Mohammed Sarifuddin Ahmed (57) was found unconscious by the road near the defunct Nagaon Paper Mill at Jagiroad, Assam, early morning on April 1. He was rushed to the Guwahati Medical College and Hospital but died at 7.30 am.
Ahmed, suffering from chronic diabetes and asthma, was among the 102 employees of the defunct Nagaon and Cachar (Panchgram) paper mills of the Assam-based Hindustan Paper Corporation Limited (HPCL) who have either died due to the lack of medical care or committed suicide after not receiving salaries for the last 63 months.
The incident comes after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Assam acquired the paper mills for only Rs 375 crore with the Assam Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC) emerging as the successful bidder on March 28. The Joint Action Committee of Recognised Unions (JACRU), comprising HPCL-recognised unions fighting for the revival of the mills, alleged that the land and assets of the mills are worth more than Rs 5,000 crore.
Contrary to the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between JACRU and the state on September 28, 2021, assuring a “general relief package” of around Rs 570 crore to the workers, the 2022 Assam Budget allocated Rs 700 crore for the revival of the mills—the acquisition amount and the salary dues—with Rs 375 crore to be released before March 31 and the balance in this financial year. This leaves only Rs 325 crore for the employees with the Budget not mentioning the agreed amount of Rs 570 crore.
Biswajit Majumdar was another employee who committed suicide on April 29, 2019, and had held “the government of India” responsible for his death in the suicide note. According to his brother-in-law Partha Pratim Moitra, the family has only received 76% of Majumdar’s provident fund (PF) amount with the dues still pending.
Expressing concern about the AIDC takeover and the budgetary allocation, JACRU president Manabendra Chakraborty raised three questions: 1. Will it be possible to pay back the dues of all the employees, including PF and gratuity, with the remaining Rs 325 crore?
As per the MoU, the state government had promised to pay Rs 570 crore as dues to the workers. But the Budget didn’t mention the amount. Out of the budgetary allocation of Rs 700 crore, Rs 375 crore will be given to the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) with only Rs 325 crore left for the employees. If a problem arises regarding the violation of the MoU, will the government bear the responsibility? 3. Considering the way the workers have been deceived for so long, is it not possible that they will be caught in another web of deception?
“Therefore, JACRU has asked the employees to watch every government action and be prepared to fight hard to protect themselves from every possible fraud or deception,”Chakraborty said.
Following Ahmed’s death, JACRU posted on Facebook: “Workers are passing days in unbearable suffering, stress and trauma and have lost all hope to live life with human dignity while the government of India has not paid them salaries in the last 63 months. On the other hand, the state government has not released the relief package. We have lost another precious life with the death of Mohammed Sarifuddin Ahmed. The death toll has touched 102, including four suicides. This was the 17th death after the new state government was sworn in.”
Chakraborty appealed to the state government to release the relief package at the earliest. “It is very painful for us to wait for another three to four months. We appeal to the government to release the relief package and save the remaining workers because they are dying every week due to non-availability of treatment and other compelling circumstances.”
JACRU has been “demanding for the last eight years” that a state-owned industry should remain in the hands of the state, Chakraborty added. “Now, my second demand is that the state government should revive defunct mills the way the Kerala government saved Hindustan Newsprint Limited and the Centre acquired NEPA Limited in Madhya Pradesh, which had been defunct for four and 15 years respectively. We have all the raw materials needed and the machines, if maintained, can function once again.”
Once a Miniratna award-winning and Schedule-A public sector Unit, HPCL is now at the mercy of the same BJP government, which had repeatedly promised the employees of a revival package, including a promise by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016, only to break them. Production at the Cachar and Nagaon paper mills was abruptly stopped on October 20, 2015, and March 13, 2017, owing to a “lack of working capital”. However, the employees allege that both the mills were functioning smoothly.
On January 9, 2020, Sarma, who held the finance portfolio, announced several incentives for the children of the employees when they were forced to beg to pay fees for school/colleges or professional courses. The state announced Rs 1 lakh as a one-time incentive for professional courses, Rs 75,000 for postgraduation, Rs 50,000 for graduation and polytechnic courses and Rs 25,000 for higher secondary and equivalent courses.
However, Amal Das, employed with the Cachar mill, said that neither of his two daughters has received the incentives. “Ankita, my elder daughter, was in class 12 when the incentives were announced. But we could never avail of the incentives despite organising a rally and submitting a memorandum to Sarma. The website launched to avail of the incentives is dead,” Das said. There are several students who haven’t received the incentives, according to the employees.
On June 9, 2019, Shiv Sena’s Arvind Ganpat Sawant, the then-Union minister of heavy industries and public enterprises, said in the Lok Sabha that the Centre had invested Rs 4,141 crore in HPCL units across the country from 2014-15 to 2017-18. However, a Right to Information application revealed that the ministry invested only Rs 509.66 crore. Subsequently, the Cachar Paper Project Worker’s Union, affiliated with the Indian National Trade Union Congress, reportedly wrote to the Comptroller and Auditor General alleging a “multi-crore scam” but never got a reply, Chakraborty said.
The writer is an independent content management consultant based in Assam.