Delhi HC Orders State-Owned Paper Mill in Assam to Release Money Owed to Workers Immediately

The workers have not been paid their dues for more than four years.

Guwahati: Before Mohan Josowara, a 60-year-old retired employee of Cachar Paper Mill, a public enterprise under the Hindustan Paper Corporation Limited (HPCL), could see that the Delhi high court on Friday passed an order for the immediate release of money his employer has owed him for over four years, he passed away on Thursday.

The court said 20% of HPCL’s workers’ provident fund (PF) should be released within one week.

HPCL has two paper mills under its control in Assam – The Nagaon Paper Mill and The Cachar Paper Mill. The former has been closed (without notice) since March 13, 2017, while the latter has been closed (also without notice) since October 20, 2015, and workers have not been paid for 37 and 39 months, respectively.

The Delhi high court order also directed the HPCL liquidator and the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) to disburse Rs 160 crore, the remaining PF amount, at the earliest.

Josowara retired as a driver last year. He was from Hailakandi district, and passed away due to kidney-related ailments. Since his money hadn’t been cleared, he could not afford proper treatment.

As of now, 65 employees under HPCL have died without receiving their salaries for the last few years and three have taken their own lives due to this.

The non-payment of their own money over four years has rendered them, according to agitating groups affiliated to mill workers’ unions, to mental trauma, depression, emotional torture, destitution and death.

HPCL is a Government of India undertaking which was set up in 1970 to ‘develop India’s industrially backward regions’. It has under its control four paper mills (two are units and the other two subsidiary companies).

Its website says, ‘Over a period of three decades, HPC has built up a total capacity of about 3.35 lakh tonnes of paper and newsprint.’ In 2018 HPCL went into liquidation.

Human Rights Law Network (HRNL) took up the matter on the behalf of the Cachar Paper Project Workers’ Union, the petitioners at the Delhi high court in January.

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In a press release, it said that the total dues owed to the 1,200 workers are over Rs 600 crore. The Delhi high court has scheduled the next hearing on May 25.

Colin Gonsalves of HRLN, while speaking to The Wire, said the government’s attitude towards workers’ plight was callousness of the highest order.

“This is a short-run relief, not the end relief. We have to examine the order in three parts. First around Rs 42.8 crore of PF will be released, then Rs 160 crore of the workers’ money which the banks were holding and for which the PF commission kept on saying to give it, but the banks came up with excuses every time. Now the high court has said the amounts should be handed over immediately. The third amount of approximate Rs 90 crore, which the parliament had sanctioned in July 2018 to pay the workers, hasn’t been paid in the past two years. This is hypocrisy – even when there are notifications after notifications, with a specific notification that wages in the public enterprise shouldn’t be stopped, nothing was done,” he said.

He continued, “Now the Rs 42-crore amount will be paid, the next is to wait and see whether they pay Rs 160 crore. That will happen in two weeks’ time, and then again it is to wait and see the Rs 90 crore amount from the Central government. They have to pay the wages of the workers which are due for over four years.”

The petition filed in January, besides seeking the payment of wages, PF and other dues from the Central government undertaking, also sought redressal on eviction from workers’ living quarters by the end of January. The Delhi high court had put a stay on the eviction in an order passed in January.

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The petition said, “Since the employees have been denied their dues and their savings have been wiped out, over 60 people have lost their lives because their families have been unable to arrange for medical care and treatment. Three persons have even committed suicide as they have been unable to provide basic necessities for their families. Moreover, the plight of the workers has been greatly exacerbated as they have been directed to vacate their quarters by 31.1.2020, which will force more than 1000 families to the streets and render them homeless and without shelter.”

Manabendra Chakraborty, president of Cachar Project Workers’ Union and of the Joint Action Committee of Recognised Union of both Nagaon and Cachar Paper Mills, said, “The order is a relief after having been tortured for all these years. People not being paid and workers dying on account of this is something which no civilised society should endure. The state and Central governments betrayed the people of Assam. It was a BJP promise to help us, but the party betrayed us. Not just that, over 49, 000 metric tonnes of bamboo and 12,500 metric tonnes of coal were rendered useless because of the shutdown – a waste of human lives and natural resources.”