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Bonfire of the Vanities

The lynching of two jute mill managers exposes the diseased industry

Bonfire of the Vanities
Bonfire of the Vanities
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
It'S again one of those high-level inquiries ordered by the West Bengal government which few in Calcutta trust or have faith in. But it's an order that could scarcely have been avoided, what with three persons being killed brutally at the Baranagar Jute Mill (bjm) on January 13. There is, however, no dearth of instant analyses into what caused the incident. "Conspiracy," thundered cpi(m) general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet. bjm's citu leader Kalyan Roy echoed his master's voice.

North 24 Parganas police officials, accused of reaching the scene late, are convinced that the violence was premeditated. Says one of them: "The police could not enter the factory as the gates were closed from inside. Only when they brought out an injured worked could we enter." cpi(m) leader Amitava Nandi is puzzled: "There was no cause for such a frenzied outburst of violence. A thorough probe is needed."

Equally baffled is bjm owner Govind Sarda: "Some suggest that workers were provoked. I ask, what kind of provocation justifies the lynching of three people? Labour disputes occur, but do workers talk to the management carrying iron rods and guns? I think the state government played a role here."

According to a reconstruction of what transpired on January 13, some 400 workers went to meet the management representatives with two demands: reinstatement of two suspended workers and regularisation of casual workers. During the discussion the workers turned violent, attacking the managerial staff and smashing furniture. Though details are hazy, it seems that during the outburst chief executive J.P. Tewari pulled out his revolver and opened fire, hitting Bhola Das, a worker, who later died. The enraged mob set upon Tewari and personnel manager Goutam Ghosh, tied them to their chairs and set them alight.

So far the police have arrested 27 people, including 9 outsiders. For new chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharyya, the incident has come as a major embarrassment. In fact, even former CM Jyoti Basu seemed to rub salt on his successor's wounds when he said: "During 24 years of my tenure, such a thing never happened." A shaken Bhattacharyya announced the inquiry.

Industrialists were divided on whether the incident would discourage fresh investments in the state. Industry spokesmen B.M. Khaitan and M. Jalan trod cautiously, waiting to see how the state reacted. For the jute industry, Sanjay Kajaria and Arun Bajoria reacted strongly, admitting that Bengal industrialists had set up many jute-based units in Andhra Pradesh to escape the double whammy of high wages/low productivity and workers' militancy. Ex-tisco chief Russi Modi felt fresh investments would be affected while Bengal chamber of commerce chairman S.B. Ganguly called for more transparency in labour relations.

The problem seems to have been 'over-regularisation' of casual workers. Sarda told Outlook: "Casual workers can't demand permanent work for which there are permanent employees. The latter, on an average, over Rs 200 daily. An average worker works four days out of six, letting an outsider work for him for, say, Rs 50 while he does some other work. But these untrained substitutes can't fulfil our productive goals as per market demands, causing us losses. We can't proceed against them legally. As against the industry norm of 40 workers per tonne production, the bjm maintains between 57 to 63 workers, and still they want more! Ghosh and Tewari insisted on stricter work norms, so they were targeted. "

On the flip side, most jute industry workers do not get even their PF dues—money to the tune of Rs 300 crore is yet to be paid. That apart, gratuity and esi dues to the tune of another Rs 150 crore have never been paid to workers. The industry pleads losses as the major reason for this. Job conditions are uncertain. The number of workers has dropped from 250,000 to 160,000 in 15 years. Five out of 59 mills are closed. The rest don't work to capacity, curtailing job opportunities. There has also been no modernisation for years. Renovation and incentive packages worked out by the Centre were never implemented. Work conditions are primitive.

In citu leader Niren Ghosh's opinion, jute workers are the worst exploited among labourers. Trinamul Congress leader Pankaj Banerjee, meanwhile, lays the blame on the state government's door.

Whatever the reasons, the bjm incident has provided more ammunition to those training their guns at the Left Front government, which is fighting hard to maintain law and order in the state.

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