The employees of the Century Yarn and Century Denim Mills, owned and managed by the Birla Group's Century Textiles and Industries Limited, have been on hunger strike since July 12 in Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh. The movement, which has been in progress for the past four years for the workers’ right to work and compensation, witnessed a brutal crackdown on Tuesday.
The police cracked down on the protestors who had gathered outside the company’s premises on the Mumbai-Indore national highway. In the process, several women were manhandled and roughed up. In a video footage of the incident, women alongside activist Medha Patkar can be seen being dragged out of the protestors’ tents.
More than 800 protestors were also detained by the police forces.
The recent protests have been triggered by the Aditya Birla Group’s move to sell off the factory to the Maharashtra-based Manjeet Global Pvt. Ltd. on July 15 this year at a price of Rs 62 crores.
While the police stated that Section 144 was imposed on the protest area to curb the spread of the COVID pandemic, the activists alleged that the garb of COVID is being used to repress the movement and silence the protestors.
Previously, warnings were issued to the protestors and in another instance, they were detained while protesting in Mumbai in front of the company headquarters.
Speaking to NewsClick about Tuesday’s incident, Sanjay Chouhan, an activist associated with the movement, said, “We have been protesting for over four years outside the site. The authority given to Manjeet Global is absolutely illegal. Protestors being removed from the site was pre-planned and aimed at curbing protests. We are being told that Section 144 was imposed.” Claiming that police forces had come from four districts to stop the protest, he said, “We have been consistently reiterating that the (Section 144) provision is oriented towards restricting criminal action. We are peaceful protestors, but we are being termed as encroachers of the land being used for protests.”
Anjali, a protester present on the protest site, said, “We were dragged out of the tent with utmost barbarity. We were completely startled and surrounded from all sides. Some women have been admitted to the hospital after the crackdown and around four women were injured while some collapsed.”
The Century Mill protests have assumed importance owing to it being symbolic of the power of unionisation against the corporate while fighting for the right to livelihood of the workers.
The workers and activists claim that the Aditya Birla Group reportedly sold off over 84 acres of factory land, buildings, machinery etc. for a meagre price of Rs 2.5 crore to Kolkata-based company Wearit Global Limited in 2017. The new company subsequently closed it down, leaving over 900 labourers and executives of the factory unemployed overnight. When workers moved court against the sale, the Industrial Tribunal Court and later the Indore Bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court called the move "illegal".
The protesting workers allege that the corporate giant wanted to sell off the land for profit without thinking of the livelihood of the workers and now the attempt is being repeated again as they are trying to sell it off to a new firm. They said that the sale will put workers in a vulnerable situation while they are already struggling to earn a living amid the pandemic. Previously Newsclick had highlighted the issue of workers’ wages.
Speaking to Newsclick, Saurabh, an activist with the Janta Shramik Sangh, claimed, “The Birlas have been in a legal tussle over the land, wanting to get rid of the property and leaving the fate of the workers hung in the air. This did not go down well with the workers who have been calling this unit home for the past 25 years. The skills acquired at the mill cannot be put to use anywhere else.”
He added, “The fact is that the workers here believe that the Birlas wanted to sell off the company. In order to do so, the company wanted to show that it was not making any profit. It was convenient for them to shut the venture down while making the workers anxious and leaving them with no livelihood.”
The legal intervention had led to the industrial tribunal passing two orders favouring the workers. The first one declaring the Business Transfer Agreement (BTA) to be ‘ingenuine’, and the second order cancelling the BTA between the Birlas and the Wearit Ltd.The High Court of Madhya Pradesh also upheld the Industrial Tribunal’s decision regarding underestimation of value of the property as well as non-payment of stamp fee.
When the matter reached the MP High Court, the court upheld the tribunal's decision and ordered that the wages of the staff, who had been without any work since May 2018, be paid