Drama is the staple of Ms J. Jayalalithaa’s political existence. But the recent statewide drama of arrests and dismissals of government employees and teachers has no scope for comic relief. The issue, the widespread success of the strike, and the government action are all equally serious and equally distressing. According to the leaders of the unions and associations conducting the strike, the government was unwilling to even talk about their demand that the decision to withdraw pension, gratuity and leave encashment benefits be reconsidered. They have received nothing but lectures about the fiscal situation of the state. The condition of Tamil Nadu’s treasury is little better than other states in the same plight, including West Bengal. But the decision to withdraw retirement benefits without discussion with the employees’ representatives about possible alternatives and options has been perceived as a breach of contract that would lead to devastating insecurity for people already in employment. That alone explains the widespread success of the strike and the low return to work even after the government began its spate of arrests.
Ms Jayalalithaa has made clear that a strike is not the solution. Instead, the government has taken rapid steps, not only to arrest leaders and members of the unions, but to strengthen the Essential Services and Maintenance Act that has been invoked with an ordinance which allows dismissal without inquiry of anyone participating in this “misconduct”. The result has been the announced dismissal of approximately one lakh government employees and teachers all over the state. Simultaneously, the government has got into a frenzy of recruitments to fill the posts of those dismissed. Extreme measures on both sides are unlikely to resolve anything; rather, this entire drama would seem to be heading towards an extremely unpleasant and unhappy showdown. Strong measures in the face of a strike are laudable; but the display of strength must be modulated with a show of good governance. Inevitably, the judiciary has taken on the mantle of moderator, asking the union leaders to withdraw the strike and the government to not only release those arrested but also to come to an understanding with its employees through negotiation and not dismissals. By not issuing an order and “reposing trust” in the government, the court has wisely avoided the charge of activism, yet the role it has been forced to play in this deadlock is really not part of its duties. A democratic arrangement is bound to suffer with a strike on one side and a refusal to negotiate on the other.