The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Changing Left in pension turn
- Second thoughts on opposition to bill
CPM chief Prakash Karat: Come a long way

New Delhi, Oct. 27: A day after conceding that parts of information technology might need some protection from strikes, the Left showed again how it was changing.

At a meeting of the coordination committee they have with the ruling United Progressive Alliance ' a routine that resumed after four months of boycott ' Left leaders scaled down their opposition to the pension fund regulatory development authority bill.

They said they were ready to “consider the matter” with necessary amendments.

It could mean a breakthrough for the Manmohan Singh government which has been trying to push the bill through to reduce its pension burden. The pressure is no less on states whose finances are even more precarious.

The bill entails government employees making a 10 per cent contribution to pension. Now, the government bears the entire burden.

Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had supported the bill, though his party, the CPM, had mounted an all-out offensive. He had requested the central leadership to reconsider its position, speaking from his experience in his own state where the pension cost is crippling.

The Left seems to be veering around to the chief minister’s stand. “We have left the decision on the bill to the trade unions. The parties do not have a position,” said a Left leader.

Six months ago, the Left had forced the government to drop the bill because of its ”non-negotiable” opposition.

Today, a joint statement on the bill said: “The Left parties indicated they will consider the matter and put forward their suggestions for amendments, if any.”

Finance minister P. Chidambaram told Left leaders it would be difficult to sustain pensions after three-four years. He said the bill had been examined by a parliamentary standing committee and the government had accepted its recommendations.

Left leaders put the onus on the unions. “We told the government it must talk to trade unions before bringing the bill.”

Gurudas Das Gupta, the Aituc general secretary who is also an MP, said: “Our opposition to the bill remains unchanged.”

The bill also recommends that the pension fund be managed by a private agency, with a part of the money allowed to be invested in the stock market. The Left parties opposed these formulations also.

While the Left scaled down its opposition to the pension bill, the government put on hold permitting foreign investment in retail trade.

But Singh made it clear the government was not jettisoning the idea. “The Prime Minister said we will have to decide sometime or the other on foreign investment in retail,” said a Left leader.

The Left submitted a note opposing foreign investment.

US retail giant Wal-Mart has proposed to invest in Bengal. In Calcutta, Bhattacharjee said Wal-Mart was interested in the retail food market. He said he could not say “no” to Wal-Mart on its face, but had stonewalled it for the moment.

The meeting also discussed public sector divestment. The Left did not reject out of hand a proposal to divest from profit-making companies that are not navratnas.

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