Durgapur/Kolkata: It was March 23, 2017, when Bijoy Saha, the joint secretary of the ASP (alloy steel plant) unit of the Hindustan Steel Employees Union (HSEU), was sitting in his union office room when “hooligans” belonging to the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) descended and ransacked the office. Saha recalls that he was beaten up so badly that he had to spend the next 12 days in hospital.
The next such attack came on April 8 the same year. This time it was on the DSP (Durgapur Steel Plant) union office just prior to the election for union recognition. This time, 80-year-old Ramswarup ‘Chacha’ was a mute spectator to the attacks and vandalism. However, when the mob tried to torch the books that he tried to save, he was beaten up.
“Ramswarup Chacha is no more, but his zeal to fight the odds still guides us”, Saha, one of the senior leaders of steel workers union in Eastern India, told NewsClick.
Not a single day has passed since then, when workers and employees of the Durgapur steel city, known as the Ruhr (German industrialised township) of India, have not protested to thwart the Centre’s move to “dismantle” the plant and go for its privatisation, as also the state government’s apathetic attitude.
Durgapur is known as one of the largest steel-based townships in India.
Lalit Mishra, general secretary of the Steel Workers Federation of India, while talking with NewsClick, recalled how he had to abscond due to false cases lodged against him. However, over the past two years, these kind of attacks on union offices by TMC men has reduced to some extent, he said.
More than the political attacks, Mishra said there was grave concern about the fact that steel manufacturing factories the world over were going for constant modernisation, which was directly impacting jobs.
“We had taken the challenge of supplying specialised steel to the Indian Army, Navy and India’s Missile Programme, and we will face this this (privatisation) challenge, too. We will not let anyone enter our factory premises with the motive for privatisation,” said Saha, recalling that twice, the bidders could not enter the Durgapur plant premises and once they were even confined to the guest houses during their bid to take over ASP.
In case of ASP, a modernisation package has not yet been approved. But, in case of DSP, the modernisation package of Rs 2,875 crore is the lowest among all integrated steel plants in the country.
In the case of ASP, a modernisation package of Rs 1,100 crore was proposed by SAIL’s in-house consultancy, CET (Centre for Engineering and Technology), which has not yet been approved by the Union government.
Interestingly, the government does not need to pay any money during the modernisation period, as it will be funded by Steel Authority of India or SAIL’s investment.
“This is a case of hiving profitable concerns at meagre value” alleged Mishra
Totally engaged in its fight to save both the factories, the employees’ union did not start wage negotiations, which have been due since four years, said Mishra, highlighting how this showed the “responsible behaviour “ of workers to save the factory and the industry.
The attacks on union leaders and offices cannot be seen in isolation, as these are related to the Centre’s plan to disinvest in the strategically important ASP and DSP, said Biswarup Banerjee, a leader of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU
Banerjee referred to the September 21, 2016, the Union Cabinet decision to hive off ASP and DSP and the Prime Minister’s Office clearing the same on October 26, 2016, and said such attempts had been going on since 2002, but were thwarted by movements and struggles of employees.
In 2017, when physical attacks on the plant union leadership were at its peak, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Narendra Modi government once again proposed the dismantling of these two steel majors. Prior to that, in 2014, over 4,000 contract workers in Durgapur Steel Plant were laid off. Some of them, who were aligned to the Left Front, were beaten up and not allowed to enter factory premises, said union leaders.
So far, that has been the largest forced retrenchment due to political reasons in West Bengal after Independence, the leaders said, adding that there has been no new recruitment thereafter.
Currently, there are 7,266 permanent workers and 5,000 contractual workers in DSP, while in ASP, there are about 800 permanent workers and 1,100 contractual workers.
It may be recalled that while ASP is a strategically important unit, DSP, as an integrated steel plant, still makes a profit of Rs 6 crore per day and is an important part of SAIL.
The synergy between the workforce of DSP and ASP still exists, which was established in 2008, when CITU leader MK Pandhe led a convention in the steel city of Durgapur, said union sources.
Alloy Steel Plant
ASP, inaugurated on January 23, 1965 by former President of India, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, who was then the Minister for Steel and Mines, is a specialised steel plant that caters to the country’s defence sector .
It carries the tag of supplying DMR -249B grade steeel for India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier-- INS Vikrant-- and DMR 292A for INS Kamorta, as also special armour steel for the defence sector.
For Indian Army’s armoured vehicles, MP-II and BII25 grades of steel were prepared in the plant. It also has the distinction of leading India during the Kargil War as it had prepared steel for Bofors guns and ammunition as also for the multi-barrel rocket launcher system of the Indian Army.
ASP has also supplied steel for European nuclear research organisation, CERN Geneva, in its search for the ‘God Particle’ among others, It also supplies steel grade AISI316N plates for nuclear reactors and AISI403Q forge products for the Atomic Energy Commission, as also for the Agni ballistic missile.
This vital strategic sector has contributed a total of Rs 1,416.98 crore to the public exchequer from 1972-73 to 2013.
The union have been demanding a modernisation project based on the proposals of Centre for Engineering and Technology in case of ASP.
In case of DSP, the unions have demanded an increase in productivity to 10 lakh tonnes and to enhance the finished product units of the factory
World Steel Scenario
India lies at the bottom position when it comes to per capita steel consumption at 60 kg (while in rural India it is only 2 kg). The world average is 234 kg per person annually. In China, per capita consumption is 436 kg. In one year, about 1,600-1800 million tonnes of steel is produced in the world, out of which China alone produces 860 to 875 million tonnes. India occupies the third place in steel production with 51-60 million tonnes per annum.
Public sector SAIL produces 15 million tonnes , while private player Jindal produces another 15 million of tonnes. The total production of finished steel in the country is about 71 -80 million tonnes, according to industry sources.
Tatas and Essar are the other major players in steel production. In Vision 2030, India aspires to reach the second place in global steel production by producing 400 million tonnes.
However, without modernisation of the government-owned steel sector, India’s ambition to become a modern country will be left unfulfilled , said Saha, who is also a senior leader of the ‘ASP Bachao’ movement from private hands as “national security will be compromised.”