Struggle of Singareni Coal Miners
Background of this Movement
The number of workers employed at Singareni has decreased since 1990-91 from 1,16,918 workers to the current strength. Production, productivity and payments from Singareni to Central and State governments in the form of royalty, taxes and cess have however risen.
The management and the state government have evolved a plan to decrease the number of workers and to increasingly hand over regular work for contractualization. By now 50% of sanitary work has been given to private contractors. In the name of off loading, surface departments have also been contractualized. The Company’s hospitals are being handed over to private hospitals; vehicles are being sold and drivers face retrenchments. Machines are being introduced to reduce the need of workers. Though by 2016 there will be no life for open cast mines as coal reserves upto the depth of 300 metres will be exhausted, more than Rs. 1000 crores have been spent for open cast machines. Meanwhile the government has restricted the Company from opening new mines unless 16% profit can be guaranteed. However, the government is prepared to hand over new mines to private contractors. In September 2001 AP State Cabinet decided to give seven blocks to private contractors, though this decision will take effect only if the Coal Mines Privatization Bill is passed by the Parliament.
After a long period, Singareni management had opened an open cast project (OCP) at Koyagudem (Yellandu). However, the extraction has begun with surface miner instead of the shovel and dumper, drastically reducing the number of workers necessary (from 317 to 18). Also, all works including that of coal extraction were handed over to different private contractors. This is against the Joint Bipartite Committee for Coal Industry (JBCCI) Agreement (that permanent work will not be entrusted to contract workers), against the Nationalization of Coal Mines Act 1973 (jobs directly related to coal extraction should not be entrusted to contractors) and against the Supreme Court judgement prohibiting contracting out of works pertaining to minerals’extraction in schedule areas under 1/70 Act (this mine is situated in forest land). Thus Singareni workers opposed the surface miner operated by contractor in Koyagudem.
First Phase of Struggle
Though the Koyagudem open cast mine started working on 14th August 2002, coal was extracted by shovel and dumper upto end September 2002. From 5th October, management started extraction of coal by surface miner and other private machines also came into operation. Under the leadership of CPI(ML)-New Democracy, a Koyagudem Mines Protection Committee involving IFTU, AIKMS, PDSU, PYL and POW was formed and Com. Gummadi Narsaiah was elected its Chairman. On 5th October 2002 a thousand people were mobilized to obstruct the work of the surface miner – half of them were peasants and agricultural labourers mobilized from surrounding villages, 200 were coal miners and 300 were workers of motor transport, tiles and loaders. The agitators brought the miners from the mine onto the ground, while the contractors took their loader and terex machines some distance away from the mine. Though police was mobilized, seeing the large number of people they refrained from repression. Similarly, a thousand people participated in dharnas on 6th and 7th October – on 7th, half the participants were women and a dharna was held at Kothagudem head office. On all these days the surface miner remained unused. One hundred people from CITU and CPM also took part in the dharna on the 5th while another hundred of AITUC and BMS held a separate dharna. All these dharnas were preceded by extensive propaganda and two public meetings, one each at Kothagudem and Yellandu.
Second Phase of Struggle
The working of the surface miner remained paralyzed upto 26th October 2002. However, AP Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu, toured Kothagudem and Khammam and instructed Singareni management to commence work with the surface miner. Emboldened, the management began work through the contractor, while CPI(ML)-New Democracy and IFTU took initiative to convene a meeting of all political parties and trade unions to form a broad based joint action committee. In these meetings on 27th and 28th October 2002 only TDP’s trade union (TNTUC) did not participate; AITUC, INTUC, CITU, BMS, IFTU, CPI(ML)-ND, CPM, CPI, BJP, Congress and TRS took part in forming the Singareni Parirakshana Committee (Singareni Protection Committee) with Com. Gummadi Narsaiah (MLA of our Party) as convenor. This committee decided to obstruct the work of the surface miner from 6th November 2002.
After extensive propaganda, a dharna was held at Koyagudem on 6th November where 1500 people took part – 1200 were miners. The contractor promised to refrain from operating the surface miner until an agreement was reached between workers and management. However, from 6th to 26th November daily dharnas were held where 50-2000 workers participated daily. On 22nd November, a dharna was held at Kothagudem head office where 1000 coal miners from Yellandu participated. On 27th December, a mammoth picketing was conducted with 5000 people – more than 1500 coal miners from Yellandu participated.
Third Phase of Struggle
After remaining stalled for 55 days, work with the surface miner was recommenced by the management and contractor on 31st December under the cover of a massive police force. The struggle committee decided to obstruct its work from 3rd January 2003. A thousand workers and 250 peasants tried to enter the mine but large scale arrests and lathi charges took place. Com. Gummadi Narsaiaha and IFTU State Committee Secretary Com. SV were also detained, along with hundreds of workers.
On 10th January the Parirakshana Committee called for encircling the Koyagudem OCP and 4000 workers with hundreds of other people laid a seize that day. Police foisted a case on trade union leaders (including that of IFTU) and sent them to Warangal jail. Protests began against the repression and workers began preparation for indefinite strike.
