Telangana should have handled the transport workers’ strike more sensitively

Even as the transport workers strike in Telangana reached its eleventh day on Tuesday — it began after talks broke down with the government — there has been little by way of official communication to negotiate a solution. Two workers lost their lives to suicide, which was attempted by a few others as well, following the peremptory “dismissal” of 48,800 striking workers of the Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC) more than a week ago. The striking workers were “dismissed” for failing to turn up to work before a government deadline. Their main demand has been the merging of the loss-making TSRTC as a government department, which the government has been loath to concede. The enterprise of public transport in most urban centres in India has been a difficult proposition economically today. This has been even more so in Telangana where bus transport has been beset by problems such as ageing fleets and high operational costs largely due to high fuel rates and subsidised fares. This has hurt operations and has also resulted in worker angst about a lack of adequate salaries. The government led by the Telangana Rashtra Samiti has been unwilling to take on the burden of operating the corporation under its aegis because of its losses, estimated to be ₹928 crore in FY2019 alone. Yet, to grease the wheels of a growing economy, a sustainable urban transport, in which road transport is a key component, is a must. This is possible only by modernisation such as the deployment of new buses, and identification of proper routes and services using information technology among other reforms. Without adequate State support, these reforms would not be possible and will force the operations of the TSRTC to remain within a vicious cycle of operating losses, cutbacks and poor services.

Instead of impressing upon the need for this modernisation to the workers and negotiating a solution, the TRS government has resorted to “dismissing” nearly the entire unit of TSRTC workers in what is clearly a legally suspect move that has been challenged in the Telangana High Court. Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao went on to not only justify the layoff as “self-dismissals”, but also took a hard-line position saying that these workers will not regain their jobs. These gestures have only intensified the struggle even as public transport in Hyderabad and other urban areas has been thrown into disarray. In public interest, the government should bring the striking unions back to the negotiating table. More importantly, the dismissals should be revoked to make the talks meaningful.