The Trinamool Congress and the BJP are locked in a fierce contest in West Bengal.
As voting opens for the West Bengal assembly, around 10 lakh government employees in the state find themselves in a fix—while Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had snubbed them for demanding their pending allowances, the rival BJP has promised higher salaries.
They suspect that the BJP, which is giving it all to prevent Banerjee from winning a famous third successive term, is unlikely to keep the poll promise of implementing the recommendations of the seventh pay commission. But they are also furious over Banerjee’s “I have given you a lot, don’t bark” remark in response to their demand for dearness allowance arrears.
Though not a huge number, employees are an influential lot. “The state government has about 10 lakh employees, who have a direct influence on 40 lakh votes if we consider that an employee has an average of four voters in their family. This is a significant number of votes,” a labour welfare department official said on condition of anonymity.
Also, the employees play a critical role in spreading the news about the government's performance. “They have the inside information which people listen to,” he said.
The vote count
In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, around 108,210 Bengal government employees voted through postal ballots, Election Commission data shows. As many as 65,243 of them voted for the BJP and the Trinamool could secure only 25,791 votes, a reflection of employees’ unhappiness with Banerjee.
The BJP led in postal votes in 39 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha constituencies. The party, which was a bit player in the state until 10 years ago, went on to win 18 seats and the Trinamool got 22, a huge blow to the ruling party that also set the stage for a fierce contest for the 294-member assembly.
State and central government employees who are on election duty cast their votes through postal ballots.
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The BJP says Banerjee has done little for government employees, who still haven’t got the full benefits of the sixth pay commission.
“Has the BJP been able to fulfil its promises in Tripura? The party had vowed that the jobs would be given on the basis of missed calls made on first-cum-first-serve basis,” said State Fisheries Officers’ Association general secretary Debasish Haldar, referring to the neighbouring state.
The BJP had promised that all temporary government jobs would be made permanent but “they are outsourcing government jobs”. “Like in Bengal, in Tripura too, the BJP had announced the setting up of seventh pay commission for state government employees. After three years, it has not been implemented,” Haldar said.
Who will pick the tab?
Not just Tripura, West Bengal, too, has not fared well as far as jobs go. Nearly 3.5 million job seekers are registered with employment exchanges in the state, with 100,000 added in 2020 alone, government officials say.
Data from various departments shows that more than 200,000 permanent posts are vacant and schools are short of 150,000 teachers.
It is not that no employment has been generated. In the last nine years, about 200,000 contractual jobs have been created.
With a debt burden of Rs 4.31 lakh crore and over Rs 55,000 crore spent on debt servicing in 2019-20, the government perhaps doesn’t have the fiscal elbow room for more jobs.
In the current financial year, the government has spent around Rs 5,000 crore on monthly salaries even though the number of permanent employees has been falling.
The salary bill is high because the sixth pay commission grades have been introduced and the dearness allowance has gone up.
In December 2020, the state government announced a 3 percent dearness allowance for all, effective January 2021. The move cost the exchequer another Rs 2,200 crore.
“Didi has given this dearness allowance despite having a huge debt burden. She has never faltered on pension payment,” Haldar said.
She was not doing charity as the hike was their right, a senior finance department official said. “She cannot insult us by saying – ‘don’t bark. I have given you a lot.’ This will definitely dent her vote bank,” the officer, who didn’t wish to be named, said.
He and the rest of the country will have to wait for May 2, when the votes will be counted, to know if the remarks did hurt Didi.