Indefinite Strike from 22nd January
Earlier, on 5th August 2002, AITUC gave a strike call throughout Singareni, with the withdrawal of contract of surface miner at Koyagudem as one demand. At area level (where AITUC is the recognized union), this was the sole demand. Though all unions including IFTU supported the strike, it was withdrawn after 4 days. Taking heart from this failure the management started Koyagudem OCP with contractors from 14th August 2002. Though workers were reluctant to come forward for struggle even while they were dissatisfied, IFTU and our party gradually mobilized them.
The ensuing gathering movement described above led to all unions giving a joint call for indefinite strike throughout Singareni from 22nd January. The focal point of the charter of demands framed was opposition to privatization and contractualization of the mines.
The management tried to crush the strike by repression on the one hand and by refusing to talk to non-recognized unions on the other. Armed police manned the mines, residential colonies of workers and the offices. Section 144 and 151 was imposed throughout Singareni area. Hundreds of people including coal miners, were arrested daily, several lathi charges were resorted to. Using the services to TNTUC as a fifth column, management tried to threaten and to lure workers to break strike. (It promised six days wage for a day’s work, and government announced 5% additional bonus if workers withdrew strike.)
However total strike continued for 15 days. All unions made it clear to the management that it would have to talk to a joint negotiating committee. The strike was unique in that it was fought on mainly non-economic demands and all unions except TNTUC were united on this strike. All political parties in AP, apart from the ruling TDP, supported the strike. Thousands of workers participated in daily rallies, rasta rokos and demonstrations; workers in large numbers laid siege of open cast mines at Yellandu, Kothagudem, Ramagundem and Manuguru to obstruct strike breakers. MLAs of CPI(ML)-ND, CPM, Congress and TRS courted arrest several times.
The Singareni management tried to argue that contractualization was a government policy and management was helpless in its face. It also tried to lure workers that work was being given to contractors on ‘trial basis’ and later regular workers would be trained for the same. However, the reality is that surface miners are already under use in Coal India in the other states so the need for trial does not arise. Also when all new mines are contractualized and the old mines have no coal left, no work will be left for regular workers.
Seeing that its propaganda was of no avail, that attendance at the mines was thinning and support for the struggle growing, the management began talks on 1st February 2003. A state-wide bandh was declared for 10th February by all political parties supporting the strike.
However on 7th February 2003, four trade unions of Singareni Parirakshan Committee concluded an agreement with the management and abruptly called off the strike from the 8th of February. The IFTU delegation walked out of the negotiations, did not sign the agreement betraying the workers’ struggle and issued a call to continue the strike. CITU did the same. AITUC, INTUC, BMS and HMS are parties to the agreement that has left unheeded the main demands of the struggle. Management has agreed to decrease the period of contract of the surface miner at Koyagudem from 10 months to 8 months. Some minor demands have been partially accepted but there is no agreement to stop contractualization, to roll back contractualization in surface mines, to revoke contract of surface miner at Koyagudem and withdraw contract CDL machines in underground mines. These were the actual issues of struggle.
Around 80% workers refrained from joining duty on 8th February 2003, but the break in the joint struggle call did not allow the strike to sustain further. IFTU is now actively engaged in taking up programmes to put the lessons of this struggle before the coal miners and the people and to gear them up for the days of struggle necessarily looming up ahead.
It is worth noting that though the strike of around a lakh workers continued for two weeks against privatization, and though all unions who lead the coal workers of the country were party to the strike, no call for solidarity struggle was issued by the other central trade unions. IFTU on its own organized some solidarity actions at Dhanbad with workers of Coal India. It is also noteworthy that surface miners – which drastically reduce the necessary work force – have been introduced earlier throughout Coal India and this struggle could have been well understood by those workers.
The strike also bears out the lesson that AITUC, INTUC and all such trade union centres linked to ruling class parties are actually insincere about fighting pro-imperialist ‘new’ economic policies to the point of revocation. Their conviction and sincerity decreases in proportion to workers’ actual commitment to push back these policies. Not only did AITUC withdraw the first strike in August 2002 with no settlement, but it led the sell out again this time. The result will be to weaken the workers’ resolve and conviction of the possibility of roll back though UP power workers’ and even other smaller struggles have categorically shown that it is possible. The example of Balco also comes to mind where the strike was allowed to last 75 days before these central TUs who led it gave a call for public sector solidarity action – when they gave it, it was clear already that the strike was gasping. In Singareni on the other hand, with a statewide bandh likely to be fully successful looming ahead on 10th February 2003, the AITUC, INTUC, HMS and BMS bailed out the Chandrababu Naidu Government. The lesson is that the revolutionary trade union movement must become fully conscious that politically these trade union centres do not have the commitment towards a total roll back of pro-imperialist policies. The governments they are linked to are implementing these very policies. For struggles against privatization to succeed and to prevent the workers’ will from being betrayed, revolutionary trade union movement should strive to keep the initiative and control of such struggles firmly in their own hands while seeking broad based participation.