‘Absence of leadership among MSRTC staffers making it difficult to find a way out of the strike’

Three weeks since the MSRTC staffers’ strike began, Shekhar Channe, Managing Director and Vice-Chairman of the state transport corporation, says the absence of leadership in the agitation is making it difficult to find a middle path. Even as the corporation is taking disciplinary action against agitating staffers, Channe, in an interview with The Indian Express, says the corporation is looking forward to the staffers resuming duty. Excerpts:

It has been over three weeks since MSRTC staffers started their strike, and buses have not been running in the state. Did you think the strike would last this long?

No, we did not anticipate there would be such a long strike. Initially, when the joint action committee of workers’ union announced its hunger strike on October 27, we had a discussion with the committee on October 28 and most of their demands were accepted. Subsequently, the union had also announced that the strike has been withdrawn.

During the first meeting on October 28, the most important demand of the workers to merge the MSRTC with the state government was not accepted. Workers are saying that is why they continued with the strike even as the trade union joint action committee withdrew it…

The joint action committee of 28 trade unions had given us a notice of hunger strike on October 27 but there was no demand for merger. There were other demands, which were discussed on October 28 with transport minister Anil Parab. Three out of the four demands were accepted. The committee then informed us that they are withdrawing the strike.

But later, the strike intensified and we have no idea what forces or unions are behind it. A union, which was not part of the committee, gave us a notice of strike from November 3 midnight and the closure of depots started increasing gradually every day. Shutdown of depots scaled up drastically from November 3. We somehow managed to run the services during Diwali and gave relief to passengers with 150 depots, which were still functioning. No notice of shutting the depots was given and hence, we approached the industrial court and the high court and got a restraining order. The HC had restrained them from going on the strike. However, that didn’t stop them and from November 8, the depots were shut completely.

MSRTC workers protest at Azad Maidan, Mumbai, on Sunday. (Photo: Ganesh Shirsekar)

Is the demand for merger acceptable? Is it possible to merge MSRTC with state government?

A high-level committee has been formed by the Bombay High Court and it is studying the possibilities of the same. Hence, it will be better not to comment on this now.

Who do you think is leading the protest? Do you think it’s political? Why has there been no solution yet? Why are the talks failing?

It looks like the major and the oldest unions, which were in the committee initially, are not part of this strike. It is also not possible that a new leadership of MSRTC workers has emerged in a short span of time. So, as everyone is claiming, it is a spontaneous and a voluntary strike by the workers; there seems to be no leadership here. And a responsible leader is required to solve the issues. Due to a lack of leadership, it’s becoming difficult to find a way out of the strike.

It is being alleged that action such as termination and suspension are being used for a specific outcome of putting pressure on the striking staffers?

No, this is basically part of disciplinary proceedings. The HC as well as the industrial court have restrained you (the workers) from going on strike but you are still on it and even provoking others… So, we suspended such people. Those on daily wages have been terminated as per law for not reporting to work as they cannot refuse to join duty. So, this is legal action.

Lakhs of passengers in the state are suffering due to the strike. What efforts are being taken to ensure they are not inconvenienced?

Through the transport commissionerate, transportation through private vehicles has been allowed. They are ferrying passengers and the RTO (Regional Transport Office) is monitoring that fair charges are collected by the private operators.

Those who want to resume work are being given police protection. We are also appointing drivers and conductors who were on the recruitment waiting list. But, we really wish and look forward for the staffers to resume their work. Even our transport minister has held discussions with them thrice. We appeal to them to resume work as soon as possible. Whatever their demand is, it should be put forward legally. They should present their side in front of the committee and it will be considered as per the HC instructions.

Why was the salary of staffers getting delayed? What is the financial condition of MSRTC?

It is true that there were a few months when we could not release salary on time. But the government has extended all the help. During Covid-induced lockdown, bus services were shut for several months and there was no revenue of MSRTC at all. As per our estimate, the MSRTC has accumulated loss, which would go up to around Rs 12000 crore by March 2022.

What efforts is MSRTC making to increase revenue?

We are trying to reduce the bus-staff ratio by working on the option of running more buses with fewer staffers. We are trying to reduce the fuel cost and are looking at alternative fuel-based vehicle. We have already issued tender to convert 1,000 diesel buses into CNG; also we are converting 500 buses into LNG. In addition, we are getting 150 electric buses. Other than passengers, we are also looking for alternative revenue source such as freight services and parcel transportation.

We are also looking forward to developing MSRTC depots and lands on a Public Private Partnership (PPP) Model through which we will have a permanent source of income.

We have been working on all these solutions for the last one year and soon, the results will start showing. We are basically aiming at reducing the cost and increasing the revenue so that we can get profit or, at least, are able to break even.

MSRTC is getting private buses on wet lease. Is it part of the plan to decrease the bus-staff ratio?

Yes. If you run only the available buses, the revenue will be the same even as running costs will keep increasing. Hence, we have started taking private buses on wet lease. We basically take the buses on rent from private bus operators with their own driver. We will pay the operator kilometer-wise. We don’t have to invest in buses or their maintenance or even drivers’ salary. If we get all this at reasonable cost, we will go ahead with it.

It is being alleged that the appointment of KPMG as a consultant is the first step towards privatisation of one of the biggest transport corporations in the country. Your comment?

As I said, the corporation is running in losses. KPMG has been hired to recommend measures to reduce the losses or bring it to break even, along with suggesting changes needed in the functioning of MSRTC. There is a misconception in the minds of people about privatisation. What do they call privatisation exactly? Do they think taking buses on lease is privatisation? PPP is a very common concept. Even roads are built on PPP model. So, similar model should also be implemented in MSRTC so that revenue can be improved.