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Silence and a searching question

Shalimar, July 17: Rabin Bhattacharjee sat outside the imposing main gate of Shalimar Paints in Howrah this afternoon, a cigarette between his lips and a vacant look in his eyes.

It was drizzling but the 44-year-old employee was not looking for shelter. Even as other staff members around him discussed the uncertainties clouding their future, Bhattacharjee sat silently.

The Shalimar management of the factory off Danesh Shaikh Lane in Goaberia declared suspension of work yesterday, saying it did not have funds to reconstruct the plant in a manner that would ensure no-objection certificates from the government. A fire had broken out at the Howrah plant on March 12.

“We never had labour unrest here. There hasn’t been any instance of militant trade unionism. Even during Left rule, when muscle flexing by trade unions was common in most industrial establishments in Bengal, we had set an example by co-operating with the management,” said Bhattacharjee, a packaging staff member working at the paint factory for the past 12 years. “Still the management decided to suspend work at the plant. But why?” he asked.

Most of the 154 workers gathered outside the paint manufacturing plant today. Unlike the noisy protests outside other closed down factories such as Jessop & Co and Hindustan Motors and a clutch of jute mills, there was an eerie silence at Shalimar.

Although some posters demanding job security and answers from the management had been put up, the workers were not shouting. They discussed what could have prompted the management to suspend operations.

“We are hearing that the demand (for paint) in this region is not adequate and so the management is not keen on running this plant. But are we responsible for that?” asked Shankar Kahar, a 54-year-old employee who has been working at the Howrah unit for 30 years.

The searching question by the employee, a high school dropout working as a boiling plant operator, could bother Amit Mitra, the US-educated economist and industries minister who has been claiming a “resurgence of industry in Bengal”.

Mitra, also the finance minister, and chief minister Mamata Banerjee have been claiming for the past few years that the rate of growth of the state’s economy far exceeded the national average.

High growth means higher income and higher spending, which cannot go hand in hand with the theory of lack of demand for Shalimar products.

Although no one from Shalimar has officially said that lack of demand in the region was the reason behind their decision to suspend work at Howrah, sources it appeared that the company was not interested in running the plant.

The March 12 fire had rendered around 80 per cent of the Howrah plant, which primarily produces architectural and marine coatings and wood finishes, unusable.

During a meeting between company officials and the state government today to explore options to reopen the plant, the stance of the Shalimar representatives gave the impression that the firm did not have much interest in the 112-year-old factory. The company, however, said it was committed to Bengal.

“The government insisted on immediate reopening of 20 per cent of the plant, which did not catch fire. Such a step would require installation of fire-safety apparatus. The government promised speedy no-objection certificates from the fire services department. But the company officials said they could not spend Rs 12 crore, the amount required to make the plant functional,” said Debashis Sen, the secretary of the INTTUC-affiliated Shalimar Paints Ltd Workers’ and Workmen’s Union.

“If a company that has an annual turnover of Rs 483.05 crore cannot spend Rs 12 crore, it is clear that they are not interested,” he added.

A Shalimar spokesperson, however, said today that the funds requirement to rebuild the plant was around Rs 60 crore.

Even as the debate over funds continues, most of the 138 non-clerical workers, who used to earn around Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000 a month, are staring at an uncertain future.

Their counterparts at Nashik (Maharashtra) and Sikandrabad (Uttar Pradesh) are better off as they earn above Rs 11,000 a month, Sen said.

“We have been told that the salary here is less because of lower productivity…. But are we responsible for that?” asked Sheikh Rehmat, a 48-year-old packaging staff member, employed with the Howrah factory for 30 years.

Asked if he was willing to relocate to another Shalimar plant, an option floated by the management, Rehmat said it would be “extremely difficult” at his age and with such a meagre pay.

Workers said there had been no major infrastructure upgrade or maintenance activity at the Howrah plant since the 1980s.

“The company does not need to channel crores to resume production here, especially at a time a new plant is gearing up to begin operations in Chennai,” Rehmat said.

The lack of investment also signals diminishing interest in Bengal.

“Picture this: while no investment was being made at the Howrah factory, Shalimar set up the Nashik unit in 1992, relocated the main corporate office to Gurgaon in 2000, acquired the Sikandrabad plant in 2003 and is finishing work on the Chennai factory,” a Bengal labour department source said.

“What does that tell you about the company’s intent regarding Bengal?” he asked.