As the Bihar Assembly elections draw closer, the long neglected issue of shut sugar mills has again come to the fore. The Motihari-based Shree Hanuman Sugar Factory had shut down in 2002, leaving nearly 700 workers reeling in unemployment. The factory, spread over 40 acres of land, owes approximately Rs 80 crore to its workers and nearly 10,000 farmers of East Champaran district.
Five hundred full time workers along with 200 seasonal workers had to leave work due to the management’s sudden decision that caused heavy losses and subsequently sugarcane crushing was halted and sugar production discontinued. Out of three mills in the district (Motihari, Chakia, Sagauli), the Chakia sugar mill, 33 km south towards Muzaffarpur, has remained closed since two decades while Sagauli is the only functional set up in the district. Since 17 years, the desperate workers, seasonal labourers and sugarcane farmers have been staring at a gloomy future as their salary, arrears and wages still remain unpaid. The factory has also been mired in the death by self immolation of two workers, whose families are still awaiting justice.
Earlier during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Motihari sugar mill had been brought to the limelight, when PM Narendra Modi’s campaign trail had hit the streets of Motihari town. He had promised the re-opening of the Motihari Sugar Factory saying, “Agli baar aaunga toh abhi band mill ke chini se bani chai piyunga (Next time I come here, I will drink tea made with sugar from these shutdown mills).” However, more than a year later, the town awaits his next visit.
The centenary celebration of Champaran Satyagraha in 2017, the brainchild of Bihar government to mark 100 years of civil disobedience in Bihar, was accompanied by the bone chilling episode associated with the sugar factory when two of its workers died by self-immolation at the gate of factory. Naresh Srivastav (52) and Suraj Baitha (49), the General Secretary and Joint Secretary of Motihari Sugar Mill Labour Union, while participating in a strike had set themselves on fire on April 10 2017.
Deceased labour union leaders Naresh Srivastav and Suraj Baitha
The strike called by the labour union was not a sudden outrage and the decision for self immolation by workers was conveyed in the form of 25 letters to higher levels, including the President of India, Prime Minister, District Magistrate as well as the local Chhatauni Police Station incharge (SI), as alleged by workers and families of the two victims. They have also pointed towards a nexus between the local administration and the mill management.
Also read: Election 2019: ‘Powerful People Eyeing Land of Closed Motihari Sugar Mill’
Brajesh Baitha, son of the deceased Suraj Baitha, said, “Immediately after (the death), our families along with other workers started a silent protest and also demanded a CBI enquiry into the incident. The same was reiterated by Patna High Court but everything went in vain.”
Self Immolation warning by Motihari Sugar Mill workers. Pic Credit: Saurav Kumar
The families of the deceased workers also alleged that the workers were under extreme pressure due to the non-payment of salaries, which forced them to participate in the strike. As per documents accessed by NewsClick, officials from New Delhi, Patna to Motihari, all were informed about the strike. Maya Devi, wife of deceased Suraj Baitha, said, “We are the worst victims of sugar factory closure. My husband along with other workers was on dharna since long but their plight was muzzled under the loud centenary celebrations of Champaran Satyagraha.” She claimed that the sugar mill owed her family Rs 22 lakh.
In 2015, a tripatite agreement had been signed between the labourers, sugar mill management and district administration which clearly mentioned about payment of pending salaries of couple of months and full payment of 2002-03 (the year since sugar mill went inactive) within one month. However, the workers alleged that management backtracked and have not complied with the agreement despite several court orders.
Prior to the agreement, the owner of the sugar mill had on June 8, 2015, written to the district administration assuring the payment of workers and dues including Provident Fund and retirement dues.
(Left) Tripatite Agreement; (Right) Management letter to Motihari DM Pic Credit: Saurav Kumar
Vinod Singh, who worked as fitter in the mill, told NewsClick, “After 2002, the management sporadically called workers to work for 2-3 months with an aim to lure all of us and again discontinued. This continued in 2005, 2007, 2010 and 2015. The management owed Rs. 10 lakh for a time period of 109 months. With no salary paid and dues clearance, the cruel management continues to stifle our rightful demands.”
Also read: MGNREGA Activist to Voice Workers’ Issues in Upcoming Bihar Assembly Election
According to Kapil Sah (59), another seasonal worker, the factory’s closure affected the social structure of Motihari and adjoining areas. An estimated workforce of 15,000 was left in the lurch and had to shift to other occupations as the local market vanished from scene. However, the government remained unaffected. The prolonged demands of workers and farmers have been falling on deaf ears of the factory management, district officials and the state government.
A sugarcane growing farmer in Bapudham Chandraiya (8 km south from Motihari town), Ram Dayal Sahni told NewsClick that the Motihari LS seat is represented by Bharatiya Janata Party’s Radha Mohan Singh, who had also held the Agriculture Ministry portfolio in the 2014-19 cabinet, but nothing fruitful came out. Further taking a swipe at the state government, he added, “The ruling alliance in the state since 15 years is of JD(U) and BJP combine but we have not been rescued from the financial crisis looming over since 17 years.”
Pic: Formers workers of Motihari Sugar Mill. Pic Credit: Saurav Kumar
Chandra Bhushan Pandey, a veteran journalist From Motihari, explained, “The closure of mill had an adverse affect on overall development of the town and nearby region. Precisely, it demotivated farmers from growing sugarcane, A high yielding cash crop. The mechanism of sugar production has become outdated so whether reopening of the mill can give better results remains a questionable point but the apathy of workers and farmers should be resolved on immediate basis.”
“The government’s efforts to find a solution to the issue has failed repeatedly because a syndicate (comprised of state government, mill management, local politicians, union leaders turned brokers and local administration) runs behind the shut doors of the sugar factory which wants it to be only an election issue that may diminish in thin air as polls are done and dusted,” Pandey further added.
Only time will tell if the plight of the workers are noticed by the elected leaders this time and does not remain an issue to be noticed only in the run-up to elections.