April 01, 2020
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St Antony's Cross

His burdens are many: a broke treasury, an obdurate trade union bloc, detractors within and without his party…. Will popular support help the Kerala CM pull off his toughest act?

St Antony's Cross
St Antony's Cross
A.K. Antony is not an economic reformer of the Harvard Business School kind. But Kerala’s Congress chief minister with socialist moorings is riding on public support to bring fiscal discipline to a state neck-deep in debt. Antony kickstarted his revival package last month by cutting government expenditure—taking away leave encashment and snipping pension benefits from all state government employees. It was also decided that salaries for February and March will only be paid by the 15th of each month. All these moves led to 5.5 lakh employees going on an indefinite strike from February 6, throwing the government machinery and schools out of gear.

Given Kerala’s tradition of supporting the worker against the state, the non-gazetted officers union (ngo union) should have normally garnered much public sympathy. Instead, the man on the street who has tired of the harassment he is put through by the babus at collec-torates and taluk offices is supportive of the government move. The strike has also led to garbage piling up on the streets, leaving citizens further incensed. That public sentiment is not with the employees is very perceptible. Admits K.N.K. Nambudiri of the CPI, who is also general secretary, Joint Council of State Service Organisations: "This something we have been discussing. People do have a poor perception of government employees. The feeling has always been there historically because they see us as instruments of the state. But we are trying to change that view."

So even as the ngo union and the dyfi—the student wing of the cpi(m)—held rallies, there have been counter-rallies in Thiruvananthapuram and other district towns. On February 18, Gandhian and freedom fighter K.E. Mammen held a protest outside the secretariat, asking the employees to go back to work and teachers to return to school. Mammen’s message was that the secretariat should not be made into a battleground. Meanwhile, the business community has been cooperating with Antony by filing sales tax in two nationalised banks. Already, Rs 315 crore has been deposited this month against the target of Rs 360 crore, which the finance department says will be achieved.

Support has come to Antony from the church as well. Cardinal Mar Varkey Vithayathil in the pastoral letter to the churches of Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese noted: "People of all walks of life must cooperate. Certain sections enjoying privileges like high salaries going on strike is not fair." The Indian Farmers Movement has also come out against the strike. Says Father Mathew Vadakkemuri, its national convenor: "Our position is that the employees must return to work. The state is facing a financial crisis. The employees must understand this. At a time when farmers and other sections of society are being threatened, they should make some sacrifices."

The CPI(M) state secretary, Pinarayi Vijayan, proffers the defence that his party hasn’t called the strike. But the cpi(m) would support it since the employees are fighting for a "just cause". However, Left leaders have attacked Antony for refusing to initiate a dialogue with the striking employees. Also, the chief minister has been accused of communalising the strike by calling Abdul Nasser Madani’s People’s Democratic Party to protest against the strike.

Those striking work say they should not be held responsible for the financial mess and be penalised for it. According to the unions, those hardest hit will be class three and four employees for whom any delay in salaries would mean they cannot make beginning-of-the-month purchases. There is also the view that Antony himself had earlier presided over governments which were partly responsible for the surplus staff problem in the government.

The net result of the strike has been that normal life has been thrown out of gear. In Shanghumukham, Thiruvananthapuram, K. Viswam, a headload worker, does not know much about economics but feels that with the coffers empty the state government may have had no option but to cut costs. "Government employees have all along been enjoying benefits. Go to a government office and you see the corruption. So if some benefits are withdrawn when the state has no money, they should not be complaining. After all, they at least get their salaries every month. There are lakhs who don’t even have work."

Adds Murali, an autorickshaw driver: "Because of the strike, we have very few passengers. Those working for the government should consider themselves lucky. If I don’t make Rs 100 then the auto owner will not hire it out to me tomorrow. True, they will lose some benefits but what can Antony do if the government is bankrupt? At least they are not losing out 12 months’ salary in a year."

Going by official figures, there are 44 lakh unemployed youth in the state. With industrial development near-zero and investments not coming in, job opportunities have virtually dried up. Even traditional industries like coir, cashew, fisheries and handlooms are going through a rough patch. So desperate is the situation that in Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi, graduates are willing to do secretarial work in offices at less than minimum wage. Says Antony: "During the government strike, when we called for applications for temporary workers for cleaning garbage on daily wages of Rs 80, thousands of degree- and double degree-holders queued up before the collectorates. Such is the pitiable condition of the younger generation of Kerala."

