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

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'Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls'

The draconian Essential Services Maintenance Act is being increasingly used against mass protests.

The Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA), which has gone through a number of amendments since 1952, is meant for “maintenance of certain essential services and normal life of the community” and thus forbids strikes by workers in the essential services. Despite protests about its antidemocratic nature – that it violates the right of mass action for collective bargaining by workers – almost all state governments have enacted their own versions of this central draconian law with slight variations. In the past few years, the law (it overrides the Code of Criminal Procedure – the CrPC – allowing for arrest without warrant and a summary trial while also overruling the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947) is being invoked as a political tool of convenience by the various state governments to deal with imbroglios created by their own corrupt and inept handling of issues. Over the years, the number of essential services brought under the state Acts have also increased in an atmosphere where the cry on all sides is for “reform” of labour laws (in essence, withdrawal of the protective provisions given to “pampered” workers) to find our place in the global market.

Recently, the Maharashtra Essential Services Maintenance Act, 2011 (the earlier one had expired in 2010) was passed in the state’s upper house with a wider ambit. The government can prohibit strikes, lay-offs and lockouts in any services for which the state has the power to make laws and which it considers essential to the community. A six-month jail term and Rs 2,000 awaits striking employees from these services while a one-year jail term and a similar fine will be imposed on persons instigating or funding such strikes. The government can also widen the ambit of the Act to include other services.

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