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Money, after a long wait

January 21, 2003 14:08 IST

Manohar Naik, 59, is convinced that 2003 holds much promise for him and his family. In December 2002, the 36-year veteran of the Mafatlal-owned Standard Mills, located in central Mumbai, received over Rs 10 lakh (Rs 1 million) in provident fund, gratuity and voluntary retirement dues, in addition to Rs 75,000 in compensation.

Naik's joy is shared by two of his colleagues, Arun Palav, 52, and Sahebrao Mane, 52, both former mill workers who received a bit more than Rs 10 lakh. Both have elaborate plans to start small businesses of their own.

In November 2000, a final agreement on a voluntary retirement scheme was arrived at between the Indian National Trade Unions Congress-affiliated Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh and the managements of the Standard Mill (Prabhadevi) and New China Mill (Sewri).

Naik and 3,550 others took VRS but got the money only after two years. The company issued post-dated cheques but said payments would be made only after the mill land was sold.

Only on December 15, 2002 were the payments made -- the company paid an additional Rs 7 crore (Rs 70 million) with a 10 per cent interest for the delay.

But unlike Naik, Palav and Mane, over 20,000 mill workers in Mumbai continue to wait for their dues. Sanjeev Sherekar of Matulya Mills and Rajan Patil of Khatau Mills, for example.

The two eke out a living by selling gee gaws to the poor on the footpaths of Parel and Lalbaug in central Mumbai.

In the 11 years since the state government permitted mill owners to develop their land if they paid their employees their dues, mill lands have become large shopping malls, departmental stores, bowling alleys and discos. But many mill workers are yet to be paid.

Notes lawyer Gayatri Singh, who is also the president of the Girni Bachao Sangharsh Samiti: "Mills that are developing the land are busy entering into agreements with the unions, linking payments to the successful sale of their assets. Under the provisions of the Payment of Wages Act, dues (like gratuity and provident fund) have to be cleared immediately upon the retirement of the employee and not in long-term installments. The properties of the directors of such mills can be attached under law."

Maharashtra labour secretary Ashok Khot says: "One of these mills had owed workers Rs 20 crore (Rs 200 million) in dues but earned Rs 88 crore (Rs 880 million) by constructing a multi-storeyed building complex. However, the mill owner has only deposited Rs 5 crore (Rs 50 million) with the court that is hearing the plea of the 640 workers it employed."

In December, the state government threatened to attach land of the mills that had developed their land but failed to pay employees their dues.

In 1991, the government had allowed mill owners to develop one-third of the mill land and hand over the remaining two-thirds to the Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority and the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation.

The threat seems to be working. RMMS general secretary Ramchandra Ullawale says mill managements are now rushing to clear their workers' dues.

Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation commissioner Karun Srivastav has directed the BMC to grant no more permission to mill owners to develop their land, for mills that have long since suspended operations, because many mills haven't met their commitments on handing over two-thirds of their land to the BMC and MHADA.

Srivastav adds,  notices has been served to 10-12 mills that had undertaken development without permission.

Perhaps by next year, some 20,000 others will join the ranks of Naik, Palav and Mane.

Renni Abraham in Mumbai