The quintessential and the pioneer Indian car brand, Ambassador, fondly known as Amby, is now part of history! Hindustan Motors, run by the Birlas has now closed its production facility at Hind Motor, in Uttarpara, West Bengal. For almost the last six decades, precisely since the year 1957, this unit was producing the iconic brand Ambassador. The Premier Padmini or Maruti 800 of 1970s and 80s could not withhold its ‘importance’!
The Ambassador model was built on British Morris Oxford II and has always been the first love of the powerful. The erstwhile Zamindars, the Ministers, the higher Government functionaries, the Babus, the corporate honchos, the intellectual and cultural heavy weights, the Taxiwallahs and of course the underworld dons all loved the car. It was an unsaid power symbol of the ‘achievers’, for almost six decades!
But after the Indian economy opened up in 1991, the roads here stared chocked with cars from the foreign kitty. India’s own Tata and Mahindra cars filled the remaining space and simply sidelined Ambassador, to make way for the new. From 28,000 cars rolled out of the factory in its heydays in the 1980s, the number had dropped to 2,343 cars in 2013. And the message became loud and clear: the 2600 workers employed at the Uttarpara Car Plant were producing less than one car a year! An average that usually falls far below the national automobile industry average. Just before the massive plant was shut down, it had produced just 23 cars in total, in the month of May 2014.The last lot was mostly sold as the yellow top Taxis on Kolkata roads.
What Went Wrong
Just 22 kilometres out of Kolkata, Hindustan Motors in Uttarpara Municipality of Hooghly District was a much developed locality, like others in this industrial belt, outskirts of the State capital. There were many schools, hospitals and nursing homes, preferably good roads and civic amenities built over the years. This area is now part of the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority and Hindustan Motors has been here since 1948.
Hindustan Motors (HM) was started before India’s Independence at Okha in Gujarat. It was moved to Uttarpara in Bengal, in 1948, where the company began the production of the Ambassador cars. The car was mainly based on the Morris Oxford, a popular British car of that time. It was the first and only integrated automobile plant in India. Even a railway station named after the Company shows, how the HM had changed the economy of the area and helped thousands of rural and urban bread earners to earn a respectable salary and obvious pride. Being a Hind Motor worker often gave them a newfound respect in the society and future for their children.
Like many major factories in West Bengal, the scene is not different here too. A closed factory Gate, protesting workers under a makeshift shade, Trade Unions well stationed with their relevant Flags. Trinamool Congress, CPI(M), Congress and of course BJP flags are flying at different angles, slogans with highly creative graffiti- a speciality of Bengal politics, with slogans and symbols are painted around the walls . The ‘poribartan’ of Mamata’s regime is not visible around. The workers who pledge their loyalty to Mamata and her party still hope that Didi will force the management to reopen the factory. But, for the last 35 years CPI (M) has done it, and now Trinamool Congress is doing it with the same gusto! “Cholbe Naa! Cholbe Naa!”
“Cholbe Naa! Cholbe Naa!”: We won’t allow” any industrialist to function here anymore- seems the leitmotif of the political tradition of labour politics of West Bengal for some time now. The Tatas left Singur, to set their plant in Gujarat, Dunlop India, now taken over by the Ruias is not functioning, RIL ultimately had not bid for ailing Haldia Petrochemicals, the 226-year-old Jessop Railway Coach factory has suspended operation- the list is long, but for the last four decades, from one of the topmost manufacturing hub of India, Bengal has now reached its nadir.
According to a recent survey, West Bengal accounts for 42.3% of the total industrial disputes in India. Another detailed analysis has revealed some startling facts. In the year 2010, roughly 522 thousand workers were involved in the 157 industrial disputes in West Bengal. The total number of mandays lost due to all these industrial disputes was a hopping 19,527 thousand. The mandays lost per worker was around 37 days! In 2001, the mandays lost per worker was a whopping 120 for a total of 190 disputes in the state. In 2007, 23,737 thousand Mandays were lost due to disputes. This was the highest seen since 1980s. The ratio of mandays lost per worker in 2007 was 63. In 2010, though lockouts started a majority of the disputes, labour strikes had a bigger impact. 23 workers’ strikes were reported in West Bengal in 2010. These strikes incurred 87.3% of the total workers in disputes and ended in 55% of the mandays lost. Notably, majority of these disputes in Bengal were in the Private Sector. There were just 7 Public Sector disputes in that year. In the year 2011, a ‘Poribartan’ (Change) had swept Bengal. In the State Assembly Elections, Mamata Banerjee led Trinamool Congress had bagged 184 Assembly seats, out of 294, ending the three decade old Left rule.
Has Anything Changed?
Perhaps not. Mamata Banerjee, as critics say, built her reputation and political career as a hardcore protester, not as a facilitator. Her historic protests against the industrial goings-on in Singur and Nandigram brought her to power, ending 35 years of Left rule in Bengal. But people now say, Mamata is more leftist than the Left, where the perennial protests are concerned. The ruler has obviously changed, but not the industrial environment and the work culture. Workers are not always to be blamed. There are genuine reasons to protest. But the overdose of politics has marred the situation, almost beyond repair!
Now in the year 2014, three long years after the new Government has taken over, the nodal body Assocham is claims that almost 96% of the existing sick units in West Bengal are not in a condition of revival. They have suggested that, in this scenario, the State Government should set up SME-clusters and a special cell to assist and facilitate remaining 4% of the units back into operation. According to Assocham, the industrial sickness in the State has not only affected capital formation and underutilization of the available resources but also sent highly unfavorable signals to the industrialists within and outside West Bengal. Surprisingly enough, the Assocham report has attributed far lesser role of the labour disputes in making the units sick!
- Lack of demand and huge infrastructure gap (41.94%)
- Shortage of working capital (20.49%)
- Marketing problems (11.48%)
- Management problems (6.46%)
- Labour problems (5.64%) &
- Non-availability of raw material (5.11%)
So it’s time to ponder over the facts seriously and take a pro-active stand straightaway. Simply because all these factors are inter related and one leads to another.
Not The Workers Alone
From the socio-economic point of view, Bengal has the right potential, ability and location to be an industrial hub. It has a long and continuous industrial tradition since the arrival of the British. It has two all season ports, an international airport, a highly developed rail network and a good road connectivity to three corners of