Recalling 'Kanoria' Story

When Workers occupied a Mill and ran it Successfully

Nitayananda Ghosh

About three decades ago Kanoria Jute Mill workers created history by occupying the factory and running it successfully for a certain period before the intervention of the authorities. The mill located at Phuleswar on the western bank of the river Hooghly in Howrah district, was once a vibrant locality of industrial activity. It is no more. It seems the mill is closed for ever. Today all is quiet on the western bank of the river Hooghly. Maybe, some real estate agent will come in due season to remove whatever remains of old mill relics.

The time to be remembered when CPM-led Left Front Government (Left Front Government) was at the helm of state power winning assembly election for the fourth consecutive term in a row. The overwhelming majority some 3000 workers of Kanoria Jute Mill refused to obey traditional trade union leaders and it was really a bolt from the blue for them. They virtually alienated themselves from workers who were simmering in anger for non-payment of statutory and other dues including deduction from workers' daily wages (katauti in Hindi, coined by jute workers) that were promised to be refunded by the new owner, Shib Sankar Pasari, on recomendations from the Left Front government and three recognised unions, affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and Trade Union Co-ordination Committee (TUCC) which are actually labour fronts of Communist Party of India (Marxist)–CPI(M), Indian National Congress (INC), and All India Forward Bloc (AIFB) respectively. The situation changed around the mid 1990s. Amidst the dominant mood of defiance workmen of Kanoria Jute severed relationship with the management recognised unions and formed an independent Union–Kanoria Jute Sangrami Shramik Union (KJSSU). How the KJSSU was conceived and named (rather recorded) is an interesting story.

The crisis in Jute industry in West Bengal was aggravated in the very beginning of the 1990s but the owners who were mainly jute traders (having taken over or began managing by proxy) were interested only in making money by hook or by crook. The latter shifted the burden on workers through different unfair means such as increase in proportion of casual, budli and bhagawala(sharing work among more than one worker instead of a full-shift worker) workers, let alone non-deposit of provident fund and payment of post-retirement gratuities. The nature of crisis deepened due to the tactic of 'taming of labour' by established unions, backed by the state government. Faced with a situation desperation workers in their 'last ditch struggle' went in for a 49-day general strike in 1992. The then chief minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu, a founding politbureau member of CPI(M) described the jute industry as one where the law of jungle was in force. The strike ended in an agreement between employees and TUs but the deal failed to redress the workers condition, it was seen as a government betrayal and this perception had a basis as in 1993 and 1994, several mills witnessed labour unrest, with almost all of them repudiating their TU leaders of all hues–turning the tripartite agreement into a farce. The TUs became mere signboards. Incidents of rejection of established TUs, followed by violence in and around the mill compound against leaders used to hit the headlines regularly in those days. The most agonising for workers and shameful for Left Front government was the very well-known case of Victoria Jute Mill in October 1993 where Bhikhari Paswan, the hapless worker of that mill remained untraced since then. Till date he is missing.

Most jute mills are situated on the bank of river Hooghly spreading over four districts—South and North 24 Parganas, Howrah and Hooghly. Sickness of Kanoria Jute Mill began (rather injected by the previous management—the Kanoria Group, one of the jute barons who flourished after the British owners left the Indian shores by transferring the controlling shares to erstwhile jute traders and bailers) in the late 1970s. Shiv Sankar Pasari, a raw jute trader, chipped in when he was approached by the industrial reconstruction department of West Bengal government in the early 1990s. He had earlier took over the management control and controlling shares of Remington Rand Typewriter Company Ltd., once India's top manufacturer and seller of Typewriter machines, in the late 1990s and that of Happy Valley Tea company, once among the top producers of famous Darjeeling tea, from the Agarwal Group (S P Agarwal of Kamala Tea estate) who took the company from the Banerjee group (Tarapada Banerjee of Hooghly district). Remington Rand's main factory was at Howrah but it was shut down rendering hundreds of workers jobless. As far as Happy Valley was concerned, Pasari acquired it in April 1993, through an out of court settlement with the Agarwals to pay-off the latter's debt and workers' unpaid dues, specially having promised to pay off the provident fund dues of the workers in installments. But he went back on his written assurance from the very beginning as he 'failed to pay up the first installment of PF dues (almost like the Agarwals). And the Left Front government played the role of an onlooker. The jute mill complex that became sick in the early 1980s and dubious financial results made it appropriate for being referred to the Board for Industrial Reconstruction (BIFR), a Quasi-judicial body, set up in May 1987 under the Sick Industrial Companies (Special Provision) Act of 1985. The task of BIFR is to consider and examine revival package case-by-case, if the concerned BIFR is convinced about the package. Otherwise, it may recommend liquidation or sale of the sick company. Kanoria Jute Mill was referred to BIFR by the department of Industrial reconstruction, Government of West Bengal (DIR- GWB) whose main aim was to make sick companies healthy. Anyway, BFIR recommended that Pasari be authorised to revive it. Banks that had lent few crore of rupees (at mid-1980 prices) to the Kanoria Jute Mill owner endorsed the move, obviously to prevent their money from being sticky.

