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Bull in the china shop

Aditi Phadnis | June 07, 2003

Union Labour Minister Sahib Singh VermaHe is feared by bureaucrats, reviled by colleagues and viewed warily by trade union leaders. The political instinct of Union Labour Minister Sahib Singh Varma has seen him through many crises but has also landed him in trouble at times.

However, Varma is unstoppable. Some senior bureaucrats describe him as a "bull in a china shop". Others rather more charitably refer to him as a human dynamo -- because the more a dynamo moves, the more energy it expends.

It is another matter that the union labour ministry's record of helping economic reform forward, through three ministers, has been to stay mutinously at the amber light instead of moving at the green. This was true of Satyanarayan Jatiya and Sharad Yadav when they were labour ministers. Why should Sahib Singh Varma be different?

How else can one describe his tenacity in holding on to the 9.5 per cent interest rate for the vast EPF fund of Rs 140,000 crore (Rs 1,400 billion), something that even trade unions admitted would be impossible to sustain?

At the last meeting of the Central Board of Trustees, Varma openly reprimanded his secretary P D Chenoy for expressing reservations about his decision to stick to the 9.5 per cent returns for EPF contributions made by workers by dipping into the contingency fund, which is part of the EPF corpus.

"You endorsed my views when we visited the finance ministry. Why are you changing them now?" Varma said sharply to the bureaucrat known for his expertise in dealing with trade unions. "I am only doing my job, sir," Chenoy said sheepishly, before caving in. This was not the first time Varma was being  rough  with bureaucrats for not falling in line with his diktat.He is known for such tactics.

Everyone in the Employees' Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) knew it would be impossible to retain such a high rate of interest in the face of  the general low interest rate regime the government favours. But no one could  summon up the courage to speak up. "He will be the first labour minister to dip into the EPF's reserves," pointed out an official.

But Varma was unfazed. "If I have the money, I will distribute among workers," he insisted, in a bid to project himself as a benevolent patriarch who is determined to protect the workers' interest. "The issue of EPF rates is linked with social security and it has wider political ramifications," is his logic to counter the finance ministry's insistence on cutting EPF interest rates.

Actually, Varma has a deep and unshakeable belief in patriarchy as an institution. Have a meal with him. He will serve his guests personally, ladling more daal and sabzi on the plate, adding dollops of ghee to the rotis in the manner of the head of the household.

His warmth and hospitality extends to everyone around him -- more crowds collect outside his house every morning than any other minister in town (most attempt to avoid crowds). Cremations, naming ceremonies, weddings... his social calendar is packed every evening.

Such is the pressure that despairing officers have to frequently toss out his daily programme  to make way for 'sammaan' (honour) functions much favoured in rural Delhi. The upside of all this is that Varma has a deep and enduring link with the 'real' India, which he has used to great effect -- for instance in helping rebuild earthquake-ravaged districts in Gujarat, something that has helped Delhi builders as well.

Unfortunately, governance and patriarchy don't mix. Labour law reforms, which if enforced will dent considerably his standing as the patriarch of the workers, have not moved an inch. With election season having officially been heralded, there is no chance of their moving forward.

The blatantly populist move on EPF will be destructive for the only large reserve of money in India that has not seen a scam -- yet. But then, whoever said good politics is also good economics?

Varma's entry into the union cabinet is as curious as his functioning in the ministry. As Delhi chief minister, Varma had caused nightmares for the BJP leadership because of his running feud with his arch-rival in Delhi politics, and  former boss,  Madan Lal Khurana.

When the leadership decided to dump Varma and bring Sushma Swaraj instead, Varma went missing. It took almost a whole day for  the top BJP leadership to trace him and persuade him to resign. Varma finally agreed but not without his pound of flesh -- he procured a promissory note from no less a person than Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which implied that he would be inducted in the union cabinet shortly.

For months after that, Varma kept the PM's note as a "prized possession", often reminding senior party leaders including the PM about the "promise" made to him.

Though there was a great deal of scepticism, Varma was ultimately brought into the cabinet when some senior leaders intervened and pointed out that his non-inclusion in the cabinet could reflect badly on the PM. "It could indicate the PM does not honour his word," said a senior party leader while narrating the circumstances in which Varma was inducted.

Varma was given charge of the labour ministry after his predecessor , Sharad Yadav, declined to conform to the government's policy of labour reforms. The highly energetic minister that he is, Varma started holding a series of seminars and high-profile functions to evolve a consensus on labour reforms.

The more he tried, the more complicated the issue became. In the process, Varma is learnt to have exhausted a huge sum of the EPFO's money on the pretext of  the golden jubilee celebrations of the EPF.

Trade union leaders are not complaining -- they find it easy to give in to populism. The workers are not complaining because they don't know any better. And Varma is happy: he's now sure he's going to stay where he is, the Don Quixote of the labour ministry.

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