THE Trinamool Congress government sprang a surprise in the State Assembly on February 27, the last day of the last session of the outgoing Assembly, by passing two Bills for the takeover of two ailing private companies, the tyre manufacturer Dunlop India Ltd and the wagon maker Jessop & Company Ltd, once emblems of Bengal’s industry. The Bills were the Dunlop India Limited (Acquisition and Transfer of Undertaking) Bill, 2016, and the Jessop and Company Limited (Acquisition and Transfer of Undertaking) Bill, 2016. The Kolkata-based Ruia group, which owned both companies, shut down Dunlop’s factory, in Sahaganj, in 2011 and Jessop’s plant, in Dum Dum, in 2014. The “Statement of Object and Reasons” of each Bill mentioned that “thousands of employees of the said company have not got their dues over a substantial period of time. Consequently, the employees are in acute financial distress.” Dunlop had 550 workers and Jessop 464.
The State government announced that until the government “formally” acquired the two companies through an Act, it would pay a monthly ex gratia of Rs.10,000 to each worker on the payrolls of the two companies. “This was a historic act by the State government. Only the workers of Dunlop can tell you the enormous help this is to us. We are now hopeful that other workers and those who have retired without receiving their money will eventually get their dues,” Bidyut Ganguly, working president of the Dunlop Sahaganj Unit Sramik Karmachari Union, told Frontline.
The Ruia group had acquired the two sick units in 2003 (Jessop) and 2005 (Dunlop), but hopes for their revival were dashed within a few years, and the factories were closed.
The economies of Sahaganj in Hooghly district and Dum Dum in north Kolkata were dependent to a large extent on the two units, and the acquisition move was expected to have a direct electoral impact on at least four seats. Both areas have a concentration of closed factory units, and the government’s move could be a ray of hope for the out-of-work employees.
Political observers see it as a desperate move by the ruling party to temporarily address the long-standing problem of distress of industrial workers and the lack of employment opportunities for them in the State. With starvation deaths in the tea gardens of north Bengal and the closing down of industrial units, particularly in the jute sector, the State government has been under pressure to find a solution to the crisis. The government hopes that the two Bills will help it counter some of the criticism levelled against it.
One of the earliest Bills that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee introduced after assuming power in 2011 was the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Bill, 2011, aimed at returning to “unwilling farmers” land acquired from them by the previous Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government for Tata Motors’ proposed small car project. The Tatas were forced to relocate the project owing to the violent agitation led by Mamata Banerjee. But even five years after she assumed power, the promise to return the land remains unfulfilled because of legal hurdles.
With the Ruia group weighing its option of seeking legal redress, there is a possibility that the latest Bills will also end up like the promise made to the farmers of Singur.
The opposition, which welcomed the government’s move as one that would bring relief to the families of the unemployed workers, also voiced its scepticism about the government’s sincerity. “This acquisition is pointless unless an all-out effort is made to turn the companies around, and there are no such schemes evident yet. While we welcome such a move, we cannot help but feel that the trust of the workers and the people of the areas will be shattered when they realise after the elections that the so-called acquisition was just an eyewash,” said Shyamal Chakraborty, CPI(M) central committee member and prominent leader of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions.
Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay