Ranchi/Bokaro, Feb. 12: The Hemant Soren government continued its Sphinx-like silence on the politically-backed economic blockade against Electrosteel Castings Limited, relegating terms like “industry-friendly climate” to rarefied seminar halls.
Eight hundred workers of the steel plant completed 72 hours in captivity on a day the protest at the Siyaljori site in Bokaro’s Chandankiari block gained strength with JMM’s Dumri MLA Jagannath Mahto joining forces with MLA Arup Chatterjee of MCC.
As Chatterjee, Mahto and land-losers vowed to “fight the management”, the gathering swelled to over a 1,000 villagers armed with traditional weapons despite the Section 144 clamp. Around 400 Jharkhand Police personnel kept vigil in the area while the capital Ranchi stayed mum.
Chief minister Hemant Soren, who left for a three-day visit to Santhal Pargana, could not be reached for comment.
Once he returns to the capital on Friday, Hemant will find himself on sticky wicket even if he wants to mediate an understanding between Electrosteel and the angry villagers, thanks to the political patrons of the latter.
MCC MLA Chatterjee supports the Hemant government. JMM MLA Mahto, already annoyed over the withdrawal of Sabita Mahto’s nomination as Rajya Sabha MP, is still touchy about the “humiliation” to the Kurmi-Mahto community, the support of which the JMM banks heavily on.
When contacted, industry secretary Himani Pande said she had not been “officially apprised about the situation at Electrosteel plant in Bokaro”. This even though the stand-off has been reported by the media for the last two days.
“The ECL has not approached us. I am not aware of the facts. If there is unrest, it can be solved by implementing labour laws. We won’t allow any one to circumvent the law whether it is a politician, a corporate entity or the common masses,” she said on phone, but added she was on leave and would look into the matter once she joins office in couple of days.
But the situation is heading towards a manmade famine for 800 Electrosteel employees trapped inside the plant. Canteen supplies are nearly depleted and the army of displaced villagers, relatives and political workers are not letting fresh supplies in.
The protesters claim only 524 of the 1,800 land losers got permanent jobs, but with salaries lower than that offered by SAIL or Coal India Limited.
On the other hand, Electrosteel has claimed it is losing Rs 10 crore a day due to the blockade. The Calcutta-headquartered company pumped in Rs 12,000 crore for the Siyaljori plant.
Electrosteel will bring out a rally of some 500 employees and villagers supporting their cause tomorrow. The plant management sent a notice to this effect to Bokaro district administration today.
“Our march will be peaceful,” promised Electrosteel director R.S. Singh. “We know the situation can turn ugly but what option do we have? Our 800 employees are trapped inside the plant. Many have fallen ill, their families are beseeching for help. But agitators are not willing to come and talk to us,” he said.
Last night, hours after Section 144 was clamped on Siyaljori, tripartite talks were held at Bokaro Circuit House between MLA Chatterjee, Electrosteel director Singh and Bokaro DC Uma Shankar Singh from 9pm to over midnight but no solution could be reached.
“We won’t call off our stir till our demands are met,” Chatterjee told The Telegraph today. “Section 144 has no meaning for me where welfare of displaced people is concerned.”
“The economic blockade has taken an inhuman turn. When 800 employees are hostages facing shortage of food and having no access to medicines, it is a violation of human rights,” said Electrosteel chief of communications Rohit Singh.
“In Jharkhand, everything is reduced to bad politics. A decision should be taken after listening to all sides of the issue but we can’t expect much from a weak government,” said former chief executive officer of JSW Steel Limited R.P. Singh.
He added the Electrosteel episode sent disturbing signals to investors and entrepreneurs. “Big talks of attracting investments are okay, but the state should pull up its socks when it comes to implementing them,” he added.