More than 10,000 metal factory workers of Moradabad district are on strike since Monday, November 25, protesting against the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board’s (UPPCB’s) move to shut down metal factories operating in the region citing a violation of pollution norms. These factories manufacture brass handicrafts, utensils, miniature statues of deities, home decor and designer urns for export. All production have come to a halt due to the strike. The UPPCB’s decision was taken following an order by the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
The protesters gheraoed the district magistrate’s (DM’s) office for a couple of hours and gathered in front of the collectorate, demanding that the district administration allow the factories to restart as this move has badly affected their livelihoods. On Monday evening, they also submitted a memorandum of their demands to the DM and explained how the PCB’s move has affected their livelihoods.
Speaking to NewsClick over the issue, Azam Ansari, chairman of the Moradabad Brass Artisans’ Association, said, "Moradabad brass industry is 400 years old and is worth Rs 20,000 crore, with exports of Rs 13,000 crore to overseas markets and over Rs 7,000 crore to domestic markets. More than five lakh brass workers are involved in this industry, while 35,000 are factory owners. Of this, 4,500 are exporters who send goods to foreign countries. Regarding the flouting of air pollution, the NGT has hung a sword on us. The smoke producing furnaces have been detected by NGT through satellites and fined amounts to the tune of Rs 1.62 crore, Rs 1.50 crore, Rs 50 lakh, etc. Over 73 units of brass have been shut down so far after NGT’s new move."
"Due to police harassment, several small units of brass have already been shut down. The policemen come and pour water into the furnace. They demand a bribe in return. This has created an atmosphere of fear among the workers. We are co-operating with the government and NGT on the matter of air pollution but the way in which police is harassing small vendors is pathetic. These vendors are dependent on their daily earnings for supporting their families. The police sometimes come and take them to the police station only to release after getting money. The people involved in the brass industry are on the verge of destruction," he added.
Explaining the production process, Ansari said, "When we are stopped in the first step itself then how can we make any goods? To make any brass goods, we first need to prepare the brass slab and its casting. It is not only us but even the government may also suffer losses upto Rs 3,000 crore. On one side the government runs ‘Make in India’ projects and talks about ending unemployment, at the same time, more than 4 lakh workers are on the verge being unemployed due do this move. So what is benefit of such a project?"
The metals workers in Moradabad, which is also known as Peetalnagari (brass city), are not struggling to stay afloat for the first time. Several micro and small-scale brass industries had faced similar fate after demonetisation and the implementation of the goods and the services tax (GST) by the central government.
Javed, an owner of a unit said that, after GST and demonetisation, accompanied by the rising cost of raw materials, this move would prove to be a heavy blow to their industry. He added, “It will push Moradabad's famed brass industry into crisis, where an estimated 10 lakh people are dependent. We are ready for everything. We will shut our factories but we will demonstrate for our rights. Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims that Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana has generated 1.1 crore jobs and here lakh of people is going to lose their livelihood due to this move.”
The NGT has directed the Uttar Pradesh government to ensure that there is no illegal dismantling of e-waste along the banks of the Ramganga river in Moradabad, which is home to thousands of metal factory workers.
A bench headed by NGT chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel said any dismantling or recycling has to be done in accordance with the Hazardous and Other Wastes (Management and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2016.
After agitating protesters gheraoed his office, Rakesh Kumar, Moradabad’s DM, told the local media, "The brass workers are upset over UPPCB’s action against metal factories that were identified for flouting pollution norms and causing severe air pollution. The administration has asked them to find ways of controlling air pollution, as the factories are the main culprits behind the massive spike in air pollution levels recently. We have also assured that we’ll take necessary measures to resolve the issue afterwards.”
According to Aftab Khan, who runs several small units in Moradabad, demand dipped by almost 50% after demonetisation, leaving thousands of artisans unemployed. Many picked up alternative livelihoods like driving e-rickshaws, food stalls, became vegetable vendors or migrated to other locations like Nepal and Bangladesh.
Sandeep Maheshwari, a local activist and Moradabad brass expert told NewsClick, "The brass industry of Moradabad is the lifeline of the entire region. Even people from the adjoining districts used to work here as the metal products were exported across the globe. But now, the industry has received a major jolt first due to the demonetisation-GST and now by the NGT."
Meanwhile, the agitating workers have threatened to go on a hunger strike and start a massive movement if their demands are not met until November 27.