- NL Sena
Over 2.5 lakh transport workers and their family members struggled to survive during the nearly three-month strike. At least five were driven to take their own lives.
On November 26, a day after the 52-day strike by employees of the Telangana State Road Transport Corporation was called off, Basha was a happy man. A driver at the Falaknuma depot in Hyderabad, he reported for work, eager to start earning again so he could take care of his family.
His plans came crashing down the minute he stepped into the depot.
The workers might have called off the strike, but Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao hadn’t greenlighted their return to work. Police deployed at depots arrested hundreds of employees, including Basha, and released them later that evening. KCR’s decision to allow the employees to rejoin work was made at a cabinet meeting on November 28, but it was too late for Basha. Hours before, his body was found hanging from a tree in his village in Rangareddy district.
Basha’s death expands the roster of tragedies that have unfolded since the TSRTC employees’ unions decided to go on strike from October 5. Nearly 30 people have died – at least five by suicide and 25 from heart attacks that their families blame on the stress and financial distress owing to the strike and the state government’s response to it.
The unions were pushing the state government to implement a charter of 26 demands such as the TSRTC’s merger with the government, payment of salary hike dues from April 2017, job security, and filling of vacancies.
The state government has now decided to give the TSRTC Rs 100 crore to “temporarily mitigate” losses while other plans will roll out soon, including an increase in retirement age, and the payment of their salaries during the strike period.
Many employees are sceptical, saying such promises have been made in the past. For many others, and their family members, KCR’s actions now are too little, too late.
Basha’s family, for example, says the chief minister’s “ego” cost Basha his life. Since October 5, he had been struggling to make ends meet.
Newslaundry met Basha’s family in Chinna Thanda village, Rangareddy. Basha’s son, Shrinivas P, says his father was worried about losing his job. “The chief minister on various occasions announced he would dismiss the [striking] TSRTC employees. My father was very worried…He used to tell me I should start looking for a job.”
Until last week, KCR had repeatedly said the striking workers would be dismissed after they ignored his deadlines to end the strike and return to work. He had also refused to meet with the striking workers.
Shrinivas and his younger brother go to college in Hyderabad where their father would send them money for expenses. For three months, they have been unable to pay their room rent and tiffin fees. “My father did his best but he couldn’t manage since he also had to take care of family at home. He would share his problems with me. If the chief minister had allowed workers to resume their duties as soon as they called off the strike, my father wouldn’t have committed suicide.”
Police outside a bus depot and barricades outside TSRTC Bus Bhavan prevented employees from entering after the strike ended.
Shrinu Naik, the sarpanch of Chinna Thanda village, says Basha was unsure if the government would allow the employees to rejoin work. Basha’s daughter recently had a baby, so she too was staying with her parents in the village. “He used to ask here and there for money…His wife is a daily wage labourer and gets only Rs 200 a day. Things became really difficult for him.”
Last year, Basha took a loan of Rs 10-12 lakh for his daughter’s marriage and to pay for his sons’ education. The TSRTC strike left him unable to pay his installments on the loan. His family says he was receiving phone calls from whoever he had borrowed money from, which made him even more worried.
Rajendra Naik, a resident of Chinna Thanda, says, “According to our traditions, Basha had to pay the expenses of his daughter’s first delivery. He would run the house only on the basis of his salary. He was a poor man but did everything for his family with limited means. During the strike, he’d take hand loans of Rs 200-300 from villagers. He lost all hope when the government didn’t let the workers resume their duties.”
Prakash Chavan, 38, is a conductor at the Rajendra Nagar depot. He says he thought of killing himself because he couldn’t bear the “humiliation” and difficulties his family was subject to during the strike.
“I live in a rented home,” he tells Newslaundry, “and have never missed paying rent. But during the strike, without a salary, I asked my landlord to consider my problem. He was rude and turned me down. I felt so humiliated that day. I then mortgaged my wife’s ornaments, including her mangalsutra, at the bank. The bank would not pay me more than Rs 20,000. I had to plead repeatedly with the bank officer, and he finally agreed to give me Rs 30,000.”
The money disappeared quickly: Rs 15,000 went to the landlord for three months’ rent, Rs 8,000 to settle grocery bills, Rs 1,100 towards school fees of his children aged eight and six, and Rs 600 to the milkman.
“We’re poor people,” Chavan says. “We have a budget for everything, but it all got disturbed in the last three months. I couldn’t even pay for my household’s daily necessities.”
Basha’s family in Chinna Thanda.
Chavan’s wife Sridevi, 30, says the family couldn’t afford to book a new gas cylinder during the strike. “I had to go to a neighbour’s house for four days to cook food,” she says. “Even our rations were inadequate — we survived on rice and dal, trying to save as much as possible…I even fell sick for a couple of days but could not go to the doctor due to money issues.”
Telangana has about 97 bus depots. During the strike, organisations and citizens’ groups donated food for the TSRTC employees. Those among the employees with better financial backgrounds donated their monthly rations to their colleagues.
