The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Atal calls for labour consensus

New Delhi, Sept. 28: Rapping political rivals for opposing liberalisation — particularly labour law reforms — Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee sought a consensus on crucial economic policies that he said would help meet the target of 8 per cent growth.

“Consensus and Opposition politics should not be contradictory to each other. A lakshmanrekha (boundary line) must be drawn. Everybody should keep in mind the interest of the nation if we are to achieve our 8 per cent growth rate target, reduce poverty and unemployment,” the Prime Minister said at the inaugural session of the 38th Indian Labour Conference today.

The conference will discuss the National Labour Commission report tomorrow.

“Reform is no longer an option. It is the only right choice to be made,” said Vajpayee.

However, consensus on most issues, especially labour law reforms, seems a remote possibility at the moment. If the Vajpayee government has to pass the prickly amendments to the Industrial Disputes Act in Parliament, it will have to garner the support of all NDA partners and also the main Opposition party, the Congress.

As of now, neither the Congress nor the NDA in its entirety are willing to go with policies that could make them unpopular with the electorate. Vajpayee is not just contending with resistance from Opposition ranks but from his own unwieldy flock as ell. The Samata Party, with support from other NDA partners, has put Arun Shourie’s disinvestment policies in the cold storage, at least for three months.

The Sena has burnt copies of the National Labour Commission report that suggested reducing controls on rules for retrenchment, layoffs and closures. All trade unions, including the BJP’s own Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), have outrightly rejected the commission’s suggestions for a “hire and fire” policy.

At the conference, Vajpayee intoned the arguments he has been using to convince the political spectrum of the need for economic and labour reforms. It was almost a plea to the critics not to pull the government back from its economic course.

“I would like to use this forum once again to make a strong appeal to one and all both in and outside Parliament to support the government’s agenda on labour reforms,” said Vajpayee.

He cautioned the critics of liberalisation against ignoring the fast changing economic developments throughout the world. “India cannot ignore these developments except at her own peril,” said Vajpayee.

“On the contrary, India can benefit from these developments if we master them,” added the Prime Minister.

So far, such appeals have fallen on deaf ears. From all indications, the parties within the NDA and against it are going to mount as much pressure on the government as they can to put brakes on liberalisation.

The main consideration before all the parties is that they do not want to be perceived as partners in policies that can have a disastrous effect on their vote-bank politics.

Even the Congress — the party which put India on the threshold of liberalisation — is now backing off, trying to wash its hands off these policies.

Labour minister Sahib Singh Verma had earlier assured that labour law reforms would be put to vote in Parliament in the winter session. Today, the Prime Minister bought some more time and said the changes should be finalised by the budget session.

“What we need is to reform our laws, our institutions and our systems, so that investments can successfully chase opportunities and potential is transformed into actual performance,” he said.

But the government, Vajpayee stressed, will try to give reforms a human face. “All this is determined by how well our social security schemes work. The implementation of these schemes needs to be closely monitored,” said Vajpayee.

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