Employees want BSNL preserved for the next generation

Reji Joseph, a contract cable worker at BSNL in Tripunithura, Kochi, has the matter-of-fact tone of someone who is resigned to his fate. Like the other contract workers of BSNL, he hasn’t been paid his salary since February. “Our hopes have been shattered and we don’t know if and when we will ever get paid again,” he says simply.

About 2,300 km away, at a suburb near Kolkata, Goutam Das, another contract worker at BSNL, says the going has been tough for him. “I joined BSNL when I was 25 and I am 45 now. I am witness to many ups and downs. But this is the worst. My salary is delayed by at least six months. I’m not sure how these dues will be cleared. Supporting a family in these uncertain times is getting tough,” he says.

Reji and Das’ sentiments are echoed by other employees of BSNL.

Thirty one-year-old Arjun Nair from Kochi describes their predicament as akin to a sword hanging over their heads. He recalls with a wry laugh how an opportunity to work with a company like BSNL was exclusive to just the crème de la crème of his college. But now, as he sees his other batchmates well ensconced in their jobs, he can’t help feel left behind. “I have spent nine years of my prime in this company. So, I would like to survive in this company. If other better options come, I will definitely try. But my prime objective will be working with BSNL and giving it my best shot to try and survive in this company,” he says.

For all of them, the ghosts of BSNL’s former glory refuse to fade away. George Thomas, a senior BSNL employee from the Idukki district of Kerala, who has been with the company for 29 years, ruefully looks back on how he had opted for this job straight out of college, drawn by the prospect of a Central government job after having secured the fourth rank in his university. “It is the trust in the government that made people like me take this job up. But now, it has come to a situation where I feel like we are stranded in the middle of nowhere,” he says, the bitterness in his voice evident over phone.

But, unlike employees like George who were absorbed from the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), the employees recruited after the incorporation of BSNL in 2000 are staring at a dearth of pension and other benefits if the company is to take a blow, which would render them vulnerable.

“We are in the frontline. We will take the first hit,” affirms Varun Kamath from Belagavi, a city in Karnataka, who has been working for around 17 years with BSNL. The uncertainties being faced by the staff include loss of job, default in salaries, denial of benefits, reducing the retirement age from 60 to 58 years. “These are some of the issues people like me face in BSNL today. You never know what happens tomorrow”, laments S Subramanian, who was an employee of the erstwhile Post &Telegraph department and then opted to join BSNL after its formation on October 1, 2000, on the assurance of career progression and protection of career security.

But even as BSNL is on the brink, a common thread of unfailing loyalty to the company seems to be the collective spirit of the 1.65-lakh strong BSNL staff cutting across the country.

Chaitanya, a sub-divisional engineer from Vijayawada, who joined BSNL 30 years ago, is quick to dismiss any doubts about the company’s survival. He doesn’t realise he tends to protectively use the prefix ‘our’ for BSNL. “I am very confident that our BSNL will come back,” he declares. “We are asking for the revival of the company, and not any pay revision. All the agitation programmes by BSNL employees have been nothing but acts of unitedly working for the purpose of BSNL’s growth,” he asserts.

Instances of such attachment to the company are aplenty. Satish, an employee from Kottayam who has been with the company for 17 years, shares how some employees on the WhatsApp groups of BSNL’s Kerala workers are talking about keeping aside 30 per cent of their salary and mobilising funds themselves to keep the company going. Another person even offered to forego his pay and instead ensure that the casual labourers are paid to keep the company together.

“We are loyal BSNL employees,” says George. Ask him what spurs this kind of loyalty, and he says poignantly, “Our wish is to hand over BSNL to the next generation the way we got it.”

With inputs from Abhishek Law in Kolkata and Sajeev Kumar in Kochi

Published on July 29, 2019
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