West Bengal

Murder in a mill

Print edition : July 11, 2014

Kamal Nath Jha, general manager, and Jadugopal Debnath, security officer, of the jute mill in Hoogly district speaking to the media after workers beat them up when they intervened to prevent the fatal assault on the CEO. Photo: PTI

THE brutal murder of Hari Kusum Maheshwari, the chief executive of the Northbrook Jute Mill in Bhadreshwar in Hooghly district, on June 15 in broad daylight by workers of the mill, has sent shock waves all over the State. Maheshwar, 60, was beaten to death allegedly by workers who were protesting against a proposal by the management to take steps to scale down production.

The management and the workers were in a dialogue over the issue of excess productivity during the past few months. According to reports, the mill owner, Prakash Choraria, in a meeting with union representatives that morning, put forward two options—either cut down the hours of work or reduce the number of days of work for the time being. The meeting ended inconclusively around 10 a.m.

By the time workers started coming in for the next shift around 11 a.m., rumour had spread that the management had decided to cut down the number of days of work, which would mean a sizeable reduction in the wages. As the workers started agitating, Maheshwari reportedly stepped out to speak to them and was battered to death with sticks and bricks. The mob also attacked the mill’s general manager and the chief security officer.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was quick to blame the Left and the BJP. However, many workers did not buy this theory. “This was a spontaneous outburst and had nothing to do with any union,” a worker told Frontline. Though work was suspended in the mill following the incident, the workers were hopeful that the mill would be reopened and cited similar examples of violence in other mills which continued to produce.

In June 2001, two executives of the Barangar Jute Mill were lynched; in May 2002, the chief personnel officer of Dalhousie Jute Mill in Kolkata was killed; in October 2002, the Labour Officer of the Hastings Jute Mills in Rishra was killed; in May 2008 the personnel manager of Loomtex Jute Mill in Titagarh was lynched; and in July 2011, the labour officer of Gondolpara Jute Mill in Chandennagore was murdered.

The situation this year has turned worse for the jute industry. “The industry is at present starved of supply orders for jute bags for the current agricultural season. The previous UPA government was giving overestimated demands for jute bags, but not purchasing them, and the products remained in the godown,” Sanjay Kajaria, former chairman of the Indian Jute Manufacturing Association, told Frontline. In March this year, Northbrook was one of the six mills in the region that closed down for over a month, and was apparently reopened under pressure from political quarters just before the Lok Sabha elections. “The mills were forced to produce and the product remained in the godowns,” said an industry source.

For West Bengal, the murder only reinforces the industry-unfriendly image of the State. “There is also great panic in the jute industry, particularly in the Hooghly belt,” said Kajaria. West Bengal has the highest number of jute mills in India and produces more than 85 per cent of the jute grown in the country.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay