Trade-union militancy can take ugly forms. The violence at Maruti Suzuki India’s plant at Manesar last July was a particularly disturbing example. But the strike by workers of the Jharkhand State Electricity Board last week was perhaps even more frightening. The strike left 14 out of the state’s 24 districts without power for nearly 36 hours. Obviously, the strikers thought nothing of the dangerous consequences of their action not only for the state’s economy but also for the lives of ordinary people. The strike was organized to protest against the JSEB’s decision to privatize power distribution in the state’s two biggest towns — Ranchi and Jamshedpur. The inefficiency of state electricity boards is generally more than that of other state-run organizations. The JSEB’s decision is a necessary first step toward reforming the power sector in the state. Given its mining resources and industrial base, Jharkhand badly needs the reform. Irregular power supply is one of the reasons why entrepreneurs are still wary of investing in the state. But trade unions see things only from the sectional interest of their members. The economic well-being of the state is not exactly their concern. They actually held the state to ransom in order to force their argument.
However, the way the state government reacted to the crisis was just as deplorable. One of the senior officials offered an astounding explanation for the government’s inaction. The government apparently wanted to wait for at least a day before taking ‘any extreme step’. This abdication of the state’s authority and its constitutional obligation was perhaps even more unacceptable than the trade unions’ irresponsible action. It was only the intervention of the judiciary that forced the unions to call off what they had planned as an indefinite strike. The Jharkhand high court has rightly taken the government to task for the latter’s ‘inept’ handling of the situation. The strike has a lesson for the government. Unless it acts firmly, the unions could do it again. It is one thing for the unions to object to the privatization of the distribution of power in Ranchi and Jamshedpur. They have every right to protest against the decision in democratic ways. They are free to challenge the move in a court of law. But they have no right to plunge the state into darkness and chaos in the name of industrial action. A powerless state and irresponsible trade unions are a deadly mix.