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Why Maharashtra’s state transport buses have been off the roads for past 16 days

Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation has been reeling under losses, made worse by pandemic, causing salaries to be delayed at times. Some workers have even committed suicide.

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Mumbai: Maharashtra’s public bus transport service has been paralysed for a fortnight now, owing to an ongoing strike by workers. On Wednesday, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray made a personal appeal to the workers to resume work, but even that has failed to bring them back.

The striking employees of the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) are demanding a merger of the loss-making corporation with the state government, among other things. While the MSRTC is an arm of the government, it is a separate registered entity. Compensations and allowances to employees of state-owned corporations are not necessarily on par with those that the state government offers to its staffers.

All 250 depots of the MSRTC are currently nonfunctional and the corporation has so far suspended 1,135 employees continuing to strike work as of Thursday, an MSRTC official said. The MSRTC had already suffered a loss of Rs 111 crore due to the strike as of Wednesday, according to data from the state transport corporation.

On Friday, as the strike entered its 16th day, MSRTC employees continued their protest at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan.

Many from across the state have traveled to Mumbai to be part of the protest, while others have been staging demonstrations in their home cities or towns, often resorting to unique ways to draw attention.

For instance, in Dhule, a group of MSRTC employees held banners with the words “Suspend me too”, and donated blood. In Pune, workers and their families banged thalis at one location and staged a shirtless protest at another, while in Nashik workers tonsured their heads.

The MSRTC is one of the country’s largest road transport corporations and has been reeling under losses for the past several years. The Corporation’s financial status was worsened by the pandemic. Between April 2020 and May 2021, the corporation suffered a loss of Rs 6,400 crore.

According to data from Maharashtra’s Economic Survey Report for 2020-21, the MSRTC has a fleet of 17,773 buses and an employee base of 96,441.

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Demands of the striking workers

Due to the poor financial condition of the MSRTC, the salaries of many staffers have been intermittently delayed in the past few months. Some workers have even committed suicide due to financial distress and delayed remuneration.

It was consistent delays in payment of salaries that pushed MSRTC workers to announce a strike from 27 October, just ahead of Diwali — when many people use state transport buses to visit their hometowns and families. The workers have been demanding a pay hike and to be classified as equivalent to state government employees, besides a merger of the MSRTC with the Maharashtra government.

On Monday, the Bombay High Court directed the Maharashtra government to constitute a committee to look into the demands of MSRTC’s disgruntled employees. The government formed a panel comprising senior bureaucrats from the MSRTC, finance, and transport departments, following which the court asked the striking employees to resume work.

When most workers still continued their agitation, the MSRTC filed a contempt petition in the Bombay High Court Wednesday.

Meanwhile, State Transport Minister Anil Parab held a meeting with the striking workers’ union Wednesday, after which he told reporters, “I had met the employees’ union before Diwali and agreed to most of their demands. The last one with regards to the merger of MSRTC with the state government was discussed today. I told them, a committee has been formed. We have to give our representation to the committee, which will give its report in 12 weeks and the state government will take a call.”

Parab, who is also chairman of MSRTC, requested the union to put the facts before disgruntled employees and urge them to return to work.

The strike, however, continues despite CM Thackeray too having made a direct appeal to the protesting MSRTC employees to return to work on Wednesday.

In a statement, Thackeray said, “Dear ST employees, you are our own. Not outsiders. Since the last few days the state government is trying hard to meet your demands and give you relief. The state government has also presented before the (Bombay) High Court the steps that we are taking to solve your issues and the high court has been satisfied too.

“In this situation, I am appealing to you with folded hands, please don’t have a protest that holds the state’s poor and common people to ransom,” the CM said.

With the BJP and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) backing the protesting employees, Thackeray has warned political parties to not use the MSRTC employees’ agitation to further their political agendas.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

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