The digital clock at the entrance to the sprawling Nestle India plant reads 8:14. It’s a bright, sunny Saturday morning and already time for the workers to troop in. Time for the workers to put on their overalls and for the machines to start whirring. It’s about time the first twisted blocks of Maggi roll out through the conveyor belts.
Instead, the sprawling complex at Rudrapur in Uttarakhand’s Udham Singh Nagar district, nearly 300 km from state capital Dehradun, is enveloped in the silence of a graveyard on a working weekend. It is the day after catastrophe.
On Friday, the country’s food regulator ordered a countrywide recall of all nine variants of Maggi noodles amidst a raging storm triggered by food inspectors’ findings about the presence of high levels of lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG), a taste enhancer, in the two-minute brand.
Sanjeet Kumar, who has worked in the packaging department of Nestle since 2011, has been suddenly asked not to report for duty.
The only earning member in his four-member family, Sanjeet is among nearly 1,100 contract workers whose future appears to be uncertain.
“Kuch samaj mein nahi aa raha, aath tak intezar karte hai (Don’t know what is happening. Let us wait till the 8 (June),” said Sanjeet, as he discussed the future with a group of few of his co-workers outside the gate.
Till Friday, all were awaiting their monthly salaries, which come between 8-10 every month. Now, they are not sure when they will get their May salaries.
A Nestle official said on condition of anonymity, “We are hopeful things will be settled soon. For the time being, we have asked firms not to supply labourers.”
The Maggi mess has not only stopped production at the plant but also put a question mark over the livelihood of hundreds of contract workers from Uttarakhand as well as western Uttar Pradesh, who toil from morning to evening for a monthly amount of Rs 5,400 each.
Vishal, a young man in his 20s and a supervisor with one of the firms supplying workers to the plant is now facing angry questions from Sanjeet and others.
“We have some 500 laborers working here. After the ban we are completely clueless,” said Vishal before quietly disappearing.
Sources said apart from the 1,100 contract workers, the plant employs around 400 other people, including technicians and supervisory staff.
Inside the plant, the alert security staff has been told to look out for “unknown faces”, as one guard put it. In the last few days, several officers have paid unscheduled visits and collected samples of Maggi noodles.
At the deserted reception area, the face of Nestle’s global CEO Paul Bulcke – who flew down to India on Friday -- stands out amidst promotional posters of Maggi.
A senior company executive refused to divulge details about the plant’s output and future course of action but insisted that “our products are safe”. Sources said the plant produces around 300 tons of noodles per day.
Outside the Nestle plant, the furrowed creases on the faces of other stake-holders speak how much the ban has hit the local economy.
Niranjan, who has let out six rooms in his building for Rs 1,100 each per month to workers at the plant, wondered whether he will get his dues soon.
House owners of Rampura, a filth-filled mini township provides cheap housing options for most of the laborers working at the Nestle plant and other units at the State Industrial Development Corporation of Uttarakhand (Sidcul) here.
District magistrate Pankaj Pande admitted the controversy has shaken the trust of manufacturers.
“It’s a sensitive matter. We don’t want the controversy to hurt Sidcul’s image”.