It is because of the rising unemployment that the government employee is seen as being part of a privileged and lucky class. And Antony has been playing up the fact that he is sacking nobody but only asking for a few sacrifices for the larger good of the state. He has also been saying that many schemes for farmers and public works have been stalled because of the financial crunch and that only an economic revival could retrieve the situation.

One fact that has upset many is the closure of government and government-aided schools. It is the poor who send their children to such institutions while the rich attend private schools and convents. In schools we surveyed in Thiruvananthapuram district, there were complaints from parents. At one school in Vattiyurkavu, this graffito had appeared on the walls: "Are you teachers or are you killing education?" One parent, Sudha, stood outside the school with her two sons. "What future will these kids have if there are no teachers? The school must open. The strike must be settled."

Education is a very sensitive issue for the average Keralite and closure of schools seems to be the key reason for the public angst. In fact, during the first days of the strike, parents and local residents even tried their hand at teaching. Says K.P. Kannan, social scientist at the Centre for Development Studies: "The poor image that people have of government employees comes from their own experience of dealing with them when they go to government offices or to the electricity board office. Perhaps there is no empathy for the strike because of the closure of schools. The perception is that while the government employee often sends his or her children to private schools, the schools for the poor have remained unattended."

The chief minister has been selling his cost-cutting measures as the only option left when the state treasury is broke. No one is in disagreement with him that the state’s finances are in a mess. With a salary bill of Rs 5,018 crore and an accumulated debt of Rs 25,241 crore, there is very little the state could do other than trim government expenditure. Even paying salaries every month would mean borrowing from external sources. Says principal secretary Gopal Krishna Pillai: "Cost-cutting had to be done and we have done it across the board. We have scrapped the number of secretaries and senior police officials and engineers. We started at the top. I know many senior officers who have lost out on their leave encashment. The finances are in such bad shape that something had to be done. Over the next few years, we have to downsize by at least 20 per cent."

While the cumulative effort of paying salaries for an overweight government establishment and paying off interests on loans has led to the current crisis, it has had a serious impact on developmental projects in the state. Thus, when the Antony government took over, Rs 820 crore was pending to contractors and arrears under the noon-meal programme was Rs 101 crore. The new government was left with a total unpaid bill of Rs 6,000 crore.

Many public works have been put on hold due to the lack of funds. Others because contractors, aware of delayed payments, were quoting far too high. Various welfare schemes have also not taken off because of lack of finance. According to Pillai, of late the entire effort of the government at the beginning of each month has been to pay salaries which eats up 70 per cent of the state revenue. "The first week of the month, the government pays salaries. The rest of the month it tries to arrange funds for the next month’s salary," remarks Pillai.

According to bureaucrats, the strength of employees on the rolls of the government has grown out of proportion because successive governments set up projects for which staff was recruited. Once these projects were completed, the employees were not relocated. Thus they continued receiving salaries without work. A classic case cited is that of when the government introduced the Plus Two scheme in schools in 1999-2000 to replace the pre-degree system in colleges. No effort was made to redeploy the 5,000 pre-degree teachers to schools. They are idling in colleges where there are no pre-degree students to teach! But their salaries are protected. Says Antony: "Our plan is to redeploy all staff without work. There are now 80,000 government employees at various levels who are idling. We will be relocating them, not sacking them. Is that a crime?"

The greatest resistance to Antony’s austerity drive comes from politicians. There have been bickerings even from within the Congress. Antony’s arch rival K. Karunakaran was first off the block. "Isn’t it a disgrace to say over and over again that the government has no money? Isn’t it more disgraceful for a CM to tell the people that it is because of Vajpayee’s benevolence that salaries are being paid?" According to Karunakaran, he had proved during his tenure as chief minister that strikes could be resolved without hurting anyone. The Congress trade union, intuc, is also in the strike and Antony detractors, including the BJP, say the prolonging of the strike is a sign of administrative failure.

With neither Antony nor the ngo union willing to yield, an end to the strike does not seem immediate. The only assurance Antony is willing to give is that he is ready to consider reinstating the benefits when the fiscal situation improves. But that seems a far way off right now.

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