Coal India trade unions call off strike in victory for Modi

NEW DELHI - The labour unions of state-run Coal India have called off a strike planned for Monday in protest against a stake sale and opening up of the industry, setting the stage for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to press ahead with energy reforms.

Coal India holds a monopoly on commercial coal mining, accounting for more than 80 per cent of India's total production.

Union leaders met a senior coal ministry official on Saturday and the strike was postponed until a meeting with the power and coal minister, said S.Q. Zama, secretary general of the Indian National Mineworkers Federation.

The date of the meeting with the minister has not yet been fixed.

Even before Saturday's meeting, the government and Coal India officials were confident any strike would have little impact as one of the company's five unions, close to Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, had promised not to join. 

The government's sale of a tenth of Coal India could fetch a third of its US$9.5 billion (S$12 billion) annual divestment target. Asset sales are running behind schedule, pressuring a deficit target of 4.1 per cent of GDP for the fiscal year to March.

Emboldened by the biggest electoral mandate in 30 years, Modi has also taken steps to let private companies mine and sell coal in India, for the first time in more than four decades.

The unions had threatened to fight the measures tooth and nail, but calling off the strike without any concrete assurance from the government shows they may have been weakened by rifts with each other. Last year, they successfully thwarted a stake sale plan by the previous government.

Zama, however, said the unions would keep resisting any move that could undermine the position of Coal India. He said competition from private companies would make Coal India a "sick" company, risking the jobs of most of its 370,000 workers.

"The government might try to bulldoze us because of their strength in parliament," Zama said. "But we will put up resistance to the extent possible."