Piyush Goyal

A two-day strike in India by coal workers ended after the national government agreed to a proposal for a committee to listen to worker grievances.

Originally set to be a five-day general strike, it began after the workers expressed outrage over an executive order passed last year allowing for companies to sell coal or, in other words, privatization of the coal industry. Better working conditions was another issue troubling the miners. There was even talk of an indefinite strike had the government not agreed to any demands.

After officials and unions leaders negotiated for more than six hours, the strike ended and the government agreed it would change the privatization plan in the ordinance. In addition, a committee with a representative of each union and of the government would be made to listen to objections raised by coal workers. Power Minister Piyush Goyal explicitly told reporters there would be no plan for privatization:

There is no intention for denationalisation of [the state-run Coal India Limited]. The present and future interest of CIL employees will not be affected in any manner. CIL will be protected and there need be no apprehension about its ownership or management going into private hands,

The idea of privatization was brought up due to an internal government report, which was given to Goya on Dec. 22 where privatization of the CIL was a method to increase coal production.

On Jan. 6, Sutirtha Bhattacharya, the head of the CIL, stressed the need for growth in coal production, but did not call for privatization.

Five unions decided to go on strike on Jan. 5, including one tied to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, and at least 300,000 workers stopped working. As a result, there was worry of an energy shortage. Indeed, coal supplies at least 60 percent of the nation’s energy, according to Reuters.

Workers at different coal plants even challenged authorities attempting to produce. Overall, 75 percent of coal production ceased as a result of the strike. Estimates of the cost of the strike is difficult to say, but it may affect the country’s energy supply.

The Times of India, the most read newspaper in the country, called the unions’ decision a ransom and said it “pose[d] a political challenge to the Narendra Modi government’s desire to reform the economy.” Furthermore, they highlighted what they felt was hypocrisy on part of the unions:

[I]ronically, while the unions have opposed private mining in India, they don’t seem to have a problem with private miners abroad supplying about one-fourth of India’s coal consumption. If that coal could be mined in India, more jobs would be created at home and the technology to carry out environmentally less destructive underground mining could be introduced on a larger scale.

Before the strike, the unions declined to meet with the government and the CIT begged the workers not to go on strike due to the economic consequences.

Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a lawmaker in the country and a member of the Indian National Congress, summarized the cause of the strike as a resistance against privatization:

They are on strike because of something which is being slipped in among other things again by stealth – this government legislates by stealth, it makes policy surreptitiously. In the ordinance of course, everything in this country is run by ordinance these days. We seem to have no Parliament, we seem to have no patience [and] we seem to have no budget session. Now this ordinance on the coal issue amends one of the most vulnerable old acts of India – Coal Mines Nationalization Act of 1973. In case you had forgotten, from 1973 and before…you cannot have private access to coal. Then liberalization was done ,you have captive industry [and] then you can do private mining.

Singvi is noted as an opponent of Modi and his administration and previously criticized Modi as a “Man Of Damage to India.”

The situation between the unions and the government are still tense and it will take time to see what effects this caused. Although, it is safe to say the Modi and the rest of his party are relieved this did not escalate into something worse.

UPDATE: Goyal publicly said privatization will go on. The unions will also make-up the losses as a result of the two-day strike.

Brandon Jordan

Brandon Jordan

Brandon Jordan is a freelance journalist in Queens, NY and written for publications such as The Nation, In These Times, Truthout and more.