Is the Right to Protest Reserved for Kejriwal Alone, Not for Aam Workers of the DTC?

DTC Workers’ Protests and Ensuing Crackdown

Delhi witnesses a series of protests by DTC workers on a variety of issues in the year 2015. The most recent one was a spontaneous flash strike following the brutal murder of a DTC driver of the Rohini Depot.

Delhi DTC strikeThe DTC is undoubtedly the lifeline of Delhi’s transport network. Contractual employees within DTC face inhuman working conditions and are subjected to tremendous work pressure to meet targets given by the management. As many as twelve thousand of DTC drivers are employed on contract. This means that they are not paid equal wages on part with permanent staff, for the same work. Their wages are not regularized. They arrive at the depot every morning – but may be turned away and denied work by the depot manager in cases buses have broken down. So, while they are officially ‘employed’, they are not even sure of getting work throughout the month! They have no right to a paid or even unpaid weekly off.

Right from mid 2014 onwards, both the permanent staff and contractual workers of DTC protested for their rights. The contractual workers especially, supported the AAP and Kejriwal, based on the AAP’s promises to regularize contractual employees.

When the AAP Government failed to keep those promises, the DTC contract workers organized a March to the Delhi Secretariat from the DTC headquarters on 13 April 2015 under the banner of DTC Sangharsh Morcha, comprising of all the different unions working within DTC. The mood of the workers sitting on the dharna outside the Secretariat was so militant that they wanted the programme extended to an indefinite one till their demands were met. Unions affiliated to INTUC and BMS faced open challenge, as they tried discouraging the workers and pressurizing them to call off the ongoing programme. The Delhi Transport Minister Gopal Rai met the delegation but this had no positive outcome. Comrade Shankaran represented the DTC Workers’ Unity Centre in this delegation.

While addressing the CII, Delhi, the CM Arvind Kejriwal had declared that it is not his government’s duty to run buses, and the corporates will now be encouraged to run DTC. This open declaration of privatization had certainly disturbed the young DTC employees and disheartened the permanent staff.

Young workers comprising the contractual workforce of DTC took the opportunity of the National Transport Strike on 30th April, 2015, against the proposed Road Safety & Transport Bill 2014 by the Modi Government, to again raise their legitimate demands. After several years, DTC Unions had served a strike notice to their management as well as the Delhi Government, certainly under the pressure of those young workers persuaded by AICCTU affiliates.

These young contractual workers had shouldered the entire campaign all over DTC depots and most of the ‘official’ unions were seen absconding to avoid the campaign. On 29 April, the Delhi Tranport Minister Gopal Rai had invited all the Unions including the DTC Pensioners’ Union (no pension had been paid for the past 3 months to DTC Pension holders) for a dialogue. Once again the AAP Government had no concrete plan for the public transport system of Delhi and DTC workers. Gopal Rai merely assured the workers’ representative for a budget provision for equal pay, release of 2 months pension and clearly refused to meet any other demands.

INTUC affiliates immediately withdrew the strike notice and had informed the administration of their withdrawal. BMS affiliates had not withdrawn their strike notice but had sent sms messages asking the workers to join their duties. DTC workers had resolved to go with the strike and organised a sit-in in front of the Millennium Depot. The AICCTU affiliated Unity Centre worked hard for the success of the strike. The strike could only be implemented partially, but it certainly demolished a long-standing inertia and inspired enthusiasm in spite of the backstabbing of some of the DTC unions.

The sit-in in front of the Millennium Depot was well attended, focused and full of hope for the young workers and they resolved to continue with their fight. A leader from the BMS-affiliated union came to address the gathering, and began a communal tirade, mentioning the Batla House killings and branding minorities as terrorists. A young DTC worker and AICCTU activist, Rajesh, spontaneously got up to take the mike away from him and tell him firmly to stop trying to vitiate the atmosphere of the sit-in. The BMS leader, faced with this rebuff, stopped speaking and beat a hasty retreat from the sit-in site.

Ten days after this sit-in, on May 10th, a Rohini Depot driver Ashok Kumar was brutally murdered in a road rage incident at Mundka while on duty. Workers once again went for a flash strike. Mourning his death, they demanded Rs 1 crore as compensation for the deceased worker, a job for his university-going son, education for his school-going daughter, medical care for his critically ill wife, and security for the DTC running staff. The workers reminded the Government that it had offered Rs 1 crore as compensation to the family of a policeman killed on duty, even though the policeman was not a Delhi Government employee; and also Rs 20 lakhs to the family of the farmer who committed suicide at Jantar Mantar at an AAP rally. Compensation should not be decided by political compulsions and media optics. The workers said that the Government is obligated to compensate the family of a worker murdered while on duty.

This was neither the first nor the only incident of attack on the DTC running staff. The DTC management as well as the Delhi Transport Minister have been informed of several such attacks. The narrow Delhi roads, without any proper planning for public transport, create a situation where drivers are vulnerable to attacks by angry members of the public.

With its fleet size of around 4700 buses, DTC caters to 45 lakh commuters everyday in comparison to 21 lakh Metro commuters daily. Every driver under the standard procedure operates a bus for 110 km in 8 hours, a practice which was set in place almost two decades earlier. So it is easy to understand tremendous pressure on these workers.

The Government has been repeatedly informed of their grievances but has done nothing ameliorative so far to redress issues. In response to the flash strike, the Kejriwal Government invoked ESMA on the 11th night itself without even trying to negotiate with its own striking transport employees. The draconian ESMA was invoked as a first resort!

On 12th May, the Delhi Government partially agreed to some of the demands including 10 lakh compensation and release of complete salary for the remaining service tenure of the deceased worker, a Government job for his son, free medical care for his ailing wife and free education for his daughter, and deployment of home guards as marshals in DTC buses.

But simultaneously, under the directions of Delhi Transport Minister Gopal Rai, the DTC management initiated action against the DTC employees. Till now, more than 100 workers, most of them, contractual employees, and many of them supporters of DTC Workers’ Unity Centre (AICCTU) were given show-cause notices for not attending duties and participating in the protest, and were asked to reply within 24 hours or face termination.

This action of the Delhi government has further agitated the DTC employees. It seems that for Kejriwal, the worker does not enjoy the status of an ‘aam aadmi’. Kejriwal has defended his own right to agitate and hold sit-ins on the street – but denies the common workers of Delhi the same right! In the media, the AAP Government has been rightly criticized for threatening journalists with defamation cases for running stories critical of the Government. But while the right to freedom of expression of journalists is talked about, the media remains silent on the way in which the AAP Government has cracked down on the workers’ right to freedom of expression. Do workers, then, have no right to show humanitarian solidarity with a slain colleague, to seek adequate compensation and social and economic security for the family of a driver killed on duty?

The DTC workers are resolved not to bend to the pressures created by the administration and the management but keep fighting for their rights within the ever shrinking democratic space.

Ardhendu Roy, Secretary, AICCTU, Delhi