The dimly lit and deserted corridors of the Central Inland Water Transport Corporation (CIWTC)’s headquarters belie the otherwise busy Fairlie Place in Kolkata’s central business district.
“About 99 per cent of us do not have any work. We come to office, spend some time and return home,” said an employee, on condition of anonymity. It seems an honest confession — a dozen of his colleagues in the sparsely furnished office look relaxed.
While older employees appear relieved on learning the Union Cabinet has approved an improved voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) for workers of the near-defunct CIWTC, those with more than a decade of service left are unsure.
Almost half of CIWTC’s 276 staff are aged more than 50. A senior employee said, “This is a new lifeline. The government has been fair to the employees. When a company is shut or sold, there is always some uncertainty over severance packages. Accepting this [the new VRS] is the best option for us.”
As the previous VRS (computed using central dearness allowance of 1996 and industrial dearness allowance of 1997) was considered unattractive, only a few had opted for it. Now, the government has decided the VRS will be computed using the 2006 pay scale for employees covered under central dearness allowance; for the rest, it will be based on the 2007 industrial dearness allowance-linked pay scale.
It is expected the new VRS will facilitate the sale of CIWTC, which has been recording losses since its inception in 1967.
Many believe finding a buyer for CIWTC, set up to operate a fleet of ships on the rivers of West Bengal and Assam, will not be difficult if employees opt for the exit option. The company has 58 vessels and 190,000 sq m of land, which can be monetised.
While employee unions aren’t convinced about the benefits of the revised VRS, they concede it might be the only option left for the CIWTC employees. Tapan Sen, general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, told Business Standard: “Inland water transport isn’t a dying sector. But CIWTC is being forced to die despite the government promoting the ‘Make in India’ campaign. There is an evil motive to sell this company to private players. Workers don’t have much option. There is hardly any work. So, they will be compelled to go for VRS.”
The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) is planning to protest the move and demand a proposal to merge CIWTC and the Inland Waterways Authority of India be revived. “CIWTC is a heritage company and we will not allow its closure or sale,” said Ramakanta Ahir, secretary of the BMS-affiliated employee union at Kolkata Port Trust.
But this is unlikely to get unanimous support from employees. “Union leaders will obviously oppose it. But for us, the general employees, VRS seems the only practical option,” said a CIWTC worker.