TREADING THE DEPLORABLE PATH OF PRIVATISATION: PM LAUNCHES THE AUCTION OF 41 COAL BLOCKS FOR COMMERCIAL MINING

A Priya //

Coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on the entire mankind and has seriously challenged the status quo. With this unparalleled situation, came to surface the flaws and rot in the current system. Amidst the chaos, it brought with itself great prospects for mass upheavals, but also an opportunity for the capitalists to pedal their agenda. And without missing a chance, on 18th June 2020, Modi government announced the auction of 41 coal blocks for commercial mining. With this the private companies can own coal blocks with no end-use restrictions, i.e., coal or other minerals can be mined and used as raw material for their own industries or as a power source or can be simply sold in the market or exported.

Privatisation was slowly and steadily being injected into the coal sector as soon as the Modi government rose to power; specifically since 2015 with the enactment of Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act, which enabled the coal blocks to be allocated through auction to private players but the coal could only be put to use in their own industry as raw material or for power generation. Due to this end-use restriction, known as captive mining, the government couldn’t lure the private players to invest in this sector. In 2018, it was taken a step further with the repealing of Coking Coal Mines (Nationalization) Act, 1972 and the Coal Mines (Nationalization) Act, 1973. With this, private sector firms were allowed to sell up to 25 per cent of the output in the market, but this also saw a lukewarm response from the private sector. Even after allowing 100% FDI in the coal sector, not many foreign companies got interested, mainly due to the lengthy bureaucratic procedures and long list of statutory approvals. So, to please their masters, the Modi government decided to end all restrictions related to end use and make the procedure ever so simple to ease the process of loot and plunder of our resources by the big capitalists.

Narendra Modi, in his address to the private companies, did not shy away from bending over backwards to entice them. His entire address can be summed up in his own words that, “if you take two steps forward, I’ll take four.” And that’s exactly what he’s planning to do. The criteria requirement for placing a bid has been completely abolished. Now, with 100% FDI and no entrance criteria requirements, any foreign or Indian private company, with no prior mining experience whatsoever, may participate in the auctions by just making an upfront payment. Also, the coal ministry has said that they’ll help the companies get statutory approvals like environment, etc. This undoubtedly means that the government is relieving the companies of even a modicum of responsibility regarding the environment, the natural resources and the people living in that area. It virtually becomes a license to trample the human lives and biodiversity of that region to satisfy their thirst for profits. The government’s priorities are abundantly reflected in the fact that in such trying times, where a huge population is facing untold miseries related to unemployment, starvation, malnutrition among others due to deepened economic crisis, the government has promised to spend ₹50,000 crore to create the infrastructure required for coal mining and transport to ‘aid’ the private players. And to add to that the Prime Minister has assured the companies that if they invest in the coal sector, “they don’t need to worry about the finance”, meaning the government would sufficiently provide easy loans to these corporates. It goes beyond saying that when the inexperienced companies entering the sector, thanks to the scraping away of almost all the entry-level criteria requirements, would start piling up losses resulting in the loans going bad, the burden of this will also fall on the common folks in terms of increased taxes and raised fees of essential services such as healthcare, education, etc.

But the load of burden doesn’t limit itself to that. Mr. Modi also enumerated some “benefits” that the people can expect due to the emergence of private companies. Firstly, he mentioned the numerous employment opportunities and creation of jobs for the people. But really though? Private mines run by private players and thrive on profit. They create jobs as an obligation but to fulfill their agenda and have no responsibility whatsoever regarding their workers or employees. With the employment of heavy machinery, they would make no late in firing their old employees, let alone adding more in the work force. The prime minister’s statement alluring the unemployed youth and workers is just another Jumla. Also, we have witnessed large scale layoffs and continuously deteriorating working conditions at the hands of private employers. Be it railways, banking or any other sector, privatisation has brought with itself a reduction in permanent jobs and a shift towards the contractual labour system, which enables the company to tap onto the cheap labour available in underdeveloped rural and tribal areas. The employers benefit from the helplessness and cut-throat competition rampant among the growing army of unemployed youths of the country, ready to work for meagre wages and no other benefits in their struggle to survive.

Further in his address, he emphasised that with increased production of coal, the dependent sectors such as steel, electricity, etc. will benefit. Surely at first, with increased competition among the private players, the coal productivity may increase and the prices may also go down. But the competition between firms and the tendency of capital to concentrate and centralise into fewer and fewer hands will lead to a handful of firms dominating the sector, as was seen in the telecom/mobile sector. This monopoly or oligopoly of firms will then determine the prices and the dependent industries would be left with no option other than to pay the high prices, whose burden in turn will fall again on the shoulders of the toiling masses and even the middle class sections of the society.

The Prime Minister also emphasised the increase in prosperity and overall welfare of the residents of the adjoining areas from the mines. But in reality, the lives of the native people would be completely ruined. They’d be forced out of their lands, their lives would be uprooted with little to no compensation. The dissenting and protesting voices will be stifled by blatant state repression. The nearby lands would be left barren, the rivers would become polluted and the people, after losing all sources of livelihood, would be left at the mercy of the big corporates. 

