Two paper mills in Assam which employed more than 1,200 people and was an indirect generator of livelihood for more than 2 lakh people, have remained shut for more than three years.
“I have to earn, else my children would starve,” says Dilip Kumar Saikia who runs a small shop selling pan (betel leaf) and tea in the suburbs of Jagiroad in the Nagaon district of Assam, beside the National Highway no 27. Having served as a casual employee at the Hindustan Paper Corporation Limited-run Nagaon Paper Mill for over two decades, he is now left with this small shop as the only avenue for survival. The centre-run Public Sector Undertaking has remained shut since two years compelling hundreds alike Saikia to shift to newer forms of occupation. Numerous small shop owners and E-rickshaw drivers can be found across the small town of Jagiroad, who are employees of the now closed Paper Mill.
“Even though the Mill is shut we cannot move out of this place as we have to perform the daily task of signing in and out via the biometric machine,” says Suren Bora, another employee while taking a sip of tea at Saikia’s shop. Apparently, the salary slips of the employees are also prepared every month, which are of no use as they haven't received even a penny in the last two years. “They neither tell us to leave, nor do they request us to stay back. We are stuck amidst uncertainty and hopelessness,” Bora adds.
The jumlas (hollow promises) behind the fancy slogans of Narendra Modi-led BJP government’s Act East policy and promises of granting employment to 2 crore individuals can aptly be examined here. An employer of more than 1,200 people and an indirect generator of livelihood for more than 2 lakh people, the two paper mills in Assam, namely Cachar Paper Mill in Panchagram of Barak Valley and Nagaon Paper Mill in Jagiroad near Guwahati have remained shut since October 20, 2015, and March 13, 2017, respectively. Destroying the already existing employment opportunities, numerous individuals and families have been shifted to appalling stages of destitution.
Also Read: Broken Promises by BJP Government and the Tale of Two Dying Assam Paper Mills
Unable to meet their medical expenses, 51 people have already lost their lives in the past two years. The employees have taken to extreme forms of protest, which include their declaration of committing mass suicide. They have blocked the National Highway and railway line multiple times, with the only outcome being lathi charge. None of their protests have actually found any attention from the centre. But there have obviously been promises and declarations which did not materialise. The best example being the state Assembly election campaign rally at Kalanagar in Panchagram on March 27, 2016, where PM Narendra Modi promised the revival of the two paper mills along with the other small industries that were shut during the Congress rule. But to the utter dismay of the people, now the prime minister hardly mentions anything on the issue.
On the other hand, the chief minister of the state, Sarbananda Sonowal also seems to follow the same trajectory as the PM. Sharing the stage with President Ramnath Kovind at the Namani Barak festival on November 18, 2017, he announced the restarting of production in the mills within six months and clearing all the pending salaries and grants, however, six months later it is yet to yield any outcome.
The news of preparation of survival package by the centre keeps appearing from time to time, but has never led to any positive results. This includes the 2016 promise of a Rs. 800 crore proposal by the central government for revamping the mills.
Just a year after this promise, another news of a revival package of Rs 1,000 crore under public-private partnership made to the news, but hardly anything materialised. Again in October 2018, advertisements appeared in national newspapers inviting bids, whereby only 49% of the stakes will be held by the government. This indirect announcement of privatisation by the Government resulted in huge protests by the workers.
“The state government spent hundreds of crores in organising summits such as Advantage Assam to boost investment and create employment in the state, but have failed miserably in doing so and have even failed to safeguard the existing industries. The two paper mills alone could have employed more than 1,000 youth if functional,” said Uddhab Das, organising secretary of the HPCL Paper Mill Revival Committee.
Expressing his anger on the present BJP government, he mentioned the fact that the Mills have neither been declared sick or closed by the government. He also mentions of the 2016 visit of the Union Heavy Industries Minister Anant Gire who said that the Mills have reached this state due to bad management. Even though the Minister accepted that the present condition of the Mill is due to mismanagement, but till date no enquiry has been declared even after several protests demanding the same.
Also read: Contractual Workers At Cachar Paper Mill In Assam Plan Indefinite Hunger Strike
Remembering the day of closure of the factory, S.Tiwari, who originally hails from Gorakhpur and has been working at the Nagaon Paper Mill for more than 33 years, tells that all of a sudden on March 13, 2017, the running machines were shut and production was stopped, even though everything was running smooth. This was done without any prior notice or warning which resulted in huge amount of finished paper produce still lying inside the Mill.
Mr. Tiwari, who worked as a supervisor at the Mill was able to give this reporter a glimpse of the interiors of the factory, in spite of the security personnel refusing to let anyone in. The things that can be found inside the shut factory are machineries which are now decaying and hundreds of paper rolls lying unused covered in spider webs. The outer walls of the workshops now seem favourable habitat for creepers and fungus.
“Struggling for such a long time, many have lost hope and left the place,” says Uddhab Das. “The condition has worsened to such an extent that two employees tried committing suicide which made headlines in the local dailies and news channels. How long can people survive on selling ornaments and land?,” he questions. “Modi is seen carrying the Assamese Gamusa (stole) on his neck at times while travelling across the country. I don’t believe that this gesture is out of his love for the people of Assam, rather the Gamusa that he carries might end up becoming the suicidal rope for the unemployed youth,” he adds.
Himanshu Chutia Saikia is an independent music programmer who is also interested in documenting the everyday lives of people and volunteers for People's Archive of Rural India.