Over the last five years, as Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao spent crores on his “spiritual guru”, Chinna Jeeyar Swamy, employees of the Telangana State Road Transport Corporation were struggling to make ends meet.
TSRTC workers went on strike in October, 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 strike ended last week, but nearly 30 people died during the course of it. Workers died by suicide, worried that they would be terminated; others struggled against the immense financial pressure.
TSRTC employees told Newslaundry that crores deducted from workers’ salaries — in the form of provident funds and other employee benefits — was used by TSRTC management, which runs on the direction of the state government.
Here’s what happened.
When the state was bifurcated in 2014, the Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation was divided into two corporations, the APSRTC and the TSRTC. When TSRTC came into existence, it had 56,740 employees and 10,459 buses. According to TSRTC workers, the government has not conducted recruitment for the organisation in the last five years. With employees retiring, the workforce strength now stands at 49,673 — leading to excessive workload on employees.
Ravindra Reddy, a TSRTC employee and member of the Staff and Workers Federation, claims the government-run management of the TSRTC uses employee provident funds, cooperative credit society funds and other welfare schemes to run the organisation. “This is an amount of around Rs 1,700 crore…There is a huge shortage of staff as nearly 7,000 workers retired, and our workload has increased tremendously. We weren’t getting salaries on time, and salaries have not been revised for six years.”
Reddy adds, “Even if someone was critically ill at home or a worker himself was sick, leave was not provided. At least a dozen employees died of heart attack thanks to the workload and stress. Workers have held various protests in the last 33 months, asking the management and government to resolve our issues. When they paid us no heed, we decided to conduct the strike.”
According to Reddy, salaries were last revised in April 2013. “According to the Labour Act, they should have been revised in April 2017. However, the announcement for even the 2013 pay revision was only made in May 2015 — after a day-long strike by workers.”
AV Rao, an employee of TSRTC, says the management did not attend to “basic needs”. “The government hasn’t bought a single new bus in the last five years, so 50 per cent of old and overused buses run on the road. This is dangerous for passenger safety too. Instead, they’ve increased the hiring of buses, which incurs losses for the organisation.”
K Gangadhar, who also works with TSRTC, says, “The government and management were paying our salaries from our own provident fund account. This shows the kind of exploitation that was going on in TSRTC. We are supposed to work eight hours a day but we all work overtime — yet we are not getting paid for overtime.”
The workers claim that their provident fund, amounting to Rs 826 crore, was used by management to run the organisation itself. Twelve per cent of their salary is paid into the provident fund, and employees would take loans on the basis of the funds. For two years, they say, they haven’t been able to take out the loans since the management has used the provident fund amount. As a result, employees are forced to go to private banks for loans.
Similarly, 7 per cent of basic pay and dearness allowance goes into TSRTC’s cooperative credit society. In the last five years, workers allege the management used these funds, amounting to Rs 528.55 crore. They claim the management also used funds from the staff retirement benefit scheme, a sum of Rs 350 crore, and Rs 100 crore from the staff benevolent thrift fund.
Employees told Newslaundry that TSRTC pays taxes worth thousands of crores to the state government, but the organisation and its workers have seen no improvement. This includes motor vehicle tax of Rs 1,052 crore between 2014-15 and 2018-19, and state VAT and central excise tax of Rs 2,609.89 crore on diesel.
Corporation land ‘leased’ by TRS
Babu, president of the TSRTC Employees’ Union, told Newslaundry that the land of several TSRTC depots is being “occupied” by Telangana Rashtra Samiti leaders. “They have taken it on lease and not paid the rent, which amounts to crores,” he says.
Newslaundry accessed a document that says TRS MLA Jeevan Reddy has leased the land at the TSRTC bus depot in Armoor. A mall has now been constructed on the land. Since September 2018, Reddy hasn’t paid TSRTC rent worth Rs 2.19 crore.
