It's been 25 days since road transport employees in Telangana went on strike, but there is still no resolution in sight. And the state government's plan to privatise up to 4,000 buses in an effort to alleviate the misery of commuters has only served to put the 49,000 striking employees on edge.
Tension gripped Khammam as a 31-year-old woman conductor with the Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC) hanged herself on Monday. Neeraja, a mother of two girls, was the third TSRTC employee to commit suicide since the strike began on October 5.
Seven others have died of heart attack in the last 25 days. A woman employee who died in Siddipet on Monday was the last such victim.
However, Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao stuck to his guns, terming the 49,000 employees as "self-dismissed" because they had gone on what the government has explicitly declared as an illegal strike. His government has even told the Telangana High Court that they can't be paid for September because the corporation cannot dispense Rs 239 crore in salaries when it has less than Rs 10 crore in its account. The strike, it claims, has caused the TSRTC a revenue loss of up to Rs 175 crore.
According to the government, the transport corporation incurs of a loss of up to Rs 1,000 crore annually and its outstanding loans come to Rs 4,709 crore. But TSRTC unions claim that as the government itself owes the corporation nearly Rs 4,000 crore, they cannot be allowed to increase bus fares in order to make it sustainable.
The Chief Minister has justified privatisation, saying that private services make up to 75 paise per kilometre while the TSRTC incurs a loss of Rs 13 for the same distance. The unions, however, point out that bus fares have not been hiked since 2016 even though diesel rates have risen sharply since then.
The chief minister reportedly intends to privatise services on 3,000 to 4,000 TSRTC routes, citing an amendment in the Motor Vehicles Act that allows states to take such an action. The move, however, is opposed by transport unions.
The striking employees want the TSRTC to be merged with the government, among other demands. The Chief Minister, however, has ruled out any such move. "If I do that, 57 other corporations will also ask to be merged. It's practically impossible to do that," he said.