The wrinkles are deep even on the unshaven cheeks. The jaws look stiff and the eyes glow like ember. “I am ready to witness the worst. I don’t care if things go wrong all over again,” says 52-year-old Omprakash Kahar almost in one breath as he stands outside the Alexandra unit of National Jute Manufacturers’ Corporation (NJMC) at Jagaddal in North 24-Parganas. Kahar last walked out of the mill in 2007, the day the unit closed down.
In the industrial zone of North 24-Parganas, where the CPI(M)’s labour wing, Citu, used to call the shots till recently, Kahar is not the lone desperado. “Things will either improve or get worse from now. If things get better, we shall enjoy the fruit. If they don’t, it will be an eye-opener for all of us. I am ready to go through the worse but only at the hands of a different set of people,” said the jobless industrial worker as he stood against a maze of smoke bellowing out of units that have staved off a fate similar to that of Alexandra.
After tasting disaster in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the CPI(M) may well witness a catastrophe here this time. Strangely, most industrial workers in this zone are looking forward to a tsunami of any kind to “change” their destiny. Some of them even admit that lives of jobless industrial workers may become unbearable under a new regime. Yet, they are keen to see what lies in store for them after the change.
Politics in the industrial belts of North 24-Parganas and Hooghly, where, ironically, most old units have shut shop, is abuzz with a one-point agenda for change at any cost. Local CPI(M) units have failed to make even an inch of progress from 2009. Change in governance, thus, seem inevitable to people living here.
The HT team started its yatra from Titagarh, once a thriving industrial township when NJMC’s Kinison unit was the lifeline of what people then called mini-India. But in 2007, darkness engulfed the lives of industrial workers and other locals dependent on the industries here after NJMC authorities decided to close down the Kinison unit. About 5,000 workers were offered relief under voluntary retirement schemes, but the benefits fell short of the workers’ expectations.
Papa Rao (65), a former Kinison employee, recalls, “Our VRS benefits were calculated on the basis of 26 working days a month, whereas our legitimate demand was on a basis of 30 working days. Workers’ unions did nothing to fulfil our demand. Now, we work at different places for paltry wages varying between R45 to 50 a day.”
Swapan Kumar (43), another former Kinison worker, squarely blamed Citu. “From the day talks started (with the management), Citu leaders advised us to accept whatever was offered because they felt that the unit would never, otherwise, reopen. At least, the newly elected Trinamool MP from Barrackpore, Dinesh Trivedi, and local Trinamool MLA Arjun Singh have promised to do their best to reopen these units. The promise may turn out to be hollow but let us at least trust them for once,” Kumar said.
Umesh Rajbhar (52), another local, narrated how the closure of Kinison hurt local businessmen and shopkeepers. “Most workers came from outside, mainly from Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. Many returned to their villages. Those who had no choice stayed back and are now struggling to make ends meet. Their children could not complete their studies. Who would come to our shops? Many shops closed down for good. The ones still open hardly make profit,” Rajbhar said.
The scene in front of the two closed units of Ramswarup Industries Ltd (RIL) at Shyamnagar is no different. In October 2010, the RIL management suspended work at the unit renowned for steel rods and wired ropes, pushing into uncertainty the future of 204 employees.
Samir Roy (35), secretary of the Trinamool-controlled workers’ union at RIL, said the closure was illegal since “the notice for suspension of work was issued without informing the local administration”. “There have been some bipartite and tripartite discussions but the management doesn’t want to reopen the units. Leaders of Citu and Intuc do not seem inclined to resolve the issue,” Roy said.
Biswajit Sen (34), one of the unfortunate workers, said, “Now, I am working at an industrial unit adjacent to RIL for R70 a day. The Left has ruined us. We want to see what the Opposition can do.”
Pramod Kar (72), a food-stall owner at Jagaddal, was dependant on Meghni Jute Mill for his daily bread. He had always supported the Left. “Trinamool MP Dinesh Trivedi is not seen as often as his CPI(M) predecessor, Tarit Baran Topdar. But that does not seem to have done any damage to Trinamool. The Marxists lost credibility when the thriving industrial belt suffered degeneration and turned into a kind of a ghost town. People have made up their minds. It is now impossible for the Left to turn the public mood in its favour,” Kar said.
The rage is evident among people outside the Kakinara unit of Titagarh Paper Mills, which closed down in 1982. Locals allege the management did not make any serious attempt to reopen it leaving 1,400 people who used to work there in complete uncertainty. As hopes dimmed over the years, the piled-up rage of the workers steadily turned towards the CPI(M).
“For so many years, these political leaders came to us with loads of promises before elections. And they always disappeared after the polls. We do not think the propagators of change will actually change our lives. But we should give them a chance because for many years we gave the Left so many chances,” said Ranjit Samanta (37), whose tea stall used to be packed with customers till the mill shut.
Frustration and rising tension seems to have created an invisible bond between workers of Dunlop India’s tyre factory at Sahagunj in Hooghly and locals. Dipankar Roy (58), general secretary of the Citu-affiliated Dunlop Workers’ Union, said that ever since its second reopening on April 9, 2010, following a takeover by industrialist Pawan Ruia, the factory never achieved its daily target of producing 74 tonnes. “The highest was 30 tonnes. Salaries of 910 workers, who are still on the payroll, are getting delayed every month. There are also 336 workers who have opted for early retirement but are still to receive their retirement benefits. The future seems uncertain.”
The trade union leader also alleged that local Trinamool MP Ratna De Nag was not keen on solving the problem. “Both the unions affiliated to Citu and Intuc requested her to take up the issue, but she is yet to reply.”