HYDERABAD: A piquant situation has developed in Telangana as 48,000 striking employees of the State Road Transport Corporation (RTC) have announced calling off their 48-day-old stir, but Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao is not ready to take them back into duties as he wants to revamp the ailing public transport undertaking by part-privatising it soon.

The joint action committee (JAC) of RTC employees announced on 19 November its decision to call off the strike and join duties if the government allows them to resume work. This decision came in the wake of the Telangana High Court throwing off its hands on a clutch of public interest litigation petitions before it for the last one month.

A bench of High Court comprising Chief Justice R.S. Chauhan and Justice A. Abhishek Reddy ruled on Tuesday that the issues that rose during the course of vexed dispute between the RTC employees and the management don’t come under their purview and a right forum to settle the matters was the labour court. The High Court directed the labour commissioner of the government to refer the matter to the labour court immediately.

The High Court has directed the labour court to settle within two weeks the issue of legality of the strike as well as the feasibility of around 45 demands of the JAC, an outfit representing dozens of trade unions in the RTC. In fact, the labour commissioner had earlier tried his hand at resolving the matter before 5 October, when the indefinite strike began.

At the time, the labour court had taken the position that the strike notice was illegal as the JAC had gone against the notification banning strikes in the RTC, which is a public service under the ESMA (Essential Commodities Maintenance Act). A reconciliation panel set up by the labour commissioner, too, couldn’t avert the strike two months ago.

It’s ironical that the High Court had again referred the matter to the same labour department which functions under the direct supervision of the state government. This order of the High Court has indeed come as a blow to the striking RTC employees who tried all forms of agitation activities in the last six weeks. So far, as many as 26 of them had died due to suicides or medical ailments triggered by mental depression.

Till now, the RTC employees have not received their September salaries as their strike started on 5 October (salaries are paid by 4th of every month, but this time, the payments were stopped due to the strike preparations by the management). The High Court which heard a plea on this last month directed the government to pay the salaries by October second week, but it was not implemented.

The reason for non-payment of September salaries (monthly salary bill of RTC is around Rs 175 crore) was lack of funds with the management. Sunil Sharma, RTC in-charge managing director and transport secretary, had told the court that the RTC currently had only around Rs 10 crore and it was not possible to pay the employees’ salaries.

A court room battle went on for four weeks and witnessed bitter arguments between the two sides—RTC employees and the management and the government—each blaming the other for the financial troubles of the corporation. Chief Secretary S.K. Joshi and Sunil Sharma appeared several times in the court, but no solution came out of the High Court hearings.

The High Court bench even offered to constitute a panel of three retired Supreme Court judges to find a lasting solution to the RTC strike. The JAC agreed to the panel, but the government had refused the proposal and maintained that the only appropriate forum to adjudicate the issue was the labour court. Finally, the High Court veered round to it and referred the matter to the labour court.

As soon as the High Court verdict was out at 5 pm on 19 November, the JAC leaders met and decided to call off their strike, in case the government was ready to take them back into duties. However, there was no word from the RTC management for next two days. On Thursday, after a review meeting with Chief Minister KCR, RTC said that it was not possible to take back the striking staff into duties immediately.

A press release from the Chief Minister’s office said that the RTC which was steeped in huge losses to a tune of around Rs 6,000 crore was not in a position to service the debt as well as payment of provident fund, salaries etc. “It is just impossible to run TSRTC (Telangana State RTC) in the present form,” the press release clarified.

The CM has decided to wait till High Court disposes of another petition before it on privatisation of 5,100 bus routes as per the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 2019 to take a final call on the strike. On Friday evening, the High Court cleared the decks for privatisation of these bus routes and dismissed all petitions filed against the government’s move.

Crestfallen over the Chief Minister’s stand, the RTC JAC on Friday announced that the strike would continue and had announced and agitation schedule for the next one week. But, the situation on the ground is pathetic as dozens of desperate RTC employees are waiting outside the bus depots and managers’ offices to join duties, but they were not allowed inside.

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