Friday, April 19, 2013
The Tragic Tale of a Retired PSU Officer of India !
This following is a brief account of what a Retired Chief Engineer of a top public sector engineering construction company narrated to the author. He is now in his late seventies, living with his old wife in a small rented room in the suburbs of a steel city in central India. I am putting the narration in his words:
I was born in a family of well educated people during the pre-independent India and our family was well off as per the standards of that time. My father was a top ranking officer of the British government in India.
All of us five brothers and sisters had good education. Myself and a brother of mine became engineers.
When we passed out as graduate engineers in Mechanical engineering from one of the top engineering colleges of India at that time, India's first prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehruji's dream of making India self reliant in industry had taken shape in a few locations in North India in the form of large integrated steel plants. These were the steel plants at Bhilai, Rourkela and Durgapur. Three leading industrialized nations, namely, the USSR, West Germany and UK helped the just independent India in these three steel projects.
It was a dream for me to join the steel plant at Bhilai as a fresh engineer way back in the 1950's when the said steel plant had just commenced its production being set up in a green field site in the undeveloped Chhattisgarh region of the Central Province (later Madhya Pradesh) of India.
We all learned the skills from the skilled workmen and engineers from erstwhile USSR who worked with us and taught us the skills that we needed to manage the huge steel plant. Manny of us were trained in the steel plants of USSR too.
We did not have the facilities and the conveniences that the present day steel city of Bhilai has as the place was just getting its basic infrastructure for migrating people from the rest of India who were coming in large numbers to Bhilai due to the huge employment opportunities the new steel plant offered.
None of us, neither the engineers nor the workers had high salaries as it used to be the case with the developed capitalist worlds. But we had a salary good enough for a decent living with minimum luxuries. For example, I drew a monthly salary of less than Rs.500 equivalent to say about $ 50 at that time.
Being an officer of this company was indeed a coveted position having lots of prestige, except the fact that the salary was too meager and not attracting any prestige if disclosed outside. The prestige attached was because there was a hierarchy of about ten cadres of people numbering about three hundred in all for whom I was the boss.
In the Nineteen Sixties, the government of India formed a new steel company called the Hindustan Steel Limited (HSL) with its HQ at Ranchi. The government also made plans for making another integrated steel plant at Bokaro.
For making the heavy steel plant equipments, a company called the Heavy Engineering Corporation (HEC) was set up with its establishments in Ranchi. This was a major step towards indigenization of technology and was a vision of Nehru ji. For the specialized works of construction of steel plants and such heavy industrial construction the Hindustan Steel Construction Limited (HSCL) was also formed by the government of India. HSL started its design and engineering wing called the Central Engineering and Design Bureau (CEDB) which was later converted to a separated central public sector undertaking called the Metallurgical and Engineering Consultants Limited, now called MECON with its HQ at Ranchi.
I remember the vision of the government in appointing Mr K T Chandy, a highly learned bureaucrat hailing from Kerala as the first Director Chairman of the largest PSU steel company which was to manage all the integrated steel plants in the public domain, namely the HSL. Incidentally this eminent man was made the founder Director of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Kolkata.
Later, in the Seventies, the government set up the holding company called the Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) with HQ at New Delhi as the holding company for the Bokaro Steel Limited (BSL) and HSL.
Thus me and my colleagues had become senior level officers of the largest industrial entity in India at that time called SAIL. But our salaries did not rise much commensurate with our experience or expertise. It was during this time that I took up an assignment with HSCL and moved to Bokaro as a senior construction engineer of that company carrying out the large scale steel plant project construction at Bokaro.
Nearly for another two decades I was with HSCL and I rose to the position of a Chief Engineer, a post with tremendous responsibilities at that time. Later I became the Project head for a large thermal power plant under construction in Uttar Pradesh for which HSCL was entrusted with the task of construction and commissioning. Nearly three thousand people were working under my charge at that time.
Even at that time, apart from my position and high responsibility I had made pretty nothing in my life as my savings for me and my wife. I had a couple of more years to my retirement by the end of the Eighties and my salary was still not much. It was still less than Rs.10,000/- per month.
We had no children to look after us after my retirement, a solace a good majority of my colleagues were having. They had educated their children in the steel city schools in Bhilai or in other steel cities and many of them had migrated to foreign countries like the Gulf or the USA. They realized the folly of their parents working in India for peanuts. They did not want to repeat that mistake !
Any way such children were the hope for their parents who were to retire from the Indian PSU after toiling for a life time. The government coolly cheated them by making the PSU service a non-pensionable service. Instead we were offered contributory provident fund (CPF) where in about 8.33% of our monthly basic salary and dearness allowance went to the provident fund which would be given to us in lump sum when we retire. The company also contributed an equivalent sum.
But with all these, when I would retire in another few years, I would be getting just about Rs.800,000/- or so. Even with my cash savings in hand the total money that I would be having will not go more than Rs.1000,000. I had not made any house for me to live yet because; in my busy work schedule it was not possible to undertake such a thing. Moreover, I did not have enough income to get a decent house purchased or made. Building a house at that time meant an expenditure of at least Rs.500,000/-
The salary was going to come to naught in another couple of years. All I have to do is to deposit all my retirement benefits in some fixed deposits and get the steady interest income for my living. At that time many banks and the government post offices offered an interest of about 12 % per annum. Perhaps all my investments together would get me a monthly interest more or less equivalent to the monthly salary that I was drawing at that time.
So as things stood at that time I should not have worried much ! But there was indeed a worry. By being in the employment my house was owned by the company and I paid just Rs.120 as its rent per month. But the moment I retire, I have to find a rented private accommodation costing nearly twenty times that. And the rents would increase every year while my interest income would not increase.
There were reasons for panic!
It was time to think of alternatives.
Let me clarify one thing here. In those days a good majority of us in influential positions of job never thought of making any money by unfair means, especially those in the senior positions. We had plenty of opportunities for that. But we never thought in those lines. We believed in ethics and integrity, the lessons that we learnt from our parents. We believed in doing our responsibilities honestly.
But the ground realities of life was staring at me. I needed more money if me and my wife had to live decently for another ten or twenty years after my retirement from the PSU service till our death. If I am gone earlier what my wife would do ?
There appeared no chances in the near future that the government of India would thing of hiking the salaries of the PSU people like us. Already there are talks and rumors going on where in the public and the media are maligning the PSUs as inefficient white elephants draining the public exchequer. The politicians of the day are talking of privatization and closing down of the PSUs that had now become spent horses.
While my colleagues who joined the government services are going to lead a good retired life with decent monthly pensions which would rise with rising costs, we are to retire with some lumpsum money, manage it properly till our deaths for a living. Would it be possible for me ?
The public perception about the PSU officers were that they were making a good fortune.
At least that was also the feeling of those at the helm of affairs in India in those days, because it was the salary of the President of India which used to be the bench mark for all public servants. The rule that prevailed in those days was that no one in India can have a salary more than the President of India ! In those days the salary of the first citizen of India was fixed at Rs.10,000/- per month. The President lived in a palatial landmark in the national capital and the expenses of his living were all outside the salary and such other things were things that no one preferred to talk in public !
So every salaried person in India whether working for the government or for any private employer had to be satisfied with a salary equal or less than the President of India.
While those in top posts lamented about their poor pay packets, those down in the rungs, especially those who are not classified as executives or officers were quite happy and well off. Many of them had gross pays much more than many of their younger bosses. If a person of this category worked an hour extra than their normal daily working hours, the employer was required to pay an overtime allowance that was equal to twice their normal hourly rate of pay. But those in the officer category could not get this even when some of them are required to work for more than 16 hours a day on many days.
India of those days worked on the principles of socialism. Elitism and aristocracy, though ruled the roost among the rich and the powerful, the government and its political leaders always showed a public face just the opposite. So, common electronic items like the TV, telephone and the tape recorder, which had become ordinary gadgets in the rest of the world, were undesirable and sinful luxury items in India which the leaders consistently advised the common man not to desire.
While many patriotic and helpless Indians within India toiled for peanuts, working hard for the progress of their 'just-got- independent-nation' a good number of their fellows found out ways to enhance their personal wealths by other means.
While within India direct benefits of employment were limited with regard to salary and perks, that was not the case in some other countries. In these countries the salaries were so lucrative and unimaginable in India. The leaders in the Indian government kept on blaming the centuries of slavery and the loot the nation had suffered under the foreigners for the sad state of poverty in India. Whenever other nations with similar backgrounds made fantastic improvements, Indians kept on dreaming helplessly.
While Indian leaders were fully satisfied with their president getting a monthly salary of just Rs.10000/- and projecting it as a great humility, those workers who could not even think of making Rs.500/- per month in India earned at par with their president by taking the challenge of leaving their country and working for the those foreign nations.
The money they send back to India soon was to become the life sustaining economic strength for India, lovingly called the foreign exchange.
Simultaneously another group was emerging in India. They were the people who did not go abroad for earning a livelihood, but remained within India, employed in government departments for providing governmental services. What they earned from their salaries was indeed peanuts. But soon they were to learn their huge potential of earning incomes much more than their non-resident fellows who sent the foreign exchange. This potential came from the statutory power their government job provided. The effect was going to have detrimental effects in the Indian administrative system. The government jobs were to be divided based on reservations in accordance with the democratic number power and not on the basis of merit and competency.
Though the public sector undertakings belonged to the government, the jobs in public sector was slowly becoming non lucrative as the fellows who worked in these PSU's were slowly losing out their statutory powers and status to their counter parts who worked directly in the government departments. The PSU salary scales were the same but they were just impotent working class who were destined to produce in their government run factories according to the rules and regulations made by their real owners-their counterparts who worked in direct government service.
Thus India of the 1980's had its people divided economically as the following:
1. The public servants who earned a salary (peanuts in paper) and also unaccounted income through their power and position (huge unaccounted black money earned through corruption)
2. The political functionaries who extracted a portion of the huge unaccounted income from their serving public servants or external beneficiaries.
3. The business people who made huge money if in league with the first two.
4. The key employees of the private business firms who shared substantial income other than their salary by other means.
5. Salaried class whose income is only what is given as salary (less than the President of India)
7. People who inherited huge property
8. Labor class, small farmers and petty business men who labored for a living with no guarantee of income.
9. People who lived from charity and religious donations or worked for charity or religious organizations
10. People who brought foreign exchange
I had only few years left before I became too old to work. Then came what appeared as a golden opportunity for me. The government for the first time introduced the 'Golden Handshake Scheme' for the senior employees of the PSUs. Apparently the government thought the problems of the PSUs were due to the huge work force which needed to be reduced. They were offering almost full salary in advance to those who have left only few years for retirement if such an employee opted to voluntarily retire from the company.
Frankly we did not get the logic behind it. What the government was going to get if they kick off people with full salaries of their remaining months of service in their respective PSUs? No work no pay of yester years was logical, but this no- work- full- pay was not understandable!
Any way that is none of our problem. They were giving the money and I was going to take it. I decided that I would take the money and quit. There were opportunities for us outside because we were experts in construction management. We could even venture to do things our own. We could bag some construction contracts and with our expertise would be in a position to make good money. That was my thinking.
I got a colleague also to align with my thinking. So we took the so called benefits of the Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) of our PSU Company and left it in the early 1990's.
We registered a partnership firm and managed to bag a good engineering construction contract from the PSU power company, the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited (NTPC). With our money and with borrowed money we completed the project successfully. The work was erection and commissioning of an Ash Handling Piping system at one of the power station sites of NTPC. The payments that would be released by NTPC for the said contract, was enough for us to get back our investments with reasonable profits. We thought that would soon happen.
But our fate went the other way. We being top executives of another reputed PSU earlier and never been tasted the kick of bribes unwittingly underestimated such an eventuality in our new employer. We were determined to pay no bribes to the small time functionaries of NTPC as we were confident of the work that we had been doing, though we were getting small hints here and there.
That was the serious mistake that we did. The company did not release the payments due to us. Our liabilities began to rise.
In contracts disputes are settled through the process of arbitration. In the earlier days I my self had worked in arbitration cases in various roles. I opted for the arbitration route and won my case. But the company was not to agree with the ruling of the arbitrator. It went on appeal in the court.
I fought the case in the court too and spent a good part of my remaining life running after the case and even got favorable rulings from all the courts. But I was fighting with a big establishment whose employees who were holding posts similar to the ones I held earlier were not to show any such regards to me. My partner died during this time as a dejected and defeated man in life.
I worked for small time business men who paid occasionally for keeping me and my wife alive. I had even sold of the ancestral property my father had given me to keep us living.
Almost after fifteen years later, for the first time I watch my juniors get decent salaries in those PSUs which are still continuing to exist, though many of those others have just vanished.
I am still living and I do not know how and do not know even how far!
Many of my colleagues had been fortunate that they had gone from the face of this earth already.
On the whole my life was sweet which went too sour at the end.
Dear friends, the narrator above is not a lone case in India. There are many such veterans of yester years who are now leading miserable and helpless lives. There is no one to take care of them or plead for them. Can we just ignore them? I am not sure. Do you have any suggestions?