Even as the Telangana bus transport strike neared the one-month mark, Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao on Saturday announced the privatisation of 50% of the state's bus services and set a three-day deadline for agitating employees to resume their duties.
After a nearly five-hour marathon cabinet meeting earlier in the day, the chief minister announced that as many as 5,100 private buses would be given permits to run on specified routes. The Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC) used to run 10,400 buses, out of which over 2,000 buses were already private and another 2,000 were in a dilapidated state, he said.
Mr Rao said that the privatisation move, which is being opposed by trade unions, is a policy decision of the cabinet and cannot be reversed by anybody. He also pointed out that the central government's recent amendment of the Motor Vehicles Act allows states to privatise in order to ensure sustainability.
"It is, however, not our intention to deprive striking employees of their job. We know that they are being misled by union leaders. We are giving them a wonderful opportunity to return and retain their job. They must rejoin unconditionally by November 5 midnight. But if they insist on being misled and losing their jobs, no one can help them," the chief minister said.
Mr Rao has been steadfastly refusing to give in to the striking employees' demands - including the merger of the Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC) with the state government - and has warned them that they could soon be considered "self-dismissed" for joining an agitation deemed illegal by the state government. The state government counsel even told the Telangana High Court that striking employees can't be paid for the month of September because the corporation cannot dispense Rs 239 crore in salaries when it has less than Rs 10 crore in its coffers. The strike, it claims, has caused the TSRTC a revenue loss of up to Rs 175 crore.
Three suicides and multiple incidents of employees suffering fatal heart attacks have been reported ever since the strike began on October 5.
Transport unions have, in turn, announced intensification of their protest. They will take up a weeklong strike programme, including a rural village protest along with other unions and political parties, and hold a big meeting at Chalo Tank Bund over the next week. They claim that they are owed around Rs 4,000 crore, which the government denies.
Defending the privatisation move, Mr Rao said that private buses make a profit of up to 75 paise per kilometre while the transport corporation only loses money. The unions, however, say that bus fares have not been hiked since 2016 despite sharp spikes in diesel rates.
The Chief Minister also ruled out any possibility of merging the TSRTC with the state government. "If I do that, 57 other corporations will also ask to be merged. It's practically impossible to do that," he said.