Translated and edited transcript
Question: Prafulla Chakraborty was directly involved with the Kanoria jute mill movement. Would you kindly tell us more about the Kanoria jute mill movement? When it started? Why it started?
Prafulla Chakraborty: In 1992 the momentum for the Kanoria jute mill movement started, not the movement itself. What is known today as the Kanoria jute mill movement actually started not in 1992 but in 1993-94. In 1992 we got in touch with the Kanoria mill workers, through a curious incident.
I am sure you have heard of Shankar Guha Niyogi – Shaheed (martyr) Shankar Guha Niyogi who was assassinated by the industrialists of Chhattisgarh, he was a martyr. We were returning after observing his martyr day, the date was September 30, 1992. It was dawn. Our train suddenly halted around Panskura, there was a railway announcement that a railway strike by workers of Kanoria jute mill is ongoing so there will be significant delay. No one can say when it will end. It was a big news to us that jute mill workers have started a rail strike because the situation in West Bengal that time with regarda to workers’ movement was much like peace in the graveyard. Condition was the worst in the jute mills. The well-known trade unions sided with the mill owners and suppressed the mill workers. They established ‘peace’ by exploiting the workers. In this kind of situation, why did these jute workers do a rail strike? Who are these workers? What is going on? Who were these Prahlada among demons? These questions came to our mind.
A few of my friends and I used to publish a bi-monthly newspaper called ‘Maat Prakash’ (expressing opinion). We did investigative journalism about why the industries/mills are sick, why they are shutting down. It was for this newspaper that we went to meet these Prahlada among demons at the Kanoria gate the next day on October 1, a day after 30th September when they organised the train strike. From there we get to know about the Kanoria mill workers, how are they living, what kind of exploitation they are facing, what was the situation with their movement. So this was how we got to know and meet the Kanoria mill workers on October 1, 1992, due to their rail strike on 30th September. That was the first incident.
The workers, frankly speaking didn’t have much demands. Jute industry had a standard contract with the workers and they are entitled to certain rights and facilities as per that. The problem was that the workers were not getting their rights that the contract and the law guaranteed. They were not getting the rent allowance, and the owners stopped paying Dearness Allowance (DA) also. DA is a cost of living adjustment allowance paid to employees, rate of which is calculated on the Price Index, to accommodate inflation and the rise in cost of living. At the time DA was hiked as per new calculation. That was part of the mutual contract, and per law. So, the workers were neither getting the rent allowance anymore nor the hiked DA which were both guaranteed by the contract and the law. To get back that right which was snatched away from the workers was the main demand of the Kanoria mill workers.
Q: During the 1992-93 strike the Bengal state government was supposedly a government sympathetic with workers and labourers. Did they take any pro-active steps to improve the condition?
P.C.: See, you are asking about a ‘worker-sympathetic government’ in Bengal because you must have heard that there was such a government. I however never meet any worker who said the government was sympathetic to the workers. Even the workers of the Kanoria mill that I told you we meet that day also never said that the government is worker-sympathetic. Rather, they said that the then government’s policies and stand on this matter is entirely pro-industrialist.
The situation of the jute mills, of the industry and of the workers has steadily degraded over time. It is worse than before and it will get worse in the coming days. That’s the situation of the jute industry.
Jute industry is not functioning as per the standards and laws of industry. Not even one jute mill goes by it, not even one. Even the government-run jute mills were also not adhering to the rule, that’s why they had to close shop. National Jute Mill etc. got closed. None of the jute mills observe the industry rules. There is only a slight difference among them. The jute mills are now owned by the middlemen (phatkabaz). We call them phoore type, phoore-phatkabaz (middlemen, people looking to make easy money). Now these middlemen run the business to maximise their profit in any way they think is possible. These people are not here to follow laws. Whenever they want to shut down the jute mill they do that, when they want to reopen it they open it. No one pays any attention to rules/laws. You were speaking before about the supposedly ‘worker-friendly government’. If there was such a ‘worker-friendly government’ then the jute mill owners wouldn’t have been able to pull off such tricks.
Why the situation of the jute industry is termed as pathetic? It is because…. jute is a very valuable product. In which way it cannot be used? The agriculture of West Bengal, industry, environment, economy can reach a new height based on jute. For that agriculture sector need to be run properly, industries need to be run properly also. Nothing of that sort is happening. The number of jute mills has decreased into half of what it used to be during Independence. Production has increased more than two-fold. The middlemen made a lot of profit but the common people of the state, the workers, the farmers are not able to reap benefit of that! Whatever new possibilities were open to jute none were followed through. This is the plain picture of the crisis of jute industry.
That doesn’t mean the middlemen are not earning profits. Common people such as us won’t be able to understand their calculation of profit. They profit even if the mills remain closed. How they do it is, let’s say they closed the mill for two months, the workers are frustrated and under economic strain, desperate to reopen the mill. The owners would lay down new contract stating that the wages and salaries that workers were getting two months before will now be reduced further, they will have to work for lower wages.
That’s their profit. Now since they don’t operate according to the industry norm, common person such as you and I won’t understand their profit calculation. They understand their bizarre calculation, and destroy the industry through that, and exploit the workers. This is how they make profit, this is the way to make profit for them.
The government does mention about jute policy from time to time, for example to stabilise and protect jute market, Jute Corporation of India will buy the jute, jute farmers will be safe from middlemen, but all these are mostly not practised. If all those were really practised, then jute farmers would have cultivated happily. The crisis we are facing today, farmers don’t want to cultivate anymore, it’s because of all that! As per the law, 90 per cent of packaging should use jute (gunny) bags. Central government decided it. Owners/industrialists don’t follow that, not even the government. In any case there are laws and rules according to which industries should function, the government is supposed to monitor if they are adhering to the rules. Why then the middlemen are able to exploit? It’s the government’s policy to favour the middlemen and the factory owners, to see that they can make profit the way they want to, to stand beside then. This is the actual policy that the government follows.