Assam paper mills row heats up ahead of Assembly polls

Assam paper mills row heats up ahead of Assembly polls

Assam paper mills row heats up ahead of Assembly polls

Cachar, Assam: The employees of the defunct Cachar and Nagaon paper mills in Assam had boycotted the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. They were upset over the government's inaction to revive the mills that had shut down between 2015 and 2017 because of the shortage of bamboo and funds, and a ban on mining and transportation of coal in the region. Manabendra Chakraborty, president of Joint Action Committee of Recognised Unions (JACRU), which is a conglomerate of the workers’ unions of the mills, shared this with 101Reporters recently. He adds that the same issue will play on the minds of the local voters as Assam goes to Assembly polls in three phases, beginning March 27.

According to social commentator Joydeep Biswas, who teaches Economics at Cachar College, the revival of the mills is critical for the economic well-being of the Barak Valley as these used to employ two lakh people (directly and indirectly). Despite this, the state forces are ignoring the interest of the out-of-work mill workers, claims Chakraborty.

'Our right to protest denied'

Chakraborty is talking about the recent turn of events. On January 25, 2021, the Cachar district administration stopped a candlelight march that JACRU had taken out in Assam’s Silchar town in memory of 81 deceased employees of the Cachar and Nagaon paper mills. They died because they were unable to cope with the financial and psychological stress following the closure of the mills, members of JACRU allege. The mill workers have not received their salaries for around 49 months, Chakraborty makes a case.

"Our constitutional right to stage peaceful protests is being denied. We can’t even mourn the loss of our colleagues. We had informed the Cachar Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police [about the protest]. We had also secured a permission order from the office of the Additional District Magistrate. Yet our protest was stopped”, Chakraborty recounts.

He says the protestors were made to wait for one and a half hours before a fresh order was issued, which finally denied them permission to hold the march.

However, Bhanwar Lal Meena, Superintendent of Police, Cachar, cited safety reasons for cancelling the protest. He said, "It has been prohibited under Section 144 in many districts to carry fire items like mashal (flaming torch), lighter or candles because they pose safety hazards. It applies to the Cachar district too”.

Following this incident and in the run-up to the Assembly elections, JACRU members decided to stage protest demonstrations in front of the homes of the elected representatives of the Barak Valley. On February 2, they held a demonstration in front of Silchar MLA Dilip Kumar Paul's house, and on February 20, they took their protest to the current Silchar MP Dr Rajdeep Roy’s residence.

"We were told that a delegation of the mill workers could meet the Chief Minister [Sarbananda Sonowal] during his visit to the Barak Valley on February 23. [The visit got postponed to March 11.] But he did not meet our delegation as promised, complains Sadhan Ghosh, an employee of the Cachar Paper Mill.


'Lack of political will'

Chakraborty lambasted the elected representatives of the Barak Valley for giving false assurances regarding the revival of the mills. He also pointed out that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has failed to deliver the promise he made before the 2016 Assembly Elections that the mills would be revived if BJP came to power in Assam.

Meanwhile, the issue has become a tug of war between BJP and Congress leaders. Sushmita Dev, president of the All India Mahila Congress and former MP of Silchar says, “If BJP leaders claim that the mills became non-operational during the tenure of the Congress then they are talking like ignorant fools". If there has been some 'malpractice or corruption', then the BJP should file FIRs and arrest the culprits, Dev suggests.

If Cachar and Nagaon paper mills haven't yet reopened it's because of "the sheer lack of political will", says Biswas while citing the example of how the government of Kerala came forward to revive Hindustan Newsprint Limited, a unit of Hindustan Paper Corporation Limited (HPC).

But in Assam, the hearing in the case has been deferred more than eight times, Chakraborty informs 101Reporters. The matter regarding the liquidation of the two paper mills owned by HPC is pending with the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT).

On the part of Roy, the current BJP MP from the region, he had raised the issue in the parliament only once in 2020. However, he was unavailable for comments on the delay in the settlement of the case.

It is a conspiracy to handover the mills at the rate of peanuts to a handful of businessmen. The NCLT hearing was intentionally delayed so that the Assembly Elections get declared and the state government finds another excuse to neglect our demands”, an upset Ghosh believes.

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