Atonu Choudhurri | Feb 25, 2019 | 7 min read
Asansol: At 45, Subodh Tarafdar is an anxious father, son and a husband trying to support his family’s survival with odd jobs after having lost employment at the Rupnarayanpur unit of Hindustan Cables Limited (HCL) when the Centre announced its closure in 2016. Tarafdar, who worked at HCL for 10 years now has a part-time job at a nearby grocery store and poverty is a constant concern for his family of five.
Tarafdar and HCL are not the only sufferers in this industrial belt of West Bengal of West Burdwan district comprising Durgapur and Asansol. As many as 40,000 workers in industrial units of the region have lost jobs over the past decade and another 50,000 fear to lose jobs after more units shut down operation, industry sources say.
This consistent closure of industrial units has led to widespread resentment against the local Member of Parliament, Babul Supriyo, who was rewarded with charge of Minister of State for heavy industries and public enterprises after winning Asansol Lok Sabha seat for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014. The struggling industrial sector in the region and its revival formed the base of Supriyo’s pitch while campaigning in 2014.
A dozen units wrapped in a decade
Like thousands of other workers in this industrial belt, Tarafdar had high hopes on Supriyo, who promised to the HCL workers to bring back ‘achhe din’ while playing Holi with them after having landed the MoS role.
“Shouldering responsibilities of a father, husband and son with paltry income is near impossible. The sudden job loss came as a bolt as we were repeatedly assured of unit’s revival and job security by employers. Since then, I am forced to do part-time jobs to feed my family. The government kept us waiting in the hope that our fortunes will be revived,” rues Tarafdar.
The Rupnarayanpur unit of the Public Sector Unit (PSU) was set up in 1952 to produce telecom cables and remained profitable until 1994. Despite the slump in HCL’s business, and subsequent VRS offered to employees in three phases---1995, 2003 and 2009---workers were hopeful that the company will bounce back.
“Leave aside revival, rather the downward trend continued. We were forced to work without salaries for several months. Fed up with employers, we had approached trade union leaders of several political parties. Few of them took up our cases with owners, who cited helplessness, pleading lack of funds and our plight aggravated,” says Tarafdar. According to him, it was clear that the HCL unit in Rupnarayanpur will be shut down as it continued producing outdated traditional cables, while the Naini unit of the PSU in Uttar Pradesh was producing optical fibre cables.
The list of PSUs that have shut operations over the last decade include the Mining & Allied Machinery Corporation, Bharat Ophthalmic Glass, Hindustan Fertilizer Corporation (Durgapur unit), Cycle Corporation of India, refractory units at Raniganj and Durgapur of Burn Standard Company, IISCO’s Kulti Growth Centre, Jessop’s unit at Durgapur and BALCO’s Bidhanbagh unit. Alloy Steels Plant, a Steel Authority of India unit, has also invited expression of interest by floating a global tender, but is yet to get any response. Alloy Steels is capable of producing nearly 500 varieties of steel for use in defence applications, submarines, high-speed railway and other strategic industries.
'Centre's lackadaisical approach'
CITU leader and former Asansol MP Bansagopal Chowdhury corroborates Tarafdar’s claim, saying, “Subsequent governments at the Centre ignored the plight of industrial workers in Asansol and Durgapur.” Citing an instance of negligence towards reviving the unit, Chowdhury claims that instead of investing in modernisation and upgrading production, money earned from selling 10 lakh CKM (a measurement unit for cable) cables stored at HCL was used to fund HCL employees’ arrears.
The Centre released to HCL a Rs 4,777.05 crore package in 2016 when hopes of revival of the unit were dashed due to management's 'inability' to pay salary to its employees. The retrenched 5,000 employees were offered a lump sum amount.
Chowdhury squarely blames the Centre for closure of many industrial units over the last decade in Asansol and Durgapur, two major towns of West Burdwan district that constitute an important part of Bengal’s industrial belt. Continuation of this trend with three more industrial units closing down during Supriyo’s tenure as MP from Asansol while also being the MoS, heavy industries and public enterprise, is an indication of his poor performance on campaign promises of 2014.
The three units closed under Supriyo’s tenure include Burn Standard Company Ltd (BSCL) in 2015, HCL Rupnarayanpur in 2016, and Durgapur-based Refractory Industry in 2017. “Though it’s a collective responsibility of Centre and state for lack of industries in Bengal, but if I speak about Asansol and Durgapur, I must blame Centre. Babul as a representative of Asansol in the Parliament failed to convince the government to take timely measures to save industries. He rather remained busy with his showbiz,” says Chowdhury.
Famous for his Bollywood singing, Babul Supriyo, like many other fresh inductees in the BJP, does not shy from singing praises of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A resident of Uttarpara in Hooghly, he got the BJP ticket from PM Modi, who then made him a minister in 2014. As Lok Sabha elections ensue and industrial sector in his constituency continues to dissolve, Supriyo’s chances of a return as an MP are bleak. Unfortunately for him, during his February 2 rally, the PM focused on the Union Budget, and said nothing about reviving industries in the once thriving industrial belt.
Asansol awaits a word from their MoS MP
With a population of 12,43,400 in 2011 that is growing at a rate of 2.06 percent compared to Kolkata’s growth rate of 1.73 percent, Asansol is Bengal’s fastest growing urban sprawl. Closure of industrial units here is also closing all avenues of employment for local youths.
The response to protests and campaigns run by workers’ unions is such that Supriyo hasn’t appeared in his constituency since 2017. The workers anger is because the minister, who is often vociferous in his protests against Trinamool Congress’ land acquisition policy and lack of conducive environment for industry in Bengal, never uttered a single word on the closure of these units.
At the eleventh hour, the MP is hoping that promotional gimmicks like distributing blankets and organising sports meets in West Burdwan will win him Asansol LS seat again, but only drawing more criticism as the numbers of those affected by closure of industries are adding up to those fresh in search of work.
“We expected Babul to live up to our expectations as he promised. Now, those claims seem nothing but lip service. People have given up on him. He may avoid people but can’t escape from reality. Reality is that people’s anger will be reflected in ballot box this time,” says Binoyendra Kishore Chakraborty, president, West Burdwan unit of CITU.
Agreeing with Chakraborty, president of district unit of INTUC, Bikash Ghatak, says Supriyo has proved with his deeds that he is no different from other BJP leaders. “He doesn’t have the guts to say something on the plight of thousands of PSU workers of this region,” Ghatak says, adding that even BJP chief Amit Shah has mocked Supriyo’s rising unpopularity by suggesting he contest from Asansol when the MP sought a ticket from Purulia.
With the general elections months away, no political party except the Left is speaking about reviving Asansol’s industrial potential. Instead, the BJP is passing the buck to the TMC for the closures. All that awaits Asansol and Durgapur now is rising unemployment and a bleak future, whatever the election outcome.
Traditionally, Bengal has fared poorly in terms of creating a conducive environment for business. However, the ruling Trinamool Congress government led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee after coming to power in 2011, ending the Left Front’s 35 year-rule has stressed the need for reviving industries. Last week (February 7), the state attracted over Rs. 40,000 crore worth of investment proposals on the opening day of the flagship business summit, which was inaugurated by Banerjee.
Bengal ranked second after Mumbai (erstwhile Bombay) in terms of per-capita income in the country and was a major commercial and industrial hub till 1960-61. The Calcutta-Asansol-Dhanbad belt was at the forefront of industrial activity in the country.
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