Bhopal: Over 290 kms away from the state capital – in Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh – social activist Medha Patkar along with dozens of employees of the Century Yarn & Century Denim Mills, owned and managed by the Birla Group's Century Textiles & Industries Limited, have been on hunger strike since July 12.
The workers have been demanding that the yarn factory in Santrati village of Khargone district, on the Mumbai-Indore national highway, be reopened. The factory, spread over 84 acres, was first arbitrarily sold to Kolkata-based company Wearit Global Limited by the Aditya Birla Group 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, both the Industrial Tribunal Court and later the Indore Bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court called the move "illegal". Subsequently, the Birlas again sold the company to Maharashtra-based Manjeet Global Pvt. Ltd. on July 15 this year at Rs 62 crores.
Calling the new deal a "violation" of the industrial rules, labourers again launched a protest under the banner of of the Shramik Janta Sangh (SJS). However, they are facing threats from the district administration to call it off else face action for violating Section 144, which had been imposed keeping COVID-19 in mind.
“They have been announcing 'dhara 144 lagu hai aur ye protest awaidh hai. Factory ka mudda ab khatm ho chuka; wo bik chuki hai! Aap log apne apne ghar jaiye (Section 144 has been imposed and this protest is illegal. The factory issue is over; it has been sold! Please return to your homes),” Sanjay Chouhan, one of the protesters, told Newsclick over the phone.
Chouhan claimed that they had been protesting outside the gate of the factory since 2017, but had stopped for a while due to the pandemic. When they resumed protesting, the police began to threaten them, he added. "We have also urged Medha Patkar to break her fast as her well-being is important to us," Chouhan said.
A small police camp has been installed barely a few meters away from the protest site by the district administration; the recorded statement is being played on loop in a bid to end the strike, claimed protesters.
The SJS has filed a writ petition at the Indore Bench of the MP HC, challenging the company’s decision to hand out a VRS (Voluntary Retirement Scheme) to employees without their consent, subsequently sending a meagre amount of the VRS to their accounts and asking them to vacate staff quarters. The HC has reserved its decision after having heard both the parties on July 16.
“The company deliberately gave VRS to the protesting employees without their consent and sent a meagre amount to their accounts. It is now asking them to vacate the staff quarters via notice. Meanwhile, Birla again sold the company by violating industrial laws,” alleged Patkar over the phone. “Sensing the gravity of the case, we knocked on the high court’s door which, however, reserved its decision after hearing the case," she added.
When contacted, Sangh Priy, Sub-Divisional Magistrate, Kasrawad in Khargone district said: “Section 144 is in place in view of COVID-19 and gatherings of more than five people are prohibited. Besides, the no one can protest within 200 meters of the factory. Hence, we are urging the protesters to end the agitation.”
"A new company has bought the factory at a cost of Rs 62 crore this month. The protesting workers should wait until the new management takes over and decides about the factory," he added.
Background of the Protest
In mid-2017 the Birla group sold the mill, buildings, machinery etc. to Wearit Global Limited for a meagre price of Rs 2.5 crore after showing a loss of around Rs 100 crore. It happened a week after the company promised the workers and labourers during a sit-in protest that it would not sell the facility.
In May 17, 2018, the Industrial Tribunal Court passed orders in favour of workers and termed the sell of the factory "ingenuine". It also cancelled the selling agreement between the Birlas and Wearit Global Limited.
When the matter reached the MP HC, court upheld the tribunal's decision and ordered that the wages of the staff, who have been without any work since May 2018, be paid. Seeing no other way out, the Birlas sold the factory to Manjeet Global on July 15 this year, leaving the workers in the lurch.