Babu says in 2016, TRS members occupied the land at the Nirmal depot and constructed a boundary. “We filed a police complaint and it was then vacated,” he says, “but they are still trying to grab it. In Warangal, TRS MP Pasunuri Dayakar has been allotted five acres of TSRTC land which was used for tyre manufacturing. The workers at that manufacturing unit were sent to other units in Karimnagar.”
M Kodandaram, head of the Telangana Jan Samithi and one of the most popular voices of the Telangana movement, says, “Just before the 2018 election, KCR told TSRTC employees he’d sort out their problems. He used their support to win the election — but then he forgot them after winning.”
According to him, the corporation owns about 14,000 acres of land. “The KCR government is eyeing property worth about Rs 80,000 crore,” he says. “In press conferences, he’s made statements that commercial complexes can be built on RTC land to improve the financial condition of the corporation. However, RTC land is being leased to TRS leaders who don’t even pay the rent.”
Kodandaram says a four-day strike took place after the 2014 election. “KCR didn’t like the strike, though he knows TSRTC and its workers are in a poor condition. Basically, KCR cannot tolerate dissent. He needs complete submission.”
Other TSRTC losses
1. In the last five years, the state government has not reimbursed concessions given by TSRTC to students, MLAs, the differently-abled, and other public concessions. These concessions amount to Rs 2,802.75 crore. Documents accessed by Newslaundry show the government allotted Rs 1,360 crore for reimbursement but only paid Rs 620 crore.
2. At the time of bifurcation in 2014, the rate of diesel was Rs 48 per litre. It’s now increased to approximately Rs 72 per litre. Every year, the TSRTC uses 25 crore litres (7 lakh litres or more in a day) of diesel a day. While the price of diesel has gone up, there’s been no increase in TSRTC ticket rates.
3. There are around 10,484 buses in Telangana. About 36 per cent of the buses operate in rural areas. They run at total loss due to low passenger traffic. Thirty-seven per cent of TSRTC’s buses operate in cities and incur heavy losses of nearly Rs 400 crore per year.
When he formed government, KCR said TSRTC’s losses in city operations will be paid by the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation. The GHMC last paid TSRTC Rs 330 crore for 2015-16, and is yet to pay dues of Rs 1,492 crore up to 2019.
Only 28 per cent of TSRTC buses run at profit. These are high-end buses and include Garuda, Garuda Plus, Indra, Super Luxury and Express Service buses.
4. In 2014-15, out of a total of 10,459 TSRTC buses, 1,466 were “hire buses”. These are private buses run by TSRTC where the private operator is paid by TSRTC per kilometre. TSRTC retains the fare and pays for diesel.
By 2019, the number of hire buses increased to 2,133 out of a total of 10,484 buses. These buses are loss-incurring — TSRTC’s daily earnings from a hire bus is Rs 10,397 while expenditure is Rs 12,287.
Illegal operation of private buses
TSRTC has 100 per cent rights on bus routes in Telangana. There are three kinds of permits in the state: the stage carriage permit, tourist carriage permit and contract carriage permit.
A stage carriage permit allows buses to stop in-between and pick up passengers. Tourist carriage permits and contract carriage permits do not allow buses to stop; they can travel only from the departure point to the destination point. Stage carriage permits are exclusively held by TSRTC, as per the law, and cannot be given to private bus owners.
When Telangana was formed in 2014, private bus operations increased tremendously. Around 5,000 buses with tourist permits were illegally operating as stage carriers. TSRTC incurs about Rs 1,000 crore loss as a result, and continues to do so.
Newslaundry accessed an official statistical report which said in 2017-18, TSRTC had 10,613 buses while the number of stage carriage buses was 15,326. This implies 4,773 buses were private buses operating illegally as stage carriers.
In October this year, KCR announced he would grant stage carrier permits to 2,100 private buses. Workers think this announcement is an attempt to incur more losses to TSRTC, paving the way for its gradual privatisation.
