IT was the worst May Day celebrations in West Bengal, after 21 uninterrupted years of Left rule. On the maidan, Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, bereft of heroics, delivered his annual address. His monotonous pitch, with its mandatory reference to the "conspiracy" against the working class, diverted attention from a remarkable admission: even after 21 years, the ruling Front had not been able to do much for the workers of sick and closed industries. Now a committee would be set up to look into their problems and for workers whose units had closed down last year, there would be a monthly allowance of Rs 500. Meanwhile, workers must stand united and not allow divisive forces to mislead them...
The same day, workers of the sick Aluminium Manufacturing Company took out a procession in the once-red suburb of Dum Dum. The main slogan: "Dalal netara shore jaan (Corrupt trade union leaders, get out)." On a day of tributes to working class solidarity, the prestige of Bengal's TU leaders was at an all-time low. Yet by definition, the Front is an "instrument of working class struggles". After 21 years, why was the pack turning on its leaders?
Left leaders admit that somewhere during their long tenure, they were overwhelmed by economic forces beyond their control. Says CITU leader Chittabrata Majumdar: "Lay-offs, lock-outs, closures, unemployment will increase so long as the crisis of capitalism remains and feudalism is also prevalent in our country. The Front government cannot protect the working class against all types of assaults." So what can it do for the people? "It can provide some relief for people whose standards of living have declined during 30 years of Congress misrule. It can provide an honest administration free from nepotism, corruption and inefficiency."
It is with the second part of his claim that the common worker would join issue with.
The spectre of industrial sickness and closure has haunted the state through the '90s:
No government could have failed more abjectly to protect workers' interests. The principal reason: Left Front leaders from Basu downwards have failed to enthuse the bureaucracy to exert itself in any way to improve the lot of harassed labour. Indeed, the state government has often ignored and in effect flouted the directives of the Calcutta high court intended to bring some relief to the workers of ailing units. This is a state where workers apparently have no recourse at all.
Local NGO Nagarik Mancha (Citizens' Forum) some time ago conducted a detailed study into the condition of workers in West Bengal. Its findings are shocking. "It is not our contention that senior TU leaders like Niren Ghosh, Kamalapati Ray or Labour Minister Shanti Ghatak are corrupt. They are all men of impeccable honesty whose lifestyles have not changed. But the same cannot be said for some people close to them, people on whom they rely, nor about many government officials. Their sole objective is to make it easier for fly-by-night operators to acquire ailing units for a song, with a promise that no one will be retrenched—and then strip the factories of their machinery and assets and close it for good," says Naba Dutta, a convenor of the Mancha.
INTUC's Robin Majumdar points to another area of labour exploitation under the Left Front. "There are only 39 industries in the state where minimum wages have been affixed, against 67 in Uttar Pradesh, 60 in Tamil Nadu, 79 in Orissa, 63 in Bihar and 54 in Andhra. These legally fixed rates are also not always paid to workers in rural areas, where they are too poor and disorganised to protest."
As for helping workers of sick or closed units, it's been more media spin than concrete action. Recently, Kolay Biscuit Company was reopened amidst great fanfare, in the presence of Basu, senior minister Subhas Chakravarty and other luminaries. An intrepid entrepreneur had invested around Rs 1.75 crore. It worked only for a day, as the gas company refused supply because of pending bills not cleared by the earlier management. The question arises: why was no coordination achieved with gas supply authorities? No response.
SIMILARLY, the Aluminium Manufacturing Company unit shut down in 1987. Then in 1995-96, again with much song and dance, the company was reopened, Chakravarty being again on hand. The new owners stripped the factory of its assets. Angry workers sued the state government, which was involved with each stage of the handover. The government reacted by acquiring the company's land. How does this help the workers? No reply. Why was the new management not punished for reneging on its pledge—each takeover is accompanied by promises that production would resume and workers not laid off? Again no response.
"This is only the tip of the iceberg. Making industries sick is the only industry in Bengal if only because the management finds it easier here than in any other state to make a quick buck and run. Has the state government at all bestirred to ask why this should happen, what's causing all this, how to protect the workers? Of course not, all we got from the ministers and the TU leaders was the usual lecture about economic systems," says a Mancha spokesman.
A few other cases of the state government violating the law to help employers defraud workers: Bharat Electrical Industries was bought by the state government with an undertaking to the high court to reopen it as a workers' cooperative. In fact, the unit, after staying shut for five years, was sold to one A.K. Saha in total violation of the official undertaking and he promptly sold off all the assets. And the government didn't respond to a high court inquiry.
Take the erstwhile blue-chip Metal Box. Over 1,500 workers are without wages since 1988. The Maharashtra government has fin-ally allowed the land around the Mumbai unit to be sold, provided workers are rehabilitated. In West Bengal, the government did not oppose the proposed sale of land here, without any such provisions, presumably to make it easy for any eventual buyer.
At the National Textile Corporation mills, provident fund dues to the tune of Rs 21 crore were not paid. At Aluminium Manufacturing, at the time of closure, there was the factory, the machines and 43 bighas. The high court ordered the company to be sold and so it was to Oriental Sales Agency. Then the CITU and the INTUC agreed to accept a payment of Rs 66 lakh for the workers without any general staff meeting, and the factory was demolished.
Even if only 10 workers were on the rolls of each of the 56,000 sick units, it would mean that over 500,000 workers are now jobless, against around 900,000 registered workers in the state. "Even existing laws guaranteeing minimum facilities to workers have not been implemented. The state government remains unconcerned while viable industries are ruined and thousands rendered unemployed," reads the report of the Mancha fact-finding team headed by ex-Justice R. Sachar. So-called capitalist states like Maharashtra, the report notes, has stood by workers far better than leftist Bengal. The Left's undiminished high rhetoric makes this betrayal even more shameful.