Most of the 3000 plus workers Kanoria Jute Mill were from the nearby villages (Sijberia and around) surrounding the mill premises with 35 acres of land and outsiders were hardly 15 percent, living in quarters. Most of the local labourers belonged to landless or marginal peasant households of the locality. The number of women workers were only few and they were concentrated in one or two departments of the mill. For one thing, nearly 40 p.c. of the mill workers were permanent, the rest were budli workers and contract labourers. The successive mill owners (rather operators) of the Kanoria Jute Mill blatantly violated the various agreements reached with union leaders and the government. Before the Kanorias, the mill was once owned by the Mafatlal Group which too did the same thing, denying legitimate dues to workers.

But Pasari excelled them all. He made an agreement for the deduction (katauti) from the statutory minimum daily wage of workers, to be returned after a year but never returned the money (over Rs 2 crore or Rs. 20 million approx. US $ 300,000), introduced payment by vouchers and retrenched over 1100 workers arbitrarily . Moreover, he employed casual workers and hand-picked retrenched workers at one-third of wage rates in large numbers. All this was brazen violation of statutes, inviting judicial action under non-bailable criminal offence. But the government did nothing despite repeated representations by workers.

Unbelievable as it may seem, Pasari was in good book of Left Front government (the labour department) and TU leaders despite his unfair labour practice for a fairly long time.

Naba Datta, secretary of Nagarik Mancha, a non-funded voluntary organisation, recalled one incident, "A group of aggrieved workers who felt betrayed by leaders of all the three recognised unions met with us. We decided to try to gate-crash into the meeting where we were trespassers. Thanks to a Maha-rashtra based BIFR bench member, we could get in and managed to submit a petition stating the doings—on under the Pasari mismanagement, signed en masse by about 150 workers. The Chairman of the bench suddenly took it up from the bottom and saw how the Pasari management was fleecing the workers by violating the agreement and resorting to unfair steps like katauti. He was furious and threatened to announce shut down of the mill in presence of Mr. Pasari who tried to reverse the trend by claiming that the unions and state government had complete faith in him in regard to nursing the mill back to health. He questioned our presence and status. But the bench was adamant. I then stood up and fervently appealed to the bench not to order closure as it might totally deprive workers financially. Our appeal was fruitful. We were asked whom we represented. We said, Kanoria Jute Sangrami Shramik Union (KJSSU). Thus the name of the union was officially recorded. It was in mid 1990s". Mancha, it may be noted, dissociated itselt from KJSSU after some time and preferred to help the struggle from outside.

Perhaps after being mauled at BIFR, Pasari and his management team became increasingly vindictive. In two and a half decade under the Pasari management, Kanoria Jute Mill was closed and reopened 17 times—a record in itself. The longest closure began in 2006 during the last term of Left Front government and reopened in August 2011 after the Trinamool Congress came to power with a huge majority in West Bengal assembly elections in June 2011 following a tripartite agreement, signed by the government, Pasari and split away section of KJSSU, an affiliate of the Indian National Trinamool Trade UnionCongress (INTTUC). There was an allegation against the INTTUC for breaking the KJSSU forcefully and even once the mentor or adviser of KJSSU Prafulla Chakraborty was arrested. Later on he was granted bail .The breakaway union's president was a TMC Rajya sabha member (upper house of Indian Parliament) and general secretary was Liaquat Ali. Meanwhile Pasari promised to invest Rs 12 crore to revive the mill, while blaming the Left Front government for prolonged closure of the mill. In truth nothing positive emerged and workers resigned to their fare.

The most pathetic part of Kanoria Jute Mill movement is split of KJSSU into three factions due to personal ego clash of advisers. "The struggle at Kanoria Jute Mill proves one point that if the workers are united, they can take on the management, says Arif Ali, the founder president of KJSSU. The advisers failed to keep workers together. Innocent but committed-to–struggle workers were victims of dominance of outsiders (so called advisers and professional revolutionaries) in the struggle of working class. The advisers and the professional revolutionaries never involved themselves in production but they would like to advise the workers—this is the fallacy of the working class movement in this part of the globe. The KJSSU which had dreamt of setting up the first jute workers co-operative remained a dream due to so many obstructions put by Left Front government, traditional TU bosses and vacillation of a section of workers. Also, the external functionaries were no less responsible for the early demise of an alternative in labour movement.

Vol. 53, No. 22-25, Nov 29 - Dec 26, 2020