Employees and employee unions from MTNL and BSNL have labelled the Modi government's proposal of Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) to ageing employees of the two PSUs as the first step towards the "disinvestment" of the only state-run telecom operators.
At a meeting of the Digital Communications Commission (DCC), an inter-ministerial unit, on Thursday, it was agreed in principle to issue 10-year bonds to fund the VRS plans and monetise the properties of MTNL and BSNL towards fulfilling their debt obligations.
Official sources at the DoT have said the current debt of MTNL stood at approximately Rs 20,000 crore, compared to BSNL's Rs 15,000 crore . The entire VRS plan would cost around Rs 8,500 crore ( Rs 6.3 thousand crore for BSNL and Rs 2.1 thousand crore for MTNL) and involve laying off 75,000 employees from BSNL and 16,000 from MTNL.
Those in the know of the Thursday's meeting say NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant is in favour of "complete disinvestment" of the two PSUs, so as to make way for private telecom operators. The CEO of Niti Aayog is a part-time member of the DCC, which also comprises of secretaries from various government ministries as full-time participants among other members.
However, the proposal hasn't gone down well with the employees of the two PSUs.
AK Kaushik, the General Secretary of the Telecom Executive Association of MTNL(Delhi-Mumbai), questioned the entire logic of infusing Rs 8,500 crore towards voluntary requirement, when the funds could be utilised to upgrade the network infrastructure and towards buying the 4G spectrum.
Talking to National Herald at Kidwai Bhawan in New Delhi in presence of other MTNL employees, Kaushik remarked, "They are saying that they want 16,000 of our employees to retire over the next five years, in return for Gujarat-model type VRS scheme. Why can't they use the money towards allocating us 4G spectrum, which we have been demanding?" questioned Kaushik.
Explaining the 'Gujarat Model' VRS, Kaushik says that the employees who would be retrenched will be awarded wages for 35 days for every year they have been in service with the two PSUs, in addition to 20 days of pay for every year of service they are still left with.
“But everyone knows the state of PSUs in Gujarat. Look at the condition of GSPC (Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation),” he points out.
He notes that MTNL had continued to improve its revenue performance till 2017-18, despite getting no support from the Modi government whatsoever.
"Our revenue in 2013-14 stood at approximately Rs 8,000 crore. In 2017-18, it had come down to Rs 3,000 crore. The government has't supported us in any way, be it in investments or awarding us 4G spectrum," the veteran telecom official says.
He bills media reports claiming that 90 per cent of MTNL’s revenue go into paying the salaries of employees as "misrepresentation of facts," since there haven't been any financial backing from the government amid declining revenues in the face of "preferential treatment given to a private telecom operator."
"We have been taking loans from the government to pay off salaries of the workers for 3-4 years now," he says, noting that the operation costs are not being met by the revenues generated.
"They are not letting us compete with private operators. The decision to not award us 4G technology is part of a systemic design to kill off both the PSUs," he warns.
Now the general secretary of the Union, Kaushik had been with the MTNL from 2000 through 2013. Before his stint with MTNL, he was an official at the Department of Telecommunication from 1974 through 2000.
A serving woman employee at MTNL tells NH that the company's management has been oblivious to concern of the employees and the proposal for VRS is being pushed by the management, who are under pressure from the Department of Telecommunications (DoT).
Prahlad Rai, the General Secretary of All India BSNL Executives Association and an employee at BSNL, also rejects the voluntary retirement scheme being offered by the government and the management.
"The BSNL employees went on a three-day strike against the government this week for not meeting our long pending demand of awarding us 4G spectrum. The response was encouraging, which indicates the growing resentment among our employees towards this management and the government," Rai says, echoing the concerns of MTNL employees.
"The government has been creating financial hurdles for us and keeping us from revive," he adds, noting that BSNL has been gaining customers despite not having 4G spectrum till date.
The state-backed company witnessed an increase of 5.5 lakh customers, as per the latest data for the month of December, released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on Wednesday.