The collective resignation on Tuesday of around 1,200 engineers and technicians deployed for post-quake reconstruction in 11 worst-hit districts is a sign of irresponsibility all around. Before they resigned, these officials had repeatedly halted their work as they felt that the government was not doing enough for them. These technical workers, all of whom were deployed in remote regions, had been demanding that their pay and perks be made commensurate with the difficulty of their work.
They had also been asking for separate offices to work in and insurance cover for the duration of their deployment. But these officials knew right at the start exactly what they would be getting, in terms of both salaries and facilities, when they signed on for post-quake reconstruction works. Thus it is unprofessional of them to try to change their terms of engagement mid-course. Moreover, they are not permanent employees hired long-term but short-term contract workers, a fact that does not reflect in some of their big demands. And they have now resigned, leaving millions of quake-affected people without technicians who could have helped them build quake-resistant homes. This is not done.
But the government officials who hired them are not free of blame either. For instance when the technicians had gone on a previous strike back in September, the government had committed to meet some of their demands by October-end. If the government believed it was wrong of the contract workers to go on a strike, it should not have made such a commitment. But once it was made, the workers got a legitimate excuse not to work if the promise made to them was broken. Interestingly, none of the contracted technicians who have been working in comparably easier locations and urban areas have resigned. This suggests that those deployed in remote areas felt that they were unfairly treated. Why can’t the government pay them a little more for agreeing to work in difficult areas, they are asking? Perhaps it was unrealistic of the government to think that the technicians, all of whom have families to look after, would commit to work for minimal returns.
With both the sides having erred, they must now come to a common meeting point that involves immediate resolution of the dispute so that the all-important task of rebuilding destroyed homes can be expedited. It will not be easy for the government to find 1,200 replacements, at least not immediately. So it must engage the agitating technicians and try to find an amicable settlement. The technicians, for their part, should realize that their decision to abandon their work midcourse could destroy any hope of earthquake victims who have already suffered so much. Nor it is justifiable of them to ask for the kind of facilities that are only provided for permanent government employees.
This issue is now so complicated that only a direct intervention and involvement of the prime minister can solve it. So he must quickly intervene to break the deadlock and then as quickly release the second tranche of the Rs 200,000 in grants promised to each family that lost its home to last year’s earthquakes. There is not a moment to lose.