Two major government-run units in the city have shut down, destroying the town’s economy and throwing thousands out of jobs.
Ramendu Das* was roaming around the Court Bazaar area in Asansol at 7 am. He was on his way to deliver a bag of washed and ironed clothes. But he’s not a washerman. Neither is he an ironing guy. That would be a traditional job. Out of job, out of food, he merely transports the clothes from the laundry to the owners. For each bag, Das gets Rs 5 from the customers and an equal amount from the launderer. “I don’t have any food in my stomach. Neither do we get to eat properly nor do we get to sleep. This has happened in the last five years,” he says, almost breaking down into tears. “I just hope to earn enough for my family to have one proper meal today.”
Asansol, once a booming industrial town in West Bengal, saw the shutting down of two government-run companies, Hindustan Cables and country’s largest wagon-maker Burn Standard in the last five years. The ancillary businesses — small shops and trading units — have also shut down, forcing many people to live in poverty. Like Das, hundreds of other small traders are facing an everyday battle to survive. The former employees of these defunct companies are also running from pillar to post for their unpaid dues.
Union Minister Babul Supriyo faces a tough battle as residents of the town are feeling betrayed because of his failed promise to revive Hindustan Cables. The ruling party in the state also seems unaware of the people’s plight as Trinamool candidate Moon Moon Sen is majorly focusing on the pollution factor in her election rallies while the voters are more concerned about employment and livelihood issues. Many residents underline that the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Gouranga Chatterjee might be the right person to represent them in Parliament because he is more aware of the “local problems”. While it is difficult to predict if a lesser-known Chatterjee, a former MLA, will emerge as the dark horse as the two celebrities fight in Asansol, it is clear that the shutting down of the government enterprises will dent Supriyo’s chances in the polls scheduled for April 29.
Local BJP leaders suggest that Supriyo cannot be blamed for the issue as the units were “already in ICU when UPA was ruling”. “How was he supposed to do anything? The company (Hindustan Cables) was not functional since 2003. People cannot blame the BJP government,” BJP leader Prasanta Chakraborty says. In a recent election rally in Durgapur, Mamata Banerjee criticised the Modi regime for closing both the factories.
No PF For Burn Standard Employees
“Babul Supriyo did one good thing here. He got two factories shut,” Adhiranjan Mukherjee* makes a sarcastic remark, while reading the newspaper at a tea stall. He used to work at Burn Standard which was shut down in September 2018. “Please don’t write my name anywhere. They might come to thrash me for saying it. They don’t care to pay us money. And the entire economic cycle here has been killed,” he says.
In March 2018, the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) had approved the insolvency plan of Burn Standard which included a financial package worth Rs 417 crore to pay back creditors and suppliers and a voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) for 500 employees working in its Burnpur (Asansol) and Howrah units. The Railway Ministry had said that Rs 172.5 crore would be allocated for contingent liabilities such as taxes, gratuity, leave travel assistance and arrears payment for employees, and Rs 112.37 crore for VRS. However, around 280 permanent employees who took VRS in Asansol complain that they have not received their entire due amount yet.
A former employee Binoy Mishra was earning Rs 24,000 per month. Now, he works with a local decorator for a salary of Rs 8,000. This is not sufficient for him to run his family and educate his two children. “I have received gratuity only for 3.5 years. The PF amount is also pending. No employee of the Asansol unit has received the full amount,” Mishra says. They are planning to fight a legal battle as both Supriyo and Mamata Banerjee have turned a blind eye to their pleas.
The employees allege that the government could have revived the company by making long overdue investments in technology. NITI Aayog had suggested Burn Standard’s closure citing that it was not technologically upgraded and its competitors like Texmaco Rail & Engineering were more efficient.
Hindustan Cables Revival Plan Failed
When Supriyo came asking for votes in 2014, he had promised more than 1,000 employees of Hindustan Cables that the unit will be revived. The unit, set up for supplying cables to BSNL and MTNL, had stopped production in January 2003 due to the shift in demand.
The employees claim that they met Supriyo at his Delhi office in 2015 when he refused to help them. “He forgot his promise just in a year. The employees are yet to receive the money which is in a reserve fund and is still pending with the EPFO. Each worker is yet to receive at least Rs 2-3 lakh. Trade unions have raised the issue on different occasions,” former employee MS Ghosh says. Further, he informs that the employees have not even received arrears due for the 1992, 1997 wage revision.
A Triangular Contest
“Asansol people had elected Babul last time, now they realise that Babul is a bubble gum. Nobody listens to him in New Delhi. After the shut down of two factories, the production in CLW (Chittaranjan Locomotive Works) is also being reduced and DLW (Diesel Locomotive Works) in Varanasi is getting more work due to Modi,” senior CPI (M) leader Partha Mukherjee says. In his election rallies, CPI(M) candidate Gouranga Chatterjee is emphasising on the unemployment issue and problems faced by the factory workers in the town.
Asansol was a Left bastion for 25 years before Supriyo dethroned the party in 2014. Then CPI(M) MP Bansa Gopal Chowdhury had come third with 255,829 votes. Supriyo garnered 419,983 votes while Trinamool’s Dola Sen came second with 349,503 votes. Political observers suggest that Supriyo managed to emerge victorious due to the Modi wave and the support of around 50 per cent non-Bengali voters who reside in the industrial town.
Now, Supriyo is seeking votes in the name of Modi, while Moon Moon Sen is using the popularity of her late mother, actor Suchitra Sen, and Mamata Banerjee’s development work for reaching out to the voters. Internal politics in the Trinamool resulted in Sen being nominated instead of Asansol Mayor Jitendra Tiwari who is popular among the Hindi speaking voters. While a majority of the non-Bengalis are still siding with the BJP, the 15 per cent of the constituency’s Muslim population is supporting the Trinamool. The Left party also has dedicated supporters in different parts of the town, including the coal and mine workers. The internal conflict in Trinamool will likely benefit both the saffron party and the CPI(M).
“Both the Trinamool and BJP are indulging in competitive communalism. They have used a religious festival like Ram Navami to create communal tension in the last few years simply to divide the communities for votes,” Chatterjee says. In March 2018, violent clashes and deaths were witnessed as members of the Hindu and minority community clashed during Ram Navami after a procession crossed a Muslim neighbourhood. This year, authorities arrested miscreants and suspended internet services in the area.
At the end of five years, the economy grinding to a halt and jobs amiss, people’s belief that Supriyo could bring any change appears shattered. But BJP is hoping that the concoction of nationalism and communal polarisation coupled with Modi’s popularity might help the minister pull off a win once again. The CPI(M), widely considered as a party in ventilator, has fielded a strong candidate, who is respected across the political spectrum. But voters seem unsure if they are ready to gamble on a party which seems to have bleak prospects across the rest of the country.
*Names changed upon request.