New Delhi: The workers of Sri Hanuman Sugar Mill from Motihari, Bihar, gathered at Jantar Mantar outside the Janata Dal (United) (JDU) office on June 1, claiming that the factory, which closed in 2002, owes about 500 farmers and 7,000 workers approximately Rs 80 crore in salary and PF dues.
A century ago, Mahatma Gandhi championed the cause of these fear-stricken, ill-treated employees, and worked towards the reformation of laws that forced them to cordon off land to grow indigo for British export.
This year, when the people of Champaran should have been celebrating the centenary of Gandhi’s satyagraha on April 10, the district saw the suicide of two mill workers, Naresh Srivastava and Suraj Baitha. The eldest of the latter’s four sons, Brajesh Baitha, told India Express in early May that they had died because of the “callous attitude of the management and lack of intervention” by the East Champaran administration.
On Thursday, day one of the protest, dozens of workers, along with widows of Srivastava and Baitha, arrived in Delhi to protest to the central government and demanded that a CBI probe be launched.
The workers alleged that the state government had made attempts to stop them from coming. When about 200 farmers and labourers boarded the train in Patna, the police raided the carriage, making each one of them deboard the train. Only a small group managed to make it to the capital.
The public limited company closed in 2002. The mill owners, specifically managing director Bimal Kumar Nopany, had been served multiple notices and court orders to make the requisite payments, most recently in 2015. However, none of the orders were complied with.
The workers say they have written to the chief minister, the prime minister and the president, but apart from a written acknowledgement of receipt of their complaints, they have not received much else.
On the eve of the centenary celebrations of the Champaran struggle, the union leaders warned the police that they would have no choice but to self-immolate if the terms of their contract with the mill were not fulfilled. The police, while not present during the actual immolation, has filed a case against the workers, accusing them of instigating the suicide. However, a video recording shot right before Srivastava and Baitha committed suicide shows them specifically pointing out that the decision was their own and the administration was to blame.
Several political leaders, including MP Brinda Karat and Swaraj Party founding member Yogendra Yadav, were present at the second day of the protest to show their support. Yadav compared the situation of the workers to that of the farmers under the British Raj, saying that the people undergoing there tribulations themselves feel that “neele chale gaye aur mill waale aa gaye” (The “blue” people have gone, and the mill people have arrived, referring to the indigo farmers).
“SIT not enough”
JD(U) leader and social activist Swami Agnivesh, along with a committee of four others, including retired additional director general of police P.K. Siddharth and Manohar Manav, the leader of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha, conducted an independent investigation of the mill, video graphing every piece of evidence and testimony they gathered, and submitted it to the Motihari police.
While Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar ordered a special investigation team (SIT) to probe the matter, the committee, however, wanted the case to be handed over to the CBI. “Bimal Nopany should be arrested as soon as possible, and all his money and land should be taken away, and the SP, DSP and SHO of police should all be suspended,” Agnivesh said.
Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh has also been accused of being involved due to his ties with the mill owners.
Upon hearing the matters from Agnivesh’s committee in a special meeting, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrote a strongly worded letter to the chief minister, ordering that reparations amounting to Rs 50 lakhs be paid to the two widows, and that the SBI probe be launched as soon as possible.
Salim Ansari, a worker sitting in protest, said that the mill owes him 135 months worth of salary, and that there are many who have retired waiting for their dues.
While a special investigation has been launched by the state government, the workers – who have been kept in limbo for more than a decade – are beginning to lose their patience, seeing no concrete steps being taken on the matter as their third day of protest draws to a close.