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Hit by unkept promises, HM workers await govt intervention

By Probal Basak
May 27, 2014 10:36 IST
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The Hindustan Motors factoryWhen Shibchandra Singh, a worker at Hindustan Motors' plant at Uttarpara, close to Kolkata, left the factory last Friday, he was briefed by his supervisor about the work to perform on Sunday.

After spending his weekly off at home on Saturday, Singh reported at the scheduled time, only to face his worst fear.

Singh is not alone.

None of the 2,600 workers had any clue about the suspension of work notice, put up on the gate of India's oldest automobile plant last Saturday.

Arun Kumar Roy, one of the many workers participating in a sit-in protest under the banner of Indian National Trinamool Trade Union Congress in front of the factory gate, amid heavy rain, still cannot not believe this misfortune.

"On May 20, Chief Executive Malay Chowdhury told me about the ambitious plans of the company.

"We were told a trekker and a new Ambassador would be rolled out soon from the plant. Our dues, too, were to be cleared by May 28," said Roy.

He is not aware that the management has blamed workers, partly, for the suspension of work.

"Low productivity, growing indiscipline, critical shortage of funds, lack of demand for its core product, the Ambassador, and large accumulation of liabilities" are the reasons cited by the company for suspension of work, quite the norm in West Bengal, where labour issues have been the primary reasons for closure of most of the plants in recent years.

"We are not getting salary regularly for six months. Four months' salary is pending.

"But not once have the unions resorted to protest. We have been cooperative with the management in the best possible way to keep the plant running," said Ashok Kumar Upadhay, one of the workers.

The suspension of work was perhaps to be expected, given the failed attempts of the management of the C K Birla-group company over the years to turn the company around.

HM has hived off several assets over recent years to keep the company going.

The Uttarpara plant that manufactures Ambassador cars had a total of 741 acres, of which the factory is built on 427 acres.

The crisis-ridden company approached the West Bengal government in 2003 to raise funds by selling 314 acres.

In 2006, it got approval from the Left Front government.

HM had informed of a Rs 85-crore (Rs 850-million) projected revenue from the sale of excess land.

However, later an internal audit of the state government, as well as the state vigilance enquiry, found HM had sold the land to Bangalore-based Shriram Properties for development of an integrated information technology township for Rs 285 crore in 2007.

The state government also believes the money was not ploughed back to the company.

While the matter is still a bone of contention between HM and the government, the company has denied the allegations, saying the money went into "deficit financing" of the plant.

Whether the money was ploughed back or not, workers claim there has been no upgrade in the plant in 10 years.

The latest attempt of the company was to hive off the profitable Chennai car plant to a separate entity but the effort hit legal hurdles as the state government and Shriram Properties opposed the demerger, citing land issues.

Dropping the demerger plan, HM in March transferred the Chennai plant to Hindustan Motor Financial Corporation Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary, which does not need court approval, unlike a demerger.

Soon after this, C K Birla stepped down as chairman of HM. Uttam Bose, managing director, resigned as well and took charge of HMFCL to run the Chennai plant.

"We were told these were being done for the good of the Uttarpara plant. We were told they were to divest stakes in the Chennai plant and that cash would come to Uttarpara," said Kaushik Chakraborty, a worker.

Company officials could not be contacted to confirm this.

A company statement said, "The suspension of work will enable the company in restricting mounting liabilities and restructure its organisation and finances and bring in a situation conducive to reopening of the plant."

Workers are, however, in no mood to buy the assurance. Unions have sought intervention of the state government.

West Bengal Labour Minister Purnendu Bose said, "The state government will intervene to find a solution. We will soon call for a tripartite meeting."

The fate of workers, as well as of the Ambassador car, last year named the world's best taxi in BBC's popular Top Gear television show, depends on the outcome of the tripartite meeting.

Image: The Hindustan Motors factory; Photograph: Dipak Chakraborty

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