April 29, 2012
By Anindya Patra
Transated from Bengali by Suvarup Saha, Sanhati
Even before the struggles of the evicted slum dwellers of Nonadanga have come to a meaningful conclusion, there is an ongoing indefinite hunger strike at Kalyani. From 23rd April, 2012, four temporary workers of Kalyani Spinning Mills and one more associate have started their fast. It is unfortunate that being a little away from Kolkata, their struggle has failed to even make news. Six days have passed, but neither the mill authorities nor the Government supervisors have shown any initiative. This piece is an attempt to communicate the just demands and story of their tribulations to a wider audience.
It needs to be emphasized that this movement is not just another random protest started by some unscrupulous elements. The struggle has a history of two years. Around the beginning of 2010, one of the very few factories that still operated in the now dead Kalyani industrial region was this spinning mill. It was the time when “Industry is our future” slogans would rend the air along with the incessant shedding of tears for the lost NANO factory. Around that time, under the government supervision, labour laws were being flouted in Kalyani Spinning mills by recruiting temporary workers under a new title of ‘Outsider’ (perhaps the then chief minister’s tryst with Albert Camus had something to do with the naming). The workers tagged thus would perform all the duties of a permanent worker, yet they wouldn’t even be given identity cards, let alone the normal benefits such as PF or ESI that they deserve. Even, there was an atrocious disparity in terms of wages. While a permanent worker would be paid Rs. 400 per day, an outsider would be entitled to only Rs. 80. Another startling side of this story is that this factory is not a jute-mill owned by some rogue capitalist element where we are used to such irregularities. This is a factory run by the state government. And all this was happening under the left front regime.
It was around this time that the laid off workers of the Kalyani industrial region had started to shed some inertia and started organizing outside the purview of the CITUs and the INTUCs. The wave naturally reached the temporary workers of the Kalyani Spinning Mill, who formed their own union around the middle of 2010. We would call this the first phase of the struggle. The two main demands of this time were : (1) Re-structuring of pay and (2) Facilities such as PF, ESI and ID cards. With this stir, around July-August of 2010, the government issued a circular to increase the salary of these outsiders to Rs. 150/160. Maybe the government guessed that with this move the workers’ grievances would be largely redressed and the authority of CITU over them would be restored. But this had an opposite effect. Being energized by such a victory, almost in the beginning of their struggle, these workers further prepared themselves for a bigger one. It was just then that the biggest attack came over them. Around 200 temporary workers were terminated at once in December 2010.
The workers’ struggle now entered its second phase. They continued to agitate demanding revocation of this illegal termination. All possible democratic avenues were explored starting from petitioning at all the relevant governmental and constitutional authorities to dharnas and gate-meetings. Around March 2011, just before the historic changes of 2011, the workers started an indefinite hunger strike for the first time. On the fifth day of fasting, there was intervention from the government. A tripartite meeting was held in the new secretariat. The mill management who chose to appear for the meeting sent a letter claiming that no worker, designated as outsider, was ever employed by the mill. The existence of 200 workers was thus denied just by a letter.
In the meantime, the long awaited change had swept Bengal. The mill management also got its fare share of change. What did not change here was the lot of the temporary workers. With a new zeal, the workers went around all possible corridors of the new government and submitted deputations to the ministers in charge. All ministers and bureaucrats who met these workers admitted to the justness of their movement. But there was no resolution. What the workers began to feel is that the government is inching towards closing down this mill. And this fear had some concrete basis. If we count the temporary ‘outsiders’ out, the average age of the permanent workers is above fifty. Their productivity is lower, while wages are high. Recruitment of permanent workers had been completely stopped. The main production of the mill depended upon these outsiders. Thus throwing these workers out meant that the government was not interested any longer in keeping up the production. Their fear soon came true when the production at Kalyani Spinning Mill came to a grinding halt in 2011 October. The permanent workers continued to be paid their salaries, even though there was no production. About three months ago, even the electricity in the factory was disconnected. It was about that time that the struggle entered its third phase.
The main demand of the workers in this phase was resuscitation of the Spinning Mill. And all the earlier demands still remain. The new government had promised to open closed factories. What they are doing in reality is to close down open ones. Millions are being wasted in setting up trident lights in Kolkata and playing Rabindrasangeet in traffic signals but no heed is being paid to retain the livelihoods of the workers. The demands have been made in letters to labour Minister Purnendu Basu, even the chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. A month has passed without any of them bothering to reply.
But this is a known pattern. And thus, the workers had no other way but to start an indefinite hunger strike, again. Just like Nonadanga, an agonising apathy to the plight of the distressed is apparent from the behavior of the government. It appears that the government simply does not care. But if they would have given it a thought, the Kalyani Spinning Mill issue is some kind of an acid test for this regime – whether or not they are really interested in labour intensive industrialisation of the state of all this talk is hot air. We will have to wait to know the answer, but time is quickly passing and the fast enters its seventh day.