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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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AUTHORITARIAN UTOPIAS
- The scripture of the free market cannot be quoted in part

The recent strike of State Bank of India employees would in the ordinary course pass into oblivion. But should it' A number of issues of wide social significance were embedded in the strike: they call for some rumination.

Two hundred and fifty thousand employees, spread over 9,000 branches, of the country's largest bank had struck work for one full week. The cease-work was total; it put in disarray large segments of the national economy. The SBI, after all, handles roughly 30 per cent of the aggregate banking transactions in the country. Clearance of cheques to the extent of Rs 500 crore was held up every day. Foreign exchange dealings were severely affected, as were exports. Since sales of stamp papers from the SBI were closed, chaos travelled in many other directions.

Aware of the consequences of a prolonged strike, the bank management, rumour had it, was willing to come to an agreement with the employees. But the ministry of finance was said to be adamant; autonomy in bank management obviously does not cover the aspect of industrial relations. The principal representation of the employees concerned the restructuring of pension payments for retiring employees. The last agreement on the matter was signed between the bank and its employees nearly 15 years ago. Economic circumstances, including the general price level, have changed markedly over this decade and a half, and the employees had been clamouring for a review of the retirement provisions.

It would be difficult to describe the demand of the employees as either unreasonable or unrealistic. The formula adopted some 15 years ago had allowed only employees with basic pay of less than Rs 10,000 to draw pension at 50 per cent of basic pay; for employees at higher ranges of basic pay, the pension petered out to 40 per cent and less. The core demand of the employees was for making the pension a flat 50 per cent for all employees. The ministry of finance, however, applied pressure on the bank management not to give in; employees walked out en masse.

It was a cynical waiting game for one full week. The authorities capitulated only after realizing that SBI employees could not be cowed down, and employees of the entire banking sector could join the strike in sympathy, thereby bringing the banking industry in the country to a total standstill.

SBI employees earning a basic pay of Rs 21,040, it has now been decided, will henceforth get pension at 50 per cent of that amount, while those earning above that level will get 40 per cent for the incremental amount above Rs 21,040 subject to a minimum of 50 per cent of Rs 21,040. This is by no stretch any great concession; in the government sector, even the senior-most civil servant draws as pension 50 per cent of the basic retiring pay. What is more, the finance minister himself has gone on record that the SBI has the financial capacity to bear the extra burden the settlement is going to cost.

The attitude of the ministry of finance during the entire episode could be justly described as exceedingly curious. The demands of the SBI employees were not unreasonable given the prevalent culture elsewhere in the service sector. The SBI has been making huge profits in recent years and had enough resources to bear the additional burden involved in the demand placed by its employees. And yet, the government directed the bank to refuse to listen to the voice of reason till as long as it could. The standard practice in the media is to haul the employees over the coals for any breach of industrial peace. In this instance, the guilty party is the government which owns the SBI; it owes an apology to the nation for the dislocation of the economy its intransigence had caused.

The government would not quite spell it out, but its general stance is by now clear: even where employers have the financial capability, they must still oppose employee demands lest it spoils the market; concession to one group of employees could lead to similar climb-downs to the demands of other groups of employees, not just to one section, but over the entire range of commercial and industrial establishments. Such a development, the authorities would maintain, might displease international finance capital, whom the government dearly wants to come and take charge of our economy. Workers in the country must always be on their best behaviour, otherwise foreign capital would not flow in. It is also for this reason that efforts are on for reforming the country's labour laws, thereby prohibiting strikes and facilitating the introduction of the 'hire and fire' principle.

The country's citizens elect a government through democratic elections. The government, however, has seemingly ceased to be sovereign; it has come to place itself in a corner where decisions are taken in the light of how international finance capital would react to them. Once the nuclear agreement is sealed with the United States of America, we might, it is apprehended in some quarters, lose a large slice of our prerogative of independent decision-making. Even earlier than that, we are already subject to external directives in crucial economic matters. These directives are not always categorically formulated. No matter, our decision-makers, itchy to have foreign capital of a magnitude of which the sky is the limit, don the role of forward planners and initiate measures which, they think, would please the foreign capitalist class. It could be pursuit of a will-o'-the-wisp. So what: the pursuit has its own pleasure.

There is of course a subsidiary argument mounted to resist the demands of employees in banks and insurance companies. These latter sections allegedly constitute an 'aristocracy of labour' who keep demanding higher and higher emoluments, while millions and millions of unemployed and under-employed countrymen are on the verge of starvation. This, the government, the India Incorporated and the complaint media are convinced, is a scandal; barricades must be manned, these wretched labour aristocrats must be mercilessly gunned down.

What is however not reckoned as a scandal is the spectacle of youngsters from affluent households, who have not even reached the age of 25, passing out of business schools being offered by industrial and commercial establishments fancy salaries starting from a couple of lakh rupees per month and ending in a stratosphere which boggles the imagination. The proliferation of such plutocrats does not appear to put a strain on anybody's conscience.

The standard response will be ' what can be done, the business school graduates fetch the kind of money they do because it is a free market system; the mechanism of demand and supply is at work, the young boys and girls get what the market determines. But if this be so, should not the proposition equally apply in the case of bank and insurance employees' The SBI employees merely took advantage of the law of the market; they went on strike and paralysed the economy, thereby demonstrating their market strength. What is good for the business school goose should be equally good for the gander of lower-grade bank employees.

The authorities have to make up their mind. If they wish to quote the scripture of the free market, they cannot quote it in part; if they desire to please India Incorporated and international finance capital, they will have to accommodate the organized industrial class too. The alternative is to cross over to an authoritarian system where only the capitalist class, domestic and international, would be listened to and other voices severely suppressed.

It would be quite a surprise if such a system works, even for a week.

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