Falta, April 10: The fire in Falta didn’t just swallow a few factories. The flames have shed blinding light on a dark secret.
“Kichhu boltey geley boley baar korey debe. Emonki kete gele ektu oshudh dei na. Ki bhabey aachhi, aamrai jani.” (If we try to raise our voice, they threaten to chuck us out. If we are wounded, they refuse medicine. Only we know how we’re alive.)
The target of Yamuna’s wrath is not a sweat shop but a special economic zone (SEZ), the luckless three-letter abbreviation that is being touted either as the Great Hope or the Great Hoax, depending on which side of the development divide you are standing.
But the economics that drives Yamuna is simple as well as stark. For a day’s toil in a plastic factory, she gets Rs 55, way below the minimum wage of Rs 64 set by the government elsewhere in the state.
Before critics of SEZs draw their swords, a sobering intrusion: the Falta zone is run by the government — in fact, the all-powerful Union government.
The Falta project is labelled an SEZ but the symptoms suggest ailments that used to afflict behemoth public sector enterprises once considered the perfect development solution.
If a dry reservoir and a fire station that had only two fire-tenders nearly ensured that the flames had a free run yesterday, people who work in Falta said there are no basic facilities like school or housing, one reason why the SEZ hasn’t clicked like others in Mumbai, Chennai or Noida.
They said the SEZ, launched in 1984, lacks a health unit or even an ambulance and the nearest medical help, the Falta Grameen Hospital, is 3 km away. Even the canteens are closed.
Pradip Chopra, former chief of the Export Promotion Council at the South 24-Parganas SEZ, said “lack of social infrastructure” has been a problem. “So it was difficult to attract talent there.”
A look around revealed a tale of cheap labour and exploitation. In sector I of the zone, converted from an export-processing unit to an SEZ almost two years ago to cash in on tax sops, some 6,000-7,000 women toil in three shifts doing odd jobs like cutting, washing and cleaning. Hired through labour contractors, they get a daily wage of Rs 55.
Asked about the amount that is less than the minimum wage, A.K. Bit, the development commissioner of the SEZ, said: “I am not sure… I will surely run a check. But in every unit, there is an agreement between the local union, the labour contractor and the company management. Accordingly, the rate is fixed.”
Bit added: “We are talking to other SEZs also to find out the latest wages. Besides, we have had a meeting with the labour commissioner and a revision is likely.”
But others said the labour contractors have a stranglehold. “You’ll rarely find any direct employment. It’s all controlled by contractors,” said Rakesh, a graphic artist who freelances for companies looking to release ads.
“Skilled hands are mostly recruited from Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and even Uttar Pradesh while our boys from technical institutes are made to do basic work.”
Prasad, who runs a shop, says many companies wanted only to reap the benefits of tax exemptions. “At the end of the five-year discount period, many suddenly downed shutters citing huge losses,” Prasad added.
Bit said some companies have folded up but many have shifted gears to survive. “Some of the top-line manufacturing units have already made a beeline for Zone II and many more should join us.”
What has all this meant for those who live in the adjoining villages of Bhadhura, Haridaspur or Kalatalahaat'
“Some roads, electricity connection in pockets and a feeling of insecurity,” said Mirajuddin, a skilled labourer.
(Names of labourers have been changed)