Swapnaneel Bhattacharjee | Mar 5, 2019 | 7 min read
CACHAR: POVERTY CAUSED BY A PAPER MILL
By Swapnaneel Bhattacharhee
Arup Chakraborty has not been paid his salary for the past 25 months. An employee of Cachar Paper Mill, the only major industrial undertaking in south Assam’s Barak Valley which suspended production in 2015, Arup, who lives with his wife Mousumi Chakraborty and father Ananda Charan Chakraborty in Silchar, is one of 525 mill workers who though jobless go to the mill every day to mark attendance.
Arup (what was his position? How long was he working there?) was earning Rs. 45,000 a month and is owed Rs. 11, 25,000 in back pay. “Revival of the mill is next to impossible,” Arup told First Post. “Its machines would be in a ruined state. It will require a massive amount to make the mill functional again. Let the government do whatever it wants, but it should at first clear our dues. Imagine how we mill workers have been living for the past several months without salaries,” he asked. A number of them had to sell heir property and other household valuables or take loans to survive. The mill’s closure has rendered not just the employees destitute but also a large number of people whose livelihood indirectly depended on the mill, like coal, bamboo and lime suppliers, workers in the bamboo fitting works and loading and unloading of goods at the factory and other odd jobs generated by the mill.
The employees, however, are in a peculiar situation as they can’t look for other jobs as none of them have been officially relieved. The paper mill, set up in 1988 at Panchgram around 24km from Silchar, is in a decrepit state with ramshackle buildings and dilapidate roads surrounded by wild foliage. A unit of Hindustan Paper Corporation Limited and spread over 3000 bighas, it had a staff of 637 (70 executives, 42 supervisors and 525 workmen) (have even the executives and supervisors not been paid or only the workers?). Around 550 casual workers had been suspended in April, 2018. Reviving the mill was one of BJP’s major poll promises which brought it to power in Assam.
Manobendra Chakraborty, chief convener of the HPC Paper Mills Revival Action Committee and president of Cachar Paper Project Workers’ Union, said that as the government has not officially notified closure of the mill, workers have to mark their attendance daily. Also, manpower is needed, he said, as “the mill provides essential services like water supply and fire service to the area”. The HPC Paper Mills Revival Action Committee is a conglomerate of workers’ unions of Cachar Paper Mill and Nagaon Paper Mill at Jagiroad in central Assam, which too has been non-functional since March 31, 2017. Their employees too have not got their salaries for the past 23 months.
“Over 20 workers have died from trauma and stress-related complications and lack funds to get proper medical treatment,” added Manobendra. “Many more will die if the government does not take prompt steps to pay the salaries and revive the mill.” Taking a dig at the Sarbananda Sonowal government, Manobendra said though Sonowal had announced during the Namami Barak fest held in Silchar in 2017 that the mill would be revived and pending salaries paid within two to three months, nothing has happened. He threatened large-scale protests if the government did not take some measures soon.
Cachar Paper Mill was the main source of income also to people in neighbouring areas of Mizoram, Meghalaya and Dima Hasao. Barak Valley has remained industrially-backward mainly because of poor connectivity. The condition of roads to reach the valley from anywhere was abysmal for several years and it got its first broad-gauge rail only in November, 2015.
There have been attempts to sell of the mill and its land. But the mill owed large amounts to its creditors and suppliers, like M/S Alloys and Metals, which filed a case against HPC with the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) demanding payment of dues of Rs. 98 lakh. Eventually, the NCLT, in June 2018, ordered commencement of a corporate insolvency resolution process against the parent company. This is likely to delay even further the chances of the workers being paid their long pending dues.
Even the proposal for an Expression of Interest (EOI) for purchase of the property and completion of formalities by Feb 16, got a very tepid response. "Three parties – Dalmia Cements, B.R. Shetty (an industrialist from Gujarat) and a company named Ecotech were initially in the fray,” said a senior HR official. “However, Ecotech had to pull out for not fulfilling the pre-qualifying condition. But neither Dalmia Cements nor B.R. Shetty have submitted any document so far”. Though HPC sources said valuation of land and other assets of the two mills had been completed and the matter is likely to reach a conclusion by the end March.
On being asked about the repeated promises made by the BJP government (both the Centre and State) about reviving the mills and paying the dues and whether the company had received any communication from the government on this, a senior HPC official said, “whenever we got in touch with the government, they reply that the matter is under active consideration.” Just the salary due to the employees of the two mills will be around Rs 500 crore including provident fund, gratuity and other allowances.
But what exactly led to the mill’s closure? Experts say the mill suffered huge losses due to shortage of bamboo and non-availability of coal because of the NGT ban on mining and transportation of coal from Meghalaya. The mill could not procure coal from elsewhere as there was no broad-gauge rail link to the mill.
Unavailability of bamboo, a key raw material in paper production, was a regular problem leading to closure a number of times in the past. The mill got its bamboo mainly from Mizoram, Dima Hasao and Tripura. In Mizoram, alleged illegal tax collection by police and interference by forest department officials made free movement of bamboo-laden trucks difficult. Bamboo supply from Dima Hasao was affected without a proper rail link to the area. Supply from Tripura stopped due to a devastating bamboo flowering during 2007-08.
There seems no option other than selling the mill and its land, though Sanjeev Roy, convener of the HPC Paper Mills Revival Action Committee, said they are likely to move the court against this move. “We are not going to accept selling of the mills,” he said. The CPM too is against any sell off. Dulal Mitra, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said the mill “must be made functional under the supervision of the government and the salaries paid at the earliest”.
Silchar MLA and former deputy speaker of Assam Legislative Assembly Dilip Kumar Paul, however, said the government is aware and concerned about the workers’ plight and hoped the issues (revival and payment of pending salaries) will be resolved soon. He blamed the previous Congress government for the pitiable condition of the mills.
That, however, is of little consolation to the suffering workers and their families. Who are sure to vent their anger at the BJP when it returns to the Barak valley in a few weeks to ask for votes for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
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