Contractual workers at the Cachar paper mill — a unit of the Hindustan Paper Corporation Limited, a central public-sector undertaking — have been protesting for the past several months demanding release of pending salaries and restarting of production at the unit. Several unions and organisations, including the Cachar Paper Project Workers' Union, are now planning to begin an indefinite hunger strike from 23 April to demand not just the salaries but also the reinstatement of around 400 contractual workers who were suspended recently.
Production at the Cachar paper mill — the only heavy industry in south Assam — was suspended in October 2015. The reasons cited included allegations of gross mismanagement as well as problems in availability of raw materials, especially after the blanket ban imposed in 2014 by National Green Tribunal on mining and transportation of coal in the state of Meghalaya, from where the mill used to source its coal. The mill was unable to source coal from other areas due to absence of a Broad Gauge railway linkage inside the mill premises.
The government said it was working to revive the production and converting the Meter Gauge line into Broad Gauge from Panchgram Station to inside the Cachar paper mill premises, although recently there were reports that the government is looking to privatise the management of the mill.
Meanwhile, workers have not been paid their salaries for the past 22 months, said Supriyo Bhattacharjee, general secretary of the Cachar district committee of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, speaking to Newsclick. And while the central government released three months’ salaries of permanent employees last month, the contractual workers have not been paid a paisa.
On 31 March, the central government issued a notice to suspend around 400 contractual workers, which came into effect from 1 April.
“The mill was highly profitable until 2009. But from 2010 onwards, it was made sick due to mismanagement, corruption and government negligence,” he said.
“Yes, there was some problem of availability of raw materials like bamboo and coal. But now the Broad Gauge line is there. So the situation is favourable for the mill to become profitable again. But now they are trying to privatise it.”
He said there are around 2,000 workers in total, which includes over 1,000 contractual workers, though now around 400 have been suspended.
“This is an economically backward area, and the Cachar paper mill is the only major industrial undertaking here. The condition of workers is miserable. Thousands of families have been ruined, and many have been forced to take up daily wage jobs to survive,” Bhattacharjee said.
“Now permanent employees have been given salary for three months, and the government says the remaining amount would be released in the next six months. But the contractual workers have not been paid anything.”
The Telegraph reported that a a senior official of Hindustan Paper Corporation Limited said funds had not been released to pay the contractual workers.
“Our main demands are that salaries be paid and production at the unit be resumed, and that the suspended workers be reinstated at the earliest,” Bhattacharjee said.