“Kaka tussi sadi rally di khabar tan launi ni, linemen de protest di launi a; ehi honda har vari (You won't report our rally and instead publish the protest by linemen. This is happening time and again),” said chief minister Parkash Singh Badal to a journalist after members of the unemployed linemen union staged a protest rally during the Baisakhi rally of Shiromani Akali Dal at Talwandi Sabo last month.
Toppled turbans of unemployed linemen and crying faces of their wives, mothers and children trying to overpower the grab of police constables give a 'good' shot to lensmen but it has yet not helped linemen to sign the two-year job contract during their three-year-long protest.
At a rate of 625 linemen per year, the Technical Training Institute (TTI), Patiala, produced more than 5,000 qualified linemen between 1997 and 2010, majority of them waiting for vacancies in the Punjab State Power Corporation Limited (PSPCL).
To become a qualified lineman, one has to complete two-year course in electrical trade from an industrial training institute. Then, the TTI selects 625 candidates on merit basis for the two-year course of lineman. After the course, the students have to clear an exam before they are certified as qualified linemen.
It was in 2009 that the Punjab government recruited less qualified candidates to fill various vacancies meant for qualified linemen in the PSPCL.
It was heartbreaking decision for the qualified linemen, but it also gave them a chance to make a claim for employment with the government for. They approached the Punjab and Haryana high court, challenging the recruitment of less qualified persons.
In between, they intensified the agitation and forced Punjab government to come to the negotiating table. “Punjab CM agreed in a meeting with us in August 2010 that government will recruit 5,000 linemen at a salary of Rs. 10,000 per month for two years. Punjab government issued the advertised for the vacancies of 5,000 linemen in January 2011,” said Jagtar Singh Mahinangal, general secretary, Unemployed Linemen Union.
“Some industrialists from Ludhiana filed first of its kind PIL in the high court, objecting to the recruitment of linemen claiming that it would increase the cost of power in the state,” he said.
“It was a conspiracy of the Punjab government and industrialists to stop recruitments. These industrialists were running various projects of Powercom on contract and they knew that recruitment of the linemen was going to affect their business. Besides, Punjab government too was not serious on recruiting us,” said Mahinangal.
“High court put a stay on the recruitments and allowed Punjab government to recruit only 1,000 linemen until PIL of industrialists was disposed of. General elections were due and Punjab government recruited 1,000 of us under pressure at a salary of Rs. 10,000 in December 2011.”
“We again started struggle to force the PSPCL to challenge the decision of the high court in the Supreme Court. Punjab government agreed half-heartedly. It took a long agitation to force the government to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court in our favour,” said Mahinangal.
“Finally, in February 2013, the court made it clear that PSPCL was authorised to fill the vacancies. Till now, Punjab government has not reacted to the decision,” he said.
Most of these linemen belong to lower middle class families. “At one moment they would call as Congressmen at another they will tag us as Naxalites. Reality is that we are unemployed. Give us jobs and we will become what you want us to be,” said Pirmal Singh, state president of the union.
“Our families had to step in after many of us were put behind bars in 2011. The government should understand that we have no other choice than pursuing our struggle,” Pirmal said.
“PSPCL does have vacancies for linemen. We are not demanding something out of the world,” he said.
After the linemen's showdown at Talwandi Sabo rally of SAD, chief minister Badal unintentionally mentioned the long wait of linemen for jobs. “Kayi tan vichare mere varge ne. Uhna ton khambe te chadeya nai janda. Uhna nu naukri kithon de daeye (some of them are as aged as I am. They cannot climb electricity poles. How can we give them jobs),” the CM had said.