The Kerala High Court recently forbid government employees in the state from participating in the two-day nationwide on-going strike on March 28 and 29 and asked the state government to declare dies-non (no work, no pay) on both days. A Division Bench of Chief Justice S Manikumar and Justice Shaji P Chaly passed the order declaring the strike of the government employees as illegal. The Court directed the state government to issue directive prohibiting such a strike while adding that no government servant shall participate in the strike.
The Court’s order came when public life as well as government functioning had come to a complete halt in Kerala after the trade unions staged a strike against the policies of the centre. Only 32 of the 4,824 staff were present at the government secretariat on the first day of the strike.
A petition was moved through lawyer V Sajith Kumar, who sought a directive to the state government to ensure compulsory attendance of government servants on the general strike days of March 28 and 29 and initiate disciplinary proceedings as per service rules against those employees who abstain from work.
Hours after the High Court’s order, the state government issued a dies-non order. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan issued a mandate on the strike after the order of the High Court. The order warned of disciplinary action against government employees who took part in the strike. However, defying the order, nearly 90% of the employees struck work. The state government is also seeking legal opinion on the matter after the Court’s order.
As per Rule 14 (a) of Part I of Kerala Service Rules, the period of unauthorized absence of an officer on account of participation in a strike shall be treated as dies-non. Such an officer shall not be eligible for pay and allowance for that period and shall not even be counted for admissibility of earned leave, the petitioner said. He also cited an earlier Division Bench order which had quashed an order regularising the absence on strike days as eligible with leave and salary, and consequently directed the state government to verify the attendance register and take action in this regard in accordance with the law.
The petitioner alleged that instead of taking action, the government had extended unbridled support to the national strike on March 28 and 29 by not declaring dies non or mandating attendance of government servants.
The All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and the workers’ wing of the CPI, questioned the High Court’s order. AITUC leader KP Rajendran said that the order was against the workers’ right to protest. He said that a decision on filing an appeal against the order will be taken after consulting other unions.
The two-day nationwide strike called by trade unions received support from Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) and BPCL. A total of ten organizations were opposing the recent labour reforms and privatisation efforts. They were also demanding an increase in the budget for MNREGA and regularisation of contract workers.
The Court was of the view that it was illegal for the government employees to go on strike as it was prohibited in their conditions of service. It also observed that whenever an organization goes on strike, transport arrangements should be ensured for the convenience of commuting.
Under the Trade Unions Act, 1926, interference in governance by trade union activities cannot be permitted. It is the duty of the government to not only protect the citizens, but also ensure that all government work continues as before. In other words, government business cannot be sluggish or affected in any way.
The Court also issued notices to the central government and the state and asked them to clarify their stand. It questioned whether the unions could call for a nationwide strike on any issue which was not related to the trade union dispute. There is an LDF government in Kerala and the strike was called in protest against the policies of the central government which is reportedly affecting workers, farmers and common people.
CPI(M) State Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan criticised the High Court’s order. He appealed to the government employees to ensure their participation in the strike. “Employees should participate in the strike without bothering about wage loss. After banning hartal and bandh, the High Court is rejecting the employees’ right to observe strike,” he said in his press statement.
“The High Court’s directive restricting the government employees from the strike will result in serious impacts. It echoes the voice of the emergency period. The High Court is asking the government staff to shut up and continue work. The judiciary must be ready to review this stance. Our state witnessed major changes as a result of many strikes and protests. The Indian working class led a strike against the British without seeking permission from any court. The court was against all these protests. Rejecting the right of employees to observe strike is a challenge to the democracy,” he added.
“I am sure none of you would have forgotten that not so long ago how four Supreme Court judges protested by holding a press meet. One of them later went on to become the chief justice. Has such a thing happened before? asked Balakrishnan. However, he said that there is no “hartal” declared in the state, and shops if opened, need not be closed.
Despite various trade unions announcing that they would open their businesses on March 29, shops and other commercial establishments remained closed across the state, except in some parts of Kochi. Vehicles largely kept off the road. The KSRTC buses came under attack at Pappanamcode in Thiruvananthapuram and Kottarakkara in Kollam, while CPM’s Devikulam MLA was injured in an altercation with police at Munnar. A KSRTC driver and a conductor were injured after protesters blocked the bus and attacked them near Pappanamcode. As many as 50 protesters were booked in connection with the incident.
KSRTC buses were also blocked in various places, including Punalur and Chalakkudy, and a driver was attacked at Puthoor Mukku, near Kottarakkara. About 15 teachers of Chithara GHSS, near Kadakkal, were locked up inside a classroom by the protestors.
—By Abhilash Singh and India Legal Bureau