ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The ‘Public’ within and beyond the Enterprise

The protests opposing the privatisation of the Vizag Steel Plant challenge the dilution of the “public sector.”


The Prime Minister, in a recent speech, said that the government has no business to be in business, as he pushed for the central government’s proposal to privatise public sector units (PSUs), claiming that loss-making PSUs are a drain on taxpayers’ money. According to him, disinvestment will ensure money that can be put to public use, along with bringing increased efficiency from the private sector. The private, in its industriousness and wisdom, is seen to trump any notion of the “public” as an economic actor; the recent farmers’ protests have somewhat blunted this claim. Meanwhile, another emerging arena is further challenging this dogma of “privatisation.” The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) has given in-principle approval to 100% disinvestment of Rashtriya Ispat Nigam Limited (RINL), the corporate entity of the Vizag Steel Plant (VSP). The Visakha Ukku Parirakshana Porata Committee, a joint action committee (JAC) of trade unions and employees of the plant, have been protesting for over a month, demanding an immediate withdrawal of the proposal for privatisation of the plant. Apart from support from political parties, including leaders from the ruling dispensation at the centre, the Andhra Pradesh chief minister has come out in support of the protests. The JAC hopes to intensify the struggle over the coming days, hoping to replicate the intensity of the farmers’ protests. VSP, which directly employs close to 18,000 workers, and indirectly many more, is considered a major driver of economic development in the area. As the protests around India’s first integrated coastal steel plant intensify, a deeper examination of the notion of the public enterprise is taking shape.

The VSP, commissioned in 1992, emerged from a long and protracted history of protests and delays, three decades after a United States (US) study team found the land around Visakhapatnam suitable for a steel plant. Protests demanding a steel plant in the region in 1966 saw 32 protestors killed in police firing across the state. This history appears to find currency in the language of the JAC. A deeper connection to the Andhra identity and pride is invoked. “Publicness” as opposed to “private” pulls is used by the workers’ protest to define the essence of the Andhra identity as well as underscore the normative basis of the centre–state relationship. More importantly, the protests point at how this pride is tied to the “public nature” of the plant, and the claim to resist privatisation is deeply linked to this sense of “public ownership.” In fact, ironically, as a response to the state governments’ appeal to the centre to withdraw privatisation, a union minister suggested that the state government take over operations. Citizens of Visakhapatnam have taken out rallies in support of the protests, as protests in different towns across the state intensify to save the plant from privatisation.

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Updated On : 27th Mar, 2021
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