Assam: Paper Mill Workers Reach Agreement Over 'Relief Package', to Continue Legal Battle

The Rs 570 crore relief package is meant for 1,200 beleaguered employees of the two public sector units.

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Guwahati: In the wee hours of Wednesday, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted that his government, just a while ago, “finally reached an agreement with the workers and employees” of the Hindustan Parer Corporation Limited (HPCL) in order to “resolve long pending issues of their salaries and dues”.

“Discussion lasted for four hours in my office and concluded at 2 a.m.,” Sarma tweeted.

Members of the employees’ unions of the two defunct HPCL mills of the state – one in Nagaon and one in Cachar – who took part in that discussion told The Wire that their agreement with the chief minister was only on a “relief package but not a total settlement.”

The Rs 570 crore relief package, they say, is meant for 1,200 beleaguered employees of the two public sector units.

The Nagaon paper mill has been closed without notice since March 13, 2017, while the Cachar mill has been closed – also without notice – since October 20, 2015. HPCL was considered to be a profit-making and dividend-paying entity from 2005-06 to 2008-09, and also bagged the MoU Excellence Award from the Government of India for FY 2005-06 and 2007-08.

The two paper mills were rendered defunct over lack of working capital as HPCL owes Rs 98 lakh in unpaid dues to Alloys and Metals (India), a private company.

The total dues owed to the mills’ employees until December 2019 was over Rs 620 crore.

Members of both the Nagaon and Cachar paper mills’ unions have accepted the deal – which comes with some technical hurdles – due to a compulsion, as the more than 1,200 employees and their families have run out of options.

The leaders said they were worried about more future deaths of employees – 95 workers have died so far, with four dying by suicide.

On September 21, Shyama Kanta Kurmi, a former worker in his late 50s died on account of prolonged health ailments – including diabetes, cardiac, kidney and liver diseases. According to JACRU, his family couldn’t avail of treatment due to limited financial resources brought about by being deprived of his pending monetary dues. With his death, the death toll now stands at 95.

With the threat of eviction looming large over the remaining workers, union members say the Rs 570 crore ‘relief’ package deal would cover 27-28 months’ salary and dues out of the total 57 months’ salary and dues that they have been deprived of for more than four years.

With a case already pending before the Delhi high court for the workers’ total claims, the key point in the six-page agreement signed between Sarma and representatives of all unions and associations says:

“The understanding and arrangement which have been arrived today in the meeting with the Employees Association and Workers Unions of HPC Ltd will be implemented without prejudice to petitioners claims made in various legal cases for different relief, excluding their claims on land, buildings and all other assets of HPC. They shall ensure that the possession of land, buildings and other assets is smoothly taken over by govt of Assam without any hindrances and obstacles and the same will not be disputed in any court of law.”

Manabendra Chakraborty, president of Joint Action Committee of Recognised Unions (JACRU) told The Wire that the relief deal is a flicker of light at the end of a tunnel.

“Out of a total 57 months’ worth of pending salaries and other dues, the relief deal covers somewhere between 27 to 28 months of salaries and other dues. It is possible that a section of the mills’ workers and employees may even face displacement in the near future. We have clearly stated that since there is a case pending before the Delhi high court, which was filed to cover all our legitimate dues and claims, we will continue our fight for the complete realisation of all the legitimate claims and we will not withdraw the case until we get what is rightfully ours. The relief deal is not a full settlement,” said Chakraborty.

File image of the interiors of the one of the paper mills in Assam. Photo: Gaurav Das

The relief package also includes key provisions such as an assurance that the assets of HPCL will remain with the government of Assam; an assurance that the package shall be disbursed within two months on approval of the proposal by the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT) submitted by the Assam government; permanent employment for 100 workers and employees in state government entities be given through a special recruitment drive; all the doctors, including auxiliary nurses midwives (AMN) and other paramedical staff, will be given employment; and the relief package so offered shall not prejudice the claims of workers in legal cases pending at various courts.

Chakraborty added, “It is a welcome move that through this relief package, there could be employment generation for some. But what about the three lakh ancillary labourers and the small bamboo suppliers and growers who are considered the backbone of Assam’s rural economy? A deal should cover all aspects and factors that are associated with both the paper mills.”

The relief package comes four weeks after the employees were slapped with an eviction notice asking them to vacate their living quarters. Served on September 3, the notice asked former workers and officers of HPCL mills to leave their accommodations. The notice was served on them by an HPCL liquidator.