Thousands of port and dock workers at the dozen state-owned major ports are holding a day-long protest today (Thursday) against the Centre’s plan to convert the port trusts into authorities, which they feel is the first step towards the privatisation of these ports.
The workers want the government to desist from introducing the Major Port Authorities Bill – which was approved by the Union Cabinet on February 12 — in the ongoing Budget session of Parliament, and passing it without taking in the views of the workers’ unions.
In her Budget speech on February 1, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced that at least one major port trust would be corporatised and listed.
“There are a series of controversial provisions in the Bill which ultimately aims to privatise the entire Indian major port trusts gradually, in line with the prevailing pro-corporate policy regime,” said T Narendra Rao, General Secretary, Water Transport Workers’ Federation of India.
The new Bill, according to him, contains provisions for mobilising finance from international/national financial institutions, irrespective of whether they are scheduled/private institutions, as well as from private banks. It also enables the major ports to mobilise resources from persons in India or abroad.
“More explanation is not necessary to realise the dangers concealed in these provisions, which were brought to the notice of the government by the workers’ unions many times since the new Bill was drafted,” Rao said, adding that the unions had requested the government to drop these provisions.
“Once the port trusts are converted into authorities after the new Bill is passed by Parliament, each port authority will be converted into a corporate entity using the clauses in the law. That is the ultimate agenda of the Central government,” he said.
Responding to apprehensions raised by the workers’ unions, the Chairman of the Indian Ports Association (IPA) had assured at a meeting, called on December 5, 2019, that the fears over converting the port authority into a company were “highly misplaced”.
However, this assurance was belied by the Finance Minister’s announcement on the corporatisation of major ports, Rao said.
The first target for corporatisation would either be the ‘richest’ major port trust having huge surplus funds or a port trust with a vibrant cargo handling capacity and good hinterland connectivity designed and constructed with public funds.
Concern over LIC IPO
The unions are also agitated about the Centre’s move to sell shares in Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) through an IPO.
“This is a matter of serious concern for the port and dock workers because LIC manages the pension and gratuity funds of all the major ports. Once the IPO is held and the shares are sold to private entities, it would endanger the stability of the pension and gratuity funds of the major ports,” said Rao.
In view of this, the port unions are demanding the safety of the huge pension and gratuity funds of the workers and pensioners deposited with the LIC, he added.