years of modernization project. All said and done, it is also very clear that the fate of 40 percent of employees of Delhi and Mumbai airports is uncertain in reality.

The airports would be leased out to the companies for 30 years and would be further extended for another 30 years. In fact, out of total 125 airports in the country, Delhi and Mumbai airports alone provide more than 65 percent of total revenue earned in the sector by the government. A major part of privatisation would be over when these two airports are handed over to the private sector. The most lucrative sections of the airport business are being awarded on a platter to the private and multinational companies and this will end the monopoly and control of the government in the key sector that concerns the national security.

The Left is keen in proposing Cochin airport, a joint venture company as a model. In this sense, they have made it amply clear that their opposition to privatisation is only a rhetoric that can play politics, well within the framework of politics of globalisation. The protest by the Left was the weakest in the face of a stern refusal by none other than the Prime Minister himself to reverse the privatisation of airports. The dilemma of the Left was very much obvious in the whole process. Any keen observer can easily make out that the actual demand by the Left in contrast to that of the struggling workers who braved lathis and all sorts of harassment was not against privatisation. Still, they had to raise so much noise mainly in the context of the ensuing assembly elections in the states of West Bengal and Kerala where they had to confront the very same Congress that they support at the centre. The airport strike that was expected to be a morale booster for the Left in the coming elections turned out to be a damp squib.

The UPA government is much faster and ruthless in implementation of anti-workers agenda. It is unhesitant to implement even the agendas that were kept at the backburner by the BJP-led NDA government during its tenure. The project of airport privatisation was originally conceived by the NDA and was shelved in the face of rising protests. The agenda is expeditiously and ruthlessly implemented by the present UPA dispensation at the centre, ironically with full backing of the Left.

Tail Piece: The CPI(M) is opposed to inclusion of opposition to Kolkata airport privatisationin the LF manifesto for the polls. Differences have cropped up between the CPI and the CPI(M) over this issue. ( The Hindu, 24-2-2006 )