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Monday, Jan 21, 2002

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Unions against corporatisation -- Neither wise nor happy

N. K. Kurup

The government decision to corporatise the country's major ports is aimed at improving their working. The objective is to convert port trusts into corporates. It is not anti-labour. On the contrary, it will make employees more responsible. It is time the unions recognised this reality.

THE port unions' recent protest against corporatisation of major ports reminds one of an old saying about learning. ``There are three classes of people. The first learn from their own experience — they are wise; the second learn from the experience of others — they are happy; the third neither learn from their own experience nor the experience of others — they are fools.''

Some background may help understand the relevance of this saying. Port unions are opposing the corporatisation of Government-owned ports. Though they had called off their proposed strike for January 22, reportedly on an assurance by the Union Shipping Minister that he would arrange a meeting of the unions with the Prime Minister, the unions are dead against the Government plans.

The unions believe corporatisation is the first step towards total privatisation of ports, which is against port workers' interests. Therefore, they demand scrapping of the Bill to amend the Major Port Trust Act. They apprehend that all the major ports would be taken over by multinationals, which will retrench all the existing employees.

Mr S. R. Kulkarni, leading port union leader, alleges that the facilities created by port trusts by investing their own large funds are given away to multinationals for a pittance and for their ``so-called commitments.'' Private parties bring only equipment; other facilities are created by port trusts. Why should we welcome such a policy, asks Mr Kulkarni.

According to him, the government policy has made the country's premier port — Mumbai — sick. Calcutta is a terminal case. Many others will follow suit if the current policy is continued: ``Major ports are being left at the mercy of private ports. What will be the future of pensioners of Mumbai and Calcutta ports? Nobody is looking at these issues,'' says Mr Kulkarni.

Workers are the strength of trade unions, and union leaders are expected to speak against any policy that will reduce their strength. But corporatisation is not aimed at retrenching workers.

The government decision to corporatise the country's major ports is aimed at improving their working. Though these ports — run by boards of trustees — currently enjoy a great measure of autonomy, they do not entirely function as commercial entities. They do not follow the system of reporting annual profit and loss. They are maintaining only income and expenditure statements. Simply put, the objective is to convert port trusts into corporates. It is not anti-labour. On the contrary, it will make employees more responsible. There will be greater accountability on the part of bureaucrats heading the port trusts.

Mr Kulkarni talks about Mumbai and Calcutta ports. He has been on the board of Mumbai Port Trust for many years. He knows what went wrong at Mumbai port and how it turned sick. He and his comrades in other unions are well aware of the problems at Indian ports. Yes, there is some merit in his views on port development policy. The Government knew well that JN Port would take away a part of Mumbai Port's traffic. Similarly, it was expected that the private P&O terminal would eat into the JN Port's share of cargo. State governments have been allowing the development of private ports based on unrealistic estimates of cargo potential. Such policies make ports economically unviable.

But opposing the policy of corporatisation of ports will not help solve these problems. On the other hand, the unions' move will only worsen the situation. How long can a sick port retain all its employees?

Learning from one's own experience makes one wise. Learning from others' makes him happy. Port union leaders appear to be neither wise nor happy.

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