Mr. Modi said that coal was one of the most important pillars of the Indian economy and then very slyly enumerated the benefits of uprooting this pillar and handing it over to the private players. He said that, “commercial mining will free the coal sector from decades of lockdown”. This is the usual state of affairs in a society run by capitalists, driven by profit-motive only. First step is to disinvest and demolish the PSUs and then, point to the piled-up losses and label it a ‘sick unit’. At the end, in the benevolent act of “saving” that establishment, offer it to the corporates at throw away prices. The process of ‘handing over’ the coal sector to the big bourgeoisie was being carried out by the previous governments as well. 214 coal blocks were allocated to private players during the 1993-2008 period resulting in a report by CAG in March 2012 which accused the government of ‘inefficient’ allocation of coal. The Supreme Court took notice of this and in 2014 quashed all the 214 allocations, ignoring several pleas by the government and the capitalists. The Supreme Court’s judgement noted that “…these proceedings look to the future in that by highlighting the wrong, it is expected that the Government will not deal with the natural resources that belong to the country as if they belong to a few individuals who can fritter them away at their sweet will.” What does this mean? This clearly means that the then Supreme Court discouraged and disallowed commercial mining which serves the interest of only a handful of individuals at the cost of the interest of the people at large; that the resources of the country should be extracted for the end-purpose set in the interest of the country and not be handed over to the capitalists who wish to devour our resources at will. 

But now the scenario has changed completely. We have a fascist party at the helm, which has efficiently hollowed all the democratic institutions, have taken them over from within, and is now implementing the exact policies which the SC opposed in 2014. The judiciary and all other institutions have been reduced to moot spectators, with no nerve to stand against the anti-people policies of the Executive body. Still, there are some voices of dissent left. Representatives of 20 gram panchayats in Chhattisgarh have written to the Prime Minister urging him to halt the coal block auction and put a ban on mining in that area citing the adverse effects on the culture and livelihoods of people living there. Meanwhile, Chhattisgarh government has also opposed the commercial auction process initiated by the central government given its damaging effect on the environment and biodiversity. Jharkhand, India’s biggest coal-producing state had already sought a deferment of the auction, and has now challenged the government’s decision to issue the commercial mining tender in the Supreme Court.

Coronavirus came with its own list of dos and don’ts. It exposed the capitalist system and showed the world how not to handle a pandemic. And the first lesson was to discourage privatisation and strengthen the public welfare system. The countries with world-class privatised healthcare systems crumbled to dust under the weight of increasing covid-19 cases. The “safe” capitalist havens came crashing to the ground and now lakhs and lakhs of people are dying. Countries are running out of spaces to bury the dead. Why did the so called prosperous and developed countries fail to save its people? Because their healthcare systems were never meant to save people. They were made to earn profit. Back at home, we witnessed that the burden of increasing cases finally fell on the weakened shoulders of the government hospitals. No matter how dilapidated they were, they got no help from their private counterparts, which shut their doors as soon as chips were down. The sheer basis of a system based on profit is either completely anti-people or at the very least oblivious to the needs of the masses. The capitalists feed off of people’s vulnerability and helplessness and use it to amass more and more wealth.

Modi Government has wreaked the most severe attack on coal sector workers in history. Though CIL said in its statement that commercial mining “would not unsettle” them, it is not hard to guess that amidst the fierce cut-throat competition among the private companies which possess at their disposal latest technology, cheap contractual labour and even the government’s support, Coal India Limited would have a hard time even ensuring its survival, let alone maintaining the same levels of profit. And as the company’s profit starts to fall, the brunt of it will be faced by the workers. This may result in arrears of wages and suspension of other benefits for the permanent workers. The working hours may increase to match the increased production demands of the competitive market. The workers may lose their PF, pension and other rights owing to the anti-worker policy of hire & fire and FTE (Fixed Term Employment). The dependents, who received jobs as compensation, of workers who died or were rendered unfit for work due to accidental deaths may also risk losing their jobs. The changes in labour laws with respect to the minimum wage, right to form unions, right to strike, etc. may also aid in making their lives miserable and snatching away their bargaining power. 

To combat this, the workers need to come out of their comfort zones and unite against such atrocious acts of the government. It is important to note that the workers’ unions in the coal sector have called for a 3-day strike from July 2nd against the auction of coal blocks for commercial mining purposes. It is good to hear that they have rejected an invitation from the central government for a ‘talk’ in lieu of the postponement of the strike. Other major demands include stopping of the separation of consultancy firm CMPDIL from Coal India, ensuring payment of high-power committee wages to contractor workers and increasing the ceiling of gratuity from ₹10 lakh to ₹20 lakh to all workers retired between 1st January 2017 to 28th March 2018, at par with executives. Central Trade Unions have also extended their support with this call. At the first glance, it is abundantly visible that the demands are narrow and do not attack the most anti-worker policy of the State, such as abolishing all the labour codes, which may threaten the very existence of these trade unions. Secondly, the central trade unions seem to be in no mood of coming out of the ritualistic practices of calling two or three days’ strike, with no future plan of action regarding the raised demands. Strikes are a potent weapon in the hands of the working class. With this, the workers have the power to pressurize the management into giving up and getting their demands accepted. But this potent weapon has been diluted and reduced to a mere event that has trailed far from its actual purpose. And thus, the management/government take them for granted. We may hope this will change now. 

It is fast becoming a deciding point for the organized working class of India, too, that whether they want to continue with the old practice of trade unions of effigy burning, sloganeering and a 2-3 day strike call limited to “call” sake and simultaneously do away with all the previously won rights, or strive to achieve real working class unity in order to launch a do or die sort of struggle against the anti-worker policy of privatisation, commercial mining, abolition of labour laws and other anti-worker reforms. The trade unions, also, need to shed the muck of ages and prepare themselves to fight against the fascist State till its last breath, or perish away anyhow. The current dynamic situation requires a devoted working class epicenter which can build the movement of the working class against the most oppressive and shrewd capitalist class, which can present to them a set of demands which has the immediate struggle for economic benefits intertwined with the long term struggle of the working class to completely destroy the system of oppression and plunder, and building on its ashes the new world order based on true justice, harmony and brotherhood of man. Without this, let us all be sure that there will be no let up in the attacks of the bourgeoisie.

Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 3/ July ’20)

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