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For many of CIWTC staff VRS remains only option

The dimly lit deserted corridor of Central Inland Water Transport Corporation’s (CIWTC) headquarters remarkably belies the otherwise busy Fairlie Place in the central business district of Kolkata.

“99% of us do not have any work. We come to office, spend some time and return home,” says an employee unwilling to identify himself. It sounds like an honest confession as a dozen of his colleagues in the sparsely furnished office look relatively under-employed.

The older ones appear relieved on learning that the Union Cabinet has approved an improved voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) for the employees of the near-defunct CIWTC earlier this week. But those with more than a decade of service life still left are unsure if this was good news.

Almost half of CIWTC’s 276 employees are above 50 years and some of them are willing to accept the improved VRS offer. “This is a new lifeline. The government has been fair to the employees. There is always uncertainty over employee severance package when a company is shut or sold. Accepting this (improved VRS) scheme is the best option for us,” said a senior employee with CIWTC.

The previous VRS package (computed under central dearness allowance of 1996 and industrial dearness allowance of 1997) was considered unattractive and only a few had opted for it. The government has now decided that the VRS benefit will be computed on the 2006 pay scale for the employees covered under central dearness allowance and for others it will be based on the 2007 industrial dearness allowance-linked pay scale. The VRS offer is expected to facilitate the sale of CIWTC, which has been making losses since its inception in 1967.

CIWTC was provided Rs 140 crore revival plan by the central government in 2001. While Rs 76 crore was to be provided by the government, the rest was to be raised by selling the company’s assets. But since 2004, the government has been trying to divest the company.

Many believe that finding a buyer for CIWTC, which was set up to operate a fleet of ships on the rivers of West Bengal and Assam, will not be difficult if the employees choose the exit option. The company currently has 58 vessels and 190,000 square metres of land bank that can be monetised.

While the employee unions are still not convinced with the VRS proposal, they concede that it is probably the only option left for CIWTC employees. “Inland water transport is not a dying industry. But CIWTC is being forced to die despite the government promoting the ‘Make in India’ campaign. There is an evil motive to sell this company to private players. Workers don’t have much option, there is hardly any work. So, they will be compelled to take VRS,” Tapan Sen, general secretary of CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions), told Business Standard.

The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) is planning to protest the move and will demand to revive the merger proposal of CIWTC and Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI). “CIWTC is a heritage company and we will not allow its closure or sell,” Ramakanta Ahir, secretary of the BMS affiliated employee union at Kolkata Port Trust, said.

But it is unlikely to get unanimous support from the employees. “The union leaders will obviously oppose. But for us, the general employees, VRS seems the only practical option,” said a CIWTC worker.

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