• An estimated 19 lakh government and semi­ government employees, including those in schools, colleges, zilla parishads, and government hospitals, to name a few, have been on strike demanding that the government return to the Old Pension Scheme (OPS); they have been on the National Pension Scheme since 2005. 
  • In several States such as Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, there has been a return to the OPS. 
  • Employees in Maharashtra desire that their State does the same. 
  • The government’s response has been predictable. 
  • It constituted a panel to study the implications of a return to the OPS, which is to submit a report in three months. The absence of union 

leaders in this panel is striking. 

  • But, most importantly, the Maharashtra Assembly has passed the 

Maharashtra Essential Services Maintenance and Normal Life of community Act (MESMA). 

  • Negotiations took place and the government made the assurance in writing that, in principle, it accepts the OPS. 
  • Based on this, the unions called off the strike on March 20, 2023. 
  • What is of interest now is the principal and typical method by which the State seeks to handle the strike by its employees. 

An unchanged response 

  • Since 1960, the government’s approach, be it central or State government, to strikes by their employees has been to invoke ESMA, or the Essential Services Maintenance Act. 
  • It was historically a colonial instrument, though clothed differently under the Defence of India Rules. And, since 1950, several States, on numerous occasions, have promulgated ESMA.

Therefore, the question is this: is this the right response on the part of the government? 

  • ESMAs empower the government to define any economic activity as essential, which is an example of a dangerous weaponisation of the government (which tilts the balance in industrial relations in the government sector dangerously towards the government). 
  • The International Labour Organization is the global organisation universally regarded to be the authoritative and legitimate body that can answer issues in connection with labour. 
  • The ILO’s supervisory institution, the Committee on Freedom of Association (the Committee), among others, constructed the principles on the right to strike; this is worth noting as they serve as the guidepost to assess the government’s actions. 
  • The basic principle is that workers enjoy the right to strike, which is one of the principal means to legitimately promote and defend their economic and social interests. 
  • Essential services are those where “the interruption of which would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population”.
  • The question of essentiality will, of course, depend on the peculiarities prevalent in countries. 
  • Some examples are- the hospital sector, and services such as electricity, water supply, telephone, and air traffic control. 
  • Strikes in these may even be prohibited or strictly regulated. 
  • What is important is that where the right to strike is prohibited or strictly regulated, alternate dispute­ resolution mechanisms must be put in place. 
  • In fact, it has mentioned a negative list of industries which are not essential which includes the transportation and education sectors. 
  • The urgency with which governments promulgate ESMA, the “regulatory itch”, betrays their colonial mindset. 
  • Social dialogue rather than authoritarian measures will promote amicable and long ­lasting solutions.