Since its first term, the Modi government has gradually pushed policies for increased privatisation, and sale of Public Sector Undertakings, the decision that is often directly against the demands of workers and peoples’ groups.
The narrative that has been put forwards towards the push for privatisation is that of increased efficiency and productivity while the negative impact of privatisation is never discussed. But the privatisation of education and transport is for all of us to see.
‘Save Public Sector’, an initiative to oppose privatization, held a National Convention on the importance of the public sector for the welfare of the people on August 29.
Speakers at the convention included employees from various public sectors such as telecom, railway, defense, shipping, pharma, insurance, coal, electricity, newsprint, airports, banking, and education, along with members of central trade unions, academicians, activists, and retired IAS officers. The speakers presented important ideas and strategies to put a stop to privatization by building a mass movement across the country.
For many years, the government has been trying to privatize the PSUs of the country by gradually disinvesting and making it harder for PSUs to function efficiently.
Importance of Public Sector
The public sector, meant to serve the people, delivers goods and services to the remotest areas of the country at the same cost as anywhere else, since it is not driven by considerations of profit. On the other hand, the private sector does not have a social responsibility to the people, and hence is driven only by profit, leading to ill-treatment of workers, exploitation of resources, and high prices of goods and services.
While PSUs were established after Independence, the core idea behind the public sector is much more historical. Starting from Adivasi movements like that of Birsa Munda, to the farmer’s satyagraha in Champaran- it is the idea that natural resources should be used for the welfare of all people rather than the profit of a few.
The public sector has been important for accelerating the growth of core sectors of the economy, for serving the equipment needs of strategically important sectors, to generate employment and income, and to provide goods and services to the people of the country. For many years, the government has been trying to privatize the PSUs of the country by gradually disinvesting and making it harder for PSUs to function efficiently.
The Public Sector Belongs to the Public
To sell these sectors to private players, especially without a referendum, is anti-people and anti-constitutional.
PSUs have been built using land and resources that belong to the people. In many cases, this has led to the displacement of local communities as well. All the assets of the public sector are the property of the people of the country, and PSUs are required to provide them with employment, and accessible goods and services. The land and resources used to build and run the PSUs belong not just to the present generation of people, but future generations as well.
The government that is in power at any given point of time is merely a representative. The current party in power represents merely 25% of the electorate, and at no point has the ruling party represented even 50% of the electorate. In this context, the government has no right to make a decision to sell the people’s property to private players. The people need to be reminded that the enormous amount of assets contained in the PSUs all belong to them and it is their money that has been used to develop the PSUs to the point at which they are today. It is their sweat, blood, and toil that has provided the labor for these PSUs to be developed and maintained. To sell these sectors to private players, especially without a referendum, is anti-people and anti-constitutional.
Myths about the Public Sector
There is a pervasive myth about the public sector that it is not efficient and that the private sector will be able to provide better services to the people. The private sector functions without any accountability. It does not invest its profits into the government and it receives a number of benefits when it comes to borrowing money from banks and public bail-outs when it is losing money. The private sector is given land and resources for low costs and is able to obtain labour in exploitative conditions. It is for this reason that the private sector can appear to be more efficient in certain contexts.
Before government interference, up to 2007, the public sector was neck to neck with the private sector. Even recently, public sector undertakings have by and large been extremely profitable and have paid dividends to the government.
Meanwhile, the public sector faces political interference, lack of funding, and a number of checks and balances from bureaucrats, and so on. The public sector delivers goods and services in locations where the private sector refuses to invest and continues to provide them during situations of crisis as well. The policies of complete privatization will lead to a monopoly of few players and the people will be at the mercy of their interests alone. This monopoly will be more harmful than any lack of efficiency that may have been seen in the past.
If the public sector is lacking inefficiency, it is the government’s responsibility to make it more efficient. Especially due to the impending economic and environmental crisis after the pandemic, the government should be paying more attention to strengthening the public sector. Before government interference, up to 2007, the public sector was neck to neck with the private sector. Even recently, public sector undertakings have by and large been extremely profitable and have paid dividends to the government.
The Way Forward to Save Public Sector
While employees in different sectors have been agitating against privatization, it is important for all public sector employees to come together and form a united front against privatization. Employees also need to unite across hierarchies, so that the government finds it more difficult to implement its policies at the lower level. The government has been attempting to create a terrorizing atmosphere for workers trying to organize, but in turn, workers should be creating a terrorizing atmosphere for investors, showing them that if their sector is privatized against their wishes, they will not cooperate with the new owners.
Employees of the public sector must introspect on the public’s complaints towards them, so that they are not reacting to privatization policies and ‘saving’ the public sector, but rather reinvigorating the public sector so that the public can be served better. Employees need to understand why the public has not supported them. The struggle for the public sector needs to be reframed as a people’s question, stressing on their right to the assets of the public sector, their right to the country’s resources, and their right to be served by the government.
It is also important to go beyond discussions in elite spaces and to form a mass movement, like the one that had been built in the past year during the anti-CAA-NRC struggle. The movement must go beyond trade unions and factories, and involve local communities who are stakeholders in the public sector. The struggle to save the public sector should engage with the struggles of Adivasis, Dalits, women, students, and so on, and build a united mass movement.
This article is a summary of the webinar- National Convention on The Importance of the Public Sector For the Welfare of the People, organized by ‘Save Public Sector’.