The strike has exacted a large cost from the public, which has found transport options greatly shrunken, and some TSRTC employees even committed suicide in protest.
Governments have typically yielded when held to ransom by trade unions. It hasn’t been too different for the present dispensation at the Centre—be it in the matter of EPFO, where unions stonewalled the plan to allow provident fund subscribers to switch to NPS, or the coal sector employees’ delaying entry of private sector in commercial mining. Given how trade unions have slowed the reforms process—as governments put political and electoral considerations before sound policy—it is refreshing that the Telangana government, led by K Chandrashekar Rao, didn’t blink as employees of the Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC) went on a strike demanding, among other things, that the loss-making TSRTC be taken over by the state transport department and they be given pay hikes. The state government had made it clear early on that it wouldn’t allow such blackmail—indeed, Rao had given the employees an ultimatum, to join work before November 5 or face dismissal—and took swift action to deflate the unions’ threat. So, even though this meant only a small fraction of the 10,000 TSRTC buses was plying the streets during the strike, and this was during the festival season, the Telangana government dismissed the striking employees when the deadline to join passed; instead, it ordered quick hiring of replacement staff, and even hiring of private operators to run TSRTC’s fleet operations.
To be sure, the strike has exacted a large cost from the public, which has found transport options greatly shrunken, and some TSRTC employees even committed suicide in protest. But, at a time when the protest by Honda employees has caused a production loss of 70,000 units, such an unbending stand was perhaps necessary. This is not to paint the Telangana government as blameless; indeed, the TSRTC’s losses are of its own making. Apart from forcing TSRTC to subsidise transport—subsidies totalled Rs 526 crore in 2015-16—it even made transport free for certain categories of commuters. As losses built, the corporation was stranded for funds to upgrade infrastructure, with the state government looking the other way. A report on finances of state road transport corporations from 2015-16 shows that TSRTC, despite being one of the better performing road transport corporations, had employee costs that were 50% of its total revenue. With a staff per bus ratio lower than most states, this would suggest that TSRTC employees are perhaps also paid better than peers in other states. Rao, there is no denying, did right by not allowing the TSRTC employees to prod him into taking economically irresponsible decisions and throw good money after bad, but it would have been even better if his government had taken timely decisions on, say, fare hikes and infrastructure upgrades.