The timeline of the strike
August 30, 2018: Five TSRTC unions gave a strike notice to the management, saying they’ve been waiting for three years for the management to resolve workers issues.
September 3: The Employees Union of the All India Trade Union Congress also gave a strike notice.
September 11: The Telangana Mazdoor Union, affiliated with the TRS, gave a strike notice. This union even changed its flag from pink to white due to police crackdown on workers during the strike.
Workers protesting during the strike.
September 19: A joint action committee was formed, comprising the Employees’ Union, Staff and Workers Federation, Telangana Mazdoor Union and Supervisors’ Association.
September 20: The joint action committee handed a list of 26 demands to Sunil Sharma, managing director of TSRTC.
September 21: The Joint Labour Commission called for a meeting on September 23.
September 23: TSRTC management did not conduct the meeting. Instead, a letter was sent to the joint action committee saying they will be “intimated” about further plans. The committee responded on the same day, asking that the conciliation process be completed in three days, otherwise the meeting will be considered to have been completed.
September 28: The joint action committee announced October 5 as the strike date.
September 29: The Joint Labour Commission sent a letter saying the conciliation meeting will be held on October 4.
October 1: The government constituted a three-member committee comprising IAS officers. The committee contacted the joint action committee on October 2-3, asking them to nullify the announcement of the strike on October 5. The IAS committee said the government was “furious” and the strike should be called off.
October 4: Conciliation meeting was conducted but was not fruitful. After the meeting, KCR conducted a press conference and stated that if the workers go on strike, he will shut down TSRTC.
October 5: The strike began. KCR announced that if workers don’t return to work by the next day, he will dismiss them from their jobs. The joint action committee condemned KCR’s statement, saying they have given notice as per the Industrial Disputes Act and are ready to talk to resolve the issues. KCR refused to speak with them.
October 6: R Subhendar Singh, a student of Osmania University, filed a PIL in the Telangana High Court, asking that the strike be called off in public interest.
November 1: The Telangana High Court pulled up Sunil Sharma, the managing director of TSRTC, for submitting an incorrect report on the dues to be paid by the government to the TSRTC.
November 25: The joint action committee called off the strike.
November 26: TSRTC workers were preventing from rejoining work by the police. They were released later that evening.
November 27: The police was deployed at 97 depots across the state, as directed by KCR, to prevent workers from rejoining.
November 28: A cabinet meeting was conducting and KCR announced that workers can resume their duties.
December 1: KCR summoned five workers from each depot to meet him, and promised to build separate toilets, lunchrooms and changing rooms for women employees, and a yearly allocation of Rs 1,000 crore to the TSRTC. The workers were selected at random — KCR did not meet with union leaders.
December 2: The management locked the office of the joint action committee at Bus Bhavan.
‘KCR has shown his true colours’
VS Rao, general secretary of the Staff and Workers Federation, says the strike was one of the few strikes called by workers, not unions.
“That is why despite the repeated threats by the chief minister, workers were not ready to join duty,” he says. “It was only after the call-off by the joint action committee that they decided to resume their duties. However, KCR didn’t even let the workers resume their duties even after the call-off. He only called the workers for a meeting just to show that his is a good government.”
Rao says it’s clear that KCR is not interested in settling issues at the union level. “The recent assurances are 70 per cent of our demands only. That is why he called some workers to his official residence.”
Ashwathama Reddy, president of the joint action committee and deputy leader of the Telangana Mazdoor Union, says, “Although he made promises, we are doubtful whether he will fulfill them or not. My union used to support the TRS government. But during the strike, we even changed the pink colour of our flag. TSRTC supported KCR in the Telangana movement but he has shown his true colours over a period of time.”
When asked about the management locking the union office at Bus Bhavan, Reddy says, “Nobody can stop the workers’ union. Kisi ke baap ki jageer nahi hai (it’s not ancestral property of any one).”
Newslaundry reached out to Sunil Sharma, managing director of TSRTC, with a questionnaire but received no response. The story will be updated if a response is received.