The strategic sale of Bengal Chemicals & Pharmaceuticals Ltd. (BCPL) was cleared by the Modi Cabinet on July 17, 2019. The decision has left the trade unions fuming and the workforce demoralised. It has also caused the employees to come together and protest against the decision in large numbers, letting the government know that they will not let the sale happen without a strong fight.
Founded by eminent scientist Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray in 1901, BCPL was the first Indian company to make chemicals, drugs, pharmaceuticals, and home products. BCPL’s products — Bengal Chemical Pheneol, naphthalene balls, Cantharidine hair oil, Kalmegh and Aqua Ptychotis —still command a market share through the company’s own retail outlets opened recently, modern trade and on e-commerce sites. It was also among the first Indian manufacturers of anti-snake venom.
BCPL was taken over in 1977 by the government and referred to the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction in 1992. The firm reported its first profit since nationalisation in 2017. In the fiscal year 2018-2019, the firm made further profits, with a total income of Rs 119.7 crore against Rs 94.8 crore in the previous year. Profit stood at Rs 25.3 crore in 2018-19 against Rs 10.1 crore in 2017-18.
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The central government has been trying to sell the firm since 2017. In February 2018, a verdict was delivered by a single-judge bench of Calcutta High Court, striking down the strategic sale of BCPL. High court judge Debangsu Basak had ruled that Bengal Chemicals should not have been classified as a low priority public enterprise. The centre in April 2018 had moved the division bench, challenging the verdict. The proceedings are still being continued in Calcutta HC.
Talking to NewsClick, an employee of Bengal Chemicals said, “We have been constantly protesting against this move. However, the government does not want to hear what the employees have to say. The government is spending the tax-payers’ money to fight cases against us, the employees, in the court. Even though the high court had given a stay order on the sale, the government filed another petition. However, the workers’ unions were mysteriously not given any notice about this or provided a copy of this petition.”
On August 2, on the event of the 159th birthday of BCPL’s founder Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, a protest rally was organised All India People’s Science Network, Students’ Federation of India, Democratic Youth Federation of India, and All India Democratic Women’s Association in the Bengal Chemicals factory in Panihati, North 24 Parganas, West Bengal. The rally started after the employees paid tribute to the founder of the firm. At a meeting following the rally, the employees asked all national trade unions to come together and oppose the government's attempt to sell the now profit-making enterprise.
Another employee of BCPL told NewsClick, “The central government has been trying to privatise all profit-making public sector undertakings (PSUs) for the benefit of big businessmen in the country. This is destroying the country, but they do not care. The government only cares about the profits of certain people. The government also wants to sell the surplus land of the BCPL factories and completely demolish the company. We will not let them destroy Acharya Prafulla Chandra’s dream like this.”
The company has 25 acres of surplus land at its Panihati factory on the outskirts of Kolkata, which can be conservatively valued at Rs 350-400 crore. Selling it will help the company square off its accumulated loss of Rs 248 crore, according to P.M. Chandraiah, managing director of BCPL. The plans to sell surplus land at the Bengal Chemicals factory, for which bids were invited, was also struck down by Justice Debangsu Basak in February 2018.
The employees had also opposed the move to sell the land, saying that the management wanted to side with the government and destroy the lives of the employees of BCPL. They had said that selling the land was the first step towards selling the entire company. Talking to NewsClick, another employee of BCPL said, “The management does not care about the employees, neither does the government. Land mafias are desperate to get their hands on the surplus land in Panihati. All employees have to come together to stop the destruction of the company.”