What you need to know about the Essential Defence Services Bill, 2021

What is the essential defence services bill?

Defence minister Rajnath Singh introduced the Essential defence services bill, 2021, on July 22, 2021. The Bill wanted to push towards the replacement of the ordinance put into effect in June 2021. The primary concern that the legislation raises is the limitation on strikes, lockouts for employees engaged in essential defence services. 

Key features of the Bill include:

Services in Essential Defence Services involve any enterprise that undertakes or deals with producing goods required for defence-related purposes. They also comprise susceptible services, which, if halted, can affect the security of the establishment and its involved employees. The government can also declare any welfare as a service if its suspension would affect the production, operation, and repair of all the defence products and their industrial establishments. 

Public utility services stated in the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 have been amended to include Essential defence services under it. The amendment prevents employees in such organizations from organizing strikes and planning lockouts without the six-week notice similar to public utility services. 

What does the Bill empower the government to do?

The Bill replaces the Essential Defence Services Ordinance and permits the Centre to prohibit strikes and lockouts in units engaged in essential defence services. 

The Centre disputes in favor of the Bill and states that it ensures an “uninterrupted supply of ordnance items” to the armed forces. As the official document put it, the government found it necessary to continue the ordinance board without any disorderliness and maintain and raise the standards of the Essential defence services. 

The Bill’s Statement of Objects and Reasons said the ordinance issued on June 30 defines “essential defence services” and “strike.” It authorizes the Centre to outlaw strikes in essential defence services and take action against the troublemakers (as the government sees them) in the form of their dismissal and fines. 

The prohibition order will remain in force for six months or more.

After prohibition is issued, all strikes and lockouts functional before and after the ban will be deemed illegal. This prohibition will not apply to lay-offs made due to power shortage or natural catastrophe, or lay-offs of temporary or casual workers. Penalties laid only for unlawful strikes. 

Punishments for illegal strikes 

As absurd as it sounds, there are punishments laid down for illegal lockouts and lay-offs. The breach of these rules will lead to 1-year imprisonment or 10,000 rupees fine or some cases, both. 

The rules in the Bill remind one of the colonial-styled regulations, similarly here, people involved in spurring or encouraging the rest by continuing the illegal strikes and supplying money for the same will be penalized. The punishments include two years of prison time and a fine of Rs 10,000 or, in some cases, both. The same workers can also face suspension without inquiry for violating the disciplinary actions.  Punishable offenses under the Bill are cognizable and non-bailable

Who will the Bill affect?

  • The Bill will directly affect around 70,000 employees of the 41 ordnance factories across the country.
  • The service providers fear that the passing of the Bill will lead to changes in their service and retirement conditions 
  • The corporatization of the ordnance factory board, which is a halfway road to privatization, was also announced by the government in June 
  • The ordnance factory board is 220 years old, which came directly under the Department of Defence Production. Its corporatization simple means to turn it into a corporation while keeping majority ownership with the government but introducing all rules and practices of the private world 
  • As per the new plan, 41 ordnance factories that make ammunition and other equipment for the armed forces will become part of seven government-owned corporate entities. The government claims that the move aims to improve the efficiency and accountability of these factories. Still, the employees in these factories are unhappy with the development and have threatened indefinite strikes.
  • Recently employees of the defence units in Tiruchi went on strike to raise voice against the division of ordnance factory board in seven corporates that they consider not feasible.
  • When trade unions carried out a plebiscite in September, almost 61,199 out of 61,564 employees of the 41 ordnance factories were against the move of the government 

Why was there opposition to the Bill 

The timing of passing the Bill ironically clashed with the protests of Pegasus snooping row. Without considering the opposition laid down by many ministers, the government went ahead with the voting and eventually its passage. Healthy decision-making involves respecting the opinions of all parties, which was compromised during this session. 

The outcome or feedback, which this government is not very much concerned about, was as expected. Opposition was intensely critical of the whole process and organized planned strikes and protests, and recognized organizations. 

The tweet by Congress MP Manish Tewari called the Bill draconian-“Most unfortunate vital bills are being passed without discussion in Parliament because NDA/BJP won’t come clean on Pegasus. All these bills have a bearing on our future as a democracy, for, e.g., The Essential Defence Services Bill, 2021 listed today (is) a draconian piece of legislation,”

Some of the strong opposition was also raised by RSP leader NK Premachandran. Congres’s Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury is of the view that the democratic rights of the workers to strike will be compromised due to this Bill that is assured under the Industrial Disputes Act and ILO conventions. 

Bill becomes an Act. 

The most shocking aspect of the Bill was the ban on strikes and protests; it directly goes against the ethos of Fundamental rights in which Article 19 (1)(b) states that it is the right of the citizens to protest peacefully without arms and this has not been outlawed yet. The definition that explains illegal strikes is vague enough for the workers. They can get caught up in the intricacies of the terms; this will eventually lead to more exploitation of a downtrodden section in the industry and gulping up their liberty to question these new rules. The do-or-die situation for the workers will make them vulnerable to more severe laws that can be brought up in the future. 

On August 11, 2021, all resistance attempts were tranquilized when the president assented to the Bill after its passage in both houses. But the way forward cannot be as hopeless as it seems; still, many trade unions have a firm ground in the country, and their role as fighters for the common rights of workers can be expanded in the future, which can play a significant role.

Muskan Negi is pursuing Masters at Tata Institute Of Social Sciences and is working as a Policy Research Intern at NITI TANTRA