Chavan’s depot has 700 workers, and 200 workers would receive food every day in rotation. “I waited for 10 days, I would pray that my number would be called and it would be my turn,” Chavan says. “Some days I’d wonder if I should just ask. Once, a colleague gave me rice and sambar. I was so ashamed but I took it home — I had no option. I hit myself with a belt and burned myself on my leg with hot tongs. I felt like committing suicide. It was very frustrating and difficult for us. But then I thought about my wife and kids and came to my senses.”
Chavan tells Newslaundry that it helps to share this frustration with someone. “Many people who know us didn’t even call and ask how we’re doing. I tried to work as a loader during the strike but wherever I went, they laughed and said, ‘Sir, how will you do this job? This is not your cup of tea.’”
Chavan’s monthly salary as a TSRTC conductor is Rs 30,959. After deductions for provident fund, cooperative credit society and other staff benefit schemes, he would take home Rs 17,849. Employees point out that these deductions haven’t been given to them for two years, though the amount is duly cut from their salaries.
During the strike, KCR had said the average salary of a TSRTC employee is Rs 50,000. Newslaundry accessed the salary slips of multiple employees, and the average salary is only Rs 25,000. Their salaries also haven’t been revised in six years.
Another conductor from Rajendra Nagar depot says, on the condition of anonymity, that his family struggled so much they did not know what they would eat the next day. “Once I felt like grabbing away the food from the depot but then I thought that every colleague of mine was facing the same situation. So, in this time of crisis, I have to act more responsibly.”
Raju Gaud, 20, son of TSRTC driver N Shrinivas, says he could not take his exams in college since his family was unable to pay the fees. A second-year student of St Mary’s Engineering College, he says, “For three months, the college asked me to pay the fees of Rs 1 lakh. I told them my father isn’t getting a salary since the strike is going on…But the management wouldn’t listen. I was not allowed to sit for the internal exam. They said it will be conducted separately for me once I pay the fees.”
His father, Shrinivas, says none of this would have happened if KCR held even one meeting with the workers. “I could have then taken a loan against my salary. My son could have sat for his exam.”
TSRTC driver N Shrinivas, right, with his wife and son, Raju.
During the strike, Shrinivas worked as an auto driver. Earning Rs 10,000 a month, he managed to pay his monthly rent of Rs 4,000, but this left him with insufficient funds for other expenses. His wife, Nirmala, says, “During the strike, we had to cut our rations by more than half.”
Shrinivas has other worries. Though he works as a driver, he was assigned to be a conductor last year on a bus to Vijayawada because the TSRTC has been struggling with a staff shortage. When a passenger missed buying a ticket, Shrinivas was suspended. He now gets only half his salary.
“The passenger who didn’t buy the ticket should be fined, not us,” Shrinivas argues. “The management punishes us instead. Workers object to these suspensions; it was one of our important demands from the state government.”
Nirmala says Shrinivas’s salary being halved forced them to suspend their daughter’s education. “We can’t afford to educate two children,” she says, “and we already took a loan of Rs 1 lakh for my son’s education last year. The TSRTC salaries are already very low, and every second employee is in debt.”
P Laxman, a 38-year-old TSRTC driver, shares the same worries. His family comprises seven others — his mother, wife, two children, a nephew and a niece.
His niece was supposed to be married in November. “I had to arrange money for her marriage but the government didn’t even pay us our September salary,” he says. “I went to the bank and they refused to give me a loan. The TSRTC-run Credit Cooperative Society hasn’t given loans for 1.5 years, though seven per cent is cut for it from my basic pay. Finally, the head office of State Bank of India relented and gave me a loan.”
TSRTC driver P Laxman with his wife Manjula and two children.
According to Laxman, at least 90 per cent of the TSRTC employees have taken loans, given that salaries are inadequate to run a household and raise a family. He says “at least 100 workers” would have died if the strike hadn’t been called off. But, he says, “The strike was required, because the government exploited us to the core.”
Laxman earns a gross salary of Rs 35,643, of which he takes home Rs 26,054. During the strike, Laxman worked as a car driver, earning Rs 10,000 a month. “It became difficult for us to survive,” he says. “My daughter was admitted in hospital during the strike and the bill was Rs 20,000. I had to take a loan from a private moneylender.” The family couldn’t admit the daughter to the Road Transport Corporation hospital since it was closed during the strike.
Laxman’s wife, P Manjula, says the family could not pay their rent, but the house owner gave them time. “We reduced our rations from Rs 4,000 to Rs 2,000, since the prices of vegetables were rising and the salary had stopped,” she says.
D Jayalakshmi, a conductor with the TSRTC, says the workers had no choice but to go on strike. “We face a lot of issues, from low salaries to duty timings. Passengers misbehave with women conductors, but that doesn’t affect us anymore. We demanded that women should not be given night duties because it becomes difficult for them to work at night. We can’t take leave even if there’s an emergency; we first have to submit a certificate, even if we’re critically ill.”
Jayalakshmi says there are no toilets for women staff in any of the 97 bus depots in Telangana. “So we don’t drink water, since we have no toilets. There is also no separate staffroom for women.”
TSRTC conductor D Jayalakshmi with her son, Samba Shiva, and daughter, Vedarakshita.
Jayalakshmi’s husband is a teacher, so they were just about able to manage during the strike. Her son, Samba Shiva, is currently preparing for the state Public Service Commission exams. He would go to the library every day to study but the strike pushed his daily travel expenses from Rs 10 to Rs 50. “It may sound like a small amount for a lot of people,” Shiva says, “but not for us. So I stopped going.”
Jayalakshmi’s daughter, Vedarakshita, is preparing for exams too: the Union Public Service Commission exam. Her coaching fees are Rs 1.2 lakh. “My parents paid Rs 40,000 about four months ago and the remaining fees were to be paid in a month. Then the strike started,” she says. Thankfully, she adds, the coaching institute agreed to allow her to pay the amount later.
On October 13, Surendra Gaud, 45, a conductor at Ranuganj depot, died by suicide. It was one week after the strike had been called and KCR had announced that the workers would be dismissed.
Gaud’s wife, B Jyoti, 48, lives in Karwan in Hyderabad. “He went to the depot to participate in the strike,” she says. “When he came back home, he hanged himself in his room. Nobody was home at the time.”
Jyoti says her husband was a “brave man”. “He was a devoted worker, he would help his colleagues. But the chief minister’s statement — that he would dismiss the workers — scared him, so he ended his life. KCR is responsible for the death of my husband. Even after his death, the police forced us to do his final rites in a hurry.”
This is something several TSRTC workers told Newslaundry: that they were urged by the police to conduct the funerals of the TSRTC workers quickly.
After Gaud’s death, Telugu Desam Party leader Chandrababu Naidu and Congress leader Hanumant Rao gave the family Rs 1 lakh and Rs 50,000, respectively.
Jyoti does some tailoring work, earning Rs 10,000. Rent is Rs 6,000. “If the leaders hadn’t helped, our family would have been living on the road.”
Top: TSRTC conductor Surendra Gaud, centre, with his family. Bottom: Jyoti and her children Supriya and B Sankerthan after Gaud’s death.
Gaud had also taken a loan of Rs 5 lakh for the marriage of his daughter. After his death, bank officials began calling the family to pay the installments, Jyoti claims. “I told them my husband died, but they still call daily. I don’t know what to do.”
B Neerja, a woman conductor who worked with the TSRTC, died by suicide at her home in Kaviraj Nagar, Khamam district. Her husband, Raj Shekhar, says she was very worried about losing her job. “After the chief minister announced the dismissal of the TSRTC workers, she was sad all the time,” he says. “I tried to console her; I said she doesn’t have to worry about the house since I work. But she took that statement to heart.”
Neerja and Shekhar have a daughter aged 11 and a son aged nine. “We were supposed to go to our village, Sadasivapuram, in Nelakondapally for Diwali,” Shekhar says. “My mother and children had already left. Neerja went with her brother, but returned on the same day. We then decided we’d go together.”
Shekhar was at work when Neerja telephoned him. “She sounded sad, she was talking oddly. I cheered her up. Two hours later, when I came back home, I found her hanging.”
A devastated Shekhar adds, “Our life was going smoothly. We were happy. Our children are very young and are very sad after their mother’s death. Everything is destroyed.”
Like Shekhar, 25-year-old Parmeshwari holds KCR responsible for the death of her husband, S Ramesh. Ramesh was a conductor at Musheerabad depot. On October 22, he died of a heart attack.
Parmeshwari with a photo of her husband, Ramesh, outside Musheerabad depot.
Parmeshwari, who lives in Mall village, Rangareddy district, says, “My husband became very tense after the chief minister’s announcement to dismiss the workers. He got too stressed and died of a heart attack.”
Parmeshwari and Ramesh got married four years ago and have an 18-month-old daughter. “I don’t know what will happen in the future,” Parmeshwari says. “I don’t have money. I don’t have a job. I don’t know how I will raise my daughter.”
V Chandriah, a bus conductor at Rajendra Nagar depot, says his wife died during the strike from a prolonged illness. Without his salary, he did not have money to perform her last rites. “I had to borrow from my friends,” he says. “My wife was already suffering from an illness. The financial problems during the strike took a toll on her.”
According to Dilipraj Sapavat, a conductor at Ibrahimpatnam depot, the police “hounded” the TSRTC workers during the strike. “We were lathi-charged and arrested,” he says. “The government ordered the police to suppress our strike.” He adds that many family members of employees also urged them to call off the strike, citing financial issues.
KS Chari, a driver and depot secretary of Rajendra Nagar depot, says they have all faced problems during the strike. He himself wasn’t able to procure medicines for his disabled son, or pay hostel fees for his other children. But, he says, “If this government is planning to shut the unions, then they have some nefarious plans. The union helps and resolves the problems of workers. Without unions, we will be exploited more.”
This story is part of the NL Sena project. It was made possible thanks to monetary contributions by Sridhar Raghu, Sreekanth Reddy, Shiv Gupta, Gaurav Ketkar, Prakhar Sachdeo, Bikram Das, Devaki Khanna, Naveen Pachunuri, and other members of NL Sena. We want to do more such stories and you can help. Become a part of NL Sena and help keep news independent and free. Click here.