Defeat the Dark Designs of Corporatisation in Power Sector: Maharashtra Electricity Workers Strike

Defeat the Dark Designs of Corporatisation in Power Sector:

Maharashtra Electricity Workers Strike

Ajit Patil

The electricity sector in the Indian economy was one of the sectors identified for neo-liberal reforms - globalisation, liberalization and privatization, unleashed in 1991. Since then, the central and state governments have started implementing privatization in this sector. The electricity generation sector was the first to come under the hammer.

Under the Electricity Act, 2003, most of the State Electricity Boards (SEB) were dismantled and trifurcated into three separate companies for generation, transmission and distribution. The aim was to weaken the unions on the one hand and to facilitate the entry of corporates in the profitable segments of electricity generation and distribution on the other. Also, this was to link back to back the corporate usurpation of the natural resources - water and coal, which belong to people and to draw the international and national corporates into nuclear power generation.

This attack on the public sector unit sharpened after the BJP came to power at the centre and in various states. From 2014, the union government has been pushing further the “reforms” in the sector by amending the Electricity Act. All such “reforms” have been retrogressive and, in reality, were attacks on the working class and the common people. They really mean handing over of the resources and public property for a pittance to the corporates through bank finance - a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, as the Oxfam report has revealed. All of this by taxing the poor, waiving off the bank loans and increasing the prices of the services for the users while reducing the taxes for the rich and corporates.

Farmers Opposition to Electricity Act Amendment

The farmers waged a valiant struggle against the Electricity Act amendment by the union government. In order to end the farmers agitation before the polls, the Modi government repealed the three anti-farmer bills and promised to rethink about the Electricity Act. However, the Modi government is going ahead in implementing the agenda of the three bills and the amendment of Electricity Act through the back door and going back on its promises.

The Corporates Want “their” Pound of Flesh Now!

The corporates are pressing hard for passing the Electricity Amendment Bill, 2022. This will facilitate the privatization / corporatization of the distribution network. Two major corporate cronies Tata and Adani, and Torrent concern from Gujarat are very keen on this. Hence, the governments are on a spree to privatise by adopting back door methods without even waiting for the Bill to be passed. Through the pressure of the farmers and the electricity workers fight against the move, the Bill has been sent to the select committee with a BJP MP as chairperson.

Expanding Corporate Network

The struggle has now reached the most industrialised state Maharashtra, which has followed the neo-liberal path under successive governments. The MSEB has been trifurcated in 2005 itself. Tata has stakes in hydro power and thermal power. Anil Ambani’s thermal power plant at Dahanu has been taken over by Adani Power with distribution rights in the western suburbs of Mumbai. Almost all the renewable windmill projects are corporate owned. The land has been grabbed from peasants and adivasis and the cheap power from the stations is utilized by these corporates hundreds of kilometres away.

Maharashtra was one of the first states to bring in the franchisee model in distribution. It is noteworthy that all the three centres - Bhiwandi, Malegaon and Mumbra, are Muslim majority areas, in which the model was implemented. The first two are major powerloom centres while the third is a ghetto expansion after the 1991 riots. It has ushered in large scale contractualization with 42,000 contract workers working in permanent vacancies on meagre wages for about 10 to 15 years, outsourcing, and empanelment of contractors for carrying out regular work, thereby handing over the running of the substations on contract. Some of the hydroelectric projects have been handed over to private players in the name of reconstruction.

The previous MVA government had decided to develop all projects in this sector of Rs.200 crores upwards only through corporates. Recently, Adani Power has been handed over the work of substation and erection of transmission lines for “strengthening Mumbai’s transmission network”.

The resistance of unions has been ineffective due to multiplicity of unions based on trades, affiliation to political parties and caste affiliations. 29 unions formed the Joint Action Committee and gave a call for strike on 4 January. 65 unions, including those owing allegiance to BJP/BMS, supported it. Economism in the unions, not organizing workers on basic issues, ignoring contractualization, privatization etc. that hit at the very existence of the workers is also a reason for the weakness. It can be recollected that the electricity workers saw last long drawn industrial action in 1971 under the leadership of Comrade Datta Deshmukh of Lal Nishan Party and Com. A B Bardhan of C P I. The Maharashtra Electricity Workers Federation emerged as the biggest union.

The Adani’s Straw on the Worker’s Back

The simmering discontent among the workers over successive governments, the corporate assault, the impending danger of the Electricity Amendment Act and the new government’s move to carve out a separate distribution company for agriculture brought together 29 unions under the umbrella of Maharashtra State Electricity Employees, Officers, Engineers Sangharsh Samiti. The heroic fight being waged by the electricity workers in many other states regardless of the threat of losing jobs and the farmers struggle gave strength and inspiration. Adding fuel to the fire was the discontent on the application made by Adani Power for parallel distribution of power in MSEDCL areas in Mumbai, Thane, Navi Mumbai, Taloja, Uran in Raigad district even before the Act came into effect. Electricity comes under the concurrent list. All these locations are industrial belts, potential industrial areas and also the location of Adani’s international airport. There is likely acquisition of the JNPT at Uran. These are high revenue areas that will enable the MSEDCL to cross subsidize the common users and the farmers.

The workers served a strike notice for a 3-day strike starting on 4 January and if required, an indefinite strike from 18 January, under the united banner, and an intensive campaign of protests, and protest marches at Thane and Nagpur during the assembly session. They appealed the masses for support. On the night of 3 January, the state government revoked MESMA. Still, the strike was total. Parts of Maharashtra started reeling under the disruption of power. Deputy Chief Minister and Power Minister Devendra Fadnavis called for a meeting on 4th afternoon. He assured that there is no intention to privatise the three public sector power companies; the state government will use all its available instruments to safeguard the PSUs interests in the hearings in MERC regarding Adani’s application for parallel distribution in PSU areas. Assurances were given to look into the assimilation of contract employees and direct transfer of their salaries. The failure of the experiments in the hydroelectric sector for privatization was accepted. Further, the alternatives proposed by the unions against the proposal for a separate company for distribution in agro sector would be examined.

Need to Forge Strong Alliance

Within a week after the meeting, the first attack came from an “independent” director of the MSEB holding company Vishwas Pathak. Pathak gave interviews to different news channels and newspapers accusing the employees of being responsible for the deterioration of the three PSUs. He took upon himself to strongly push for “competition” in the sector. The united forum strongly refuted the allegations in the letter to the Dy. CM.

Now it is reported that the “competition” has indeed expanded. The other two cronies of the Modi government Torrent and Tatas have filed applications to MERC for entry in the distribution sector. While it is reported that Torrent has applied for parallel distribution rights in areas of Vidarbha, including Nagpur, TATAs have reportedly expressed an interest in taking over the entire distribution set up in Aurangabad, Beed and Nashik. Thus, the corporates are eyeing for the new industrial centres in Maharashtra that are profitable leaving the PSUs with unprofitable areas. This will either make them sick or left for corporate grab or the common people in these areas will be deprived of the cross subsidies and will have to pay very high charges. It is noteworthy that all these bids are near the Samruddhi Maha Marg between Nagpur and Mumbai or near the new Airport and the 13 lane highway connecting Virar in Palghar district where a new port is coming up and the DMRC connecting the dedicated freight corridor to Alibag in Raigad district. Thus, the power sector tigers on prowl will eye for land grab on a mammoth scale in the entire area.

So, the respite gained by the fragile agreement needs to be utilised by the united electricity workers to forge alliances with farmers and common consumers of power to resist the massive assault even if MESMA or any other coercive measures comes on the way. All other sections of workers need to support this struggle by forging a strong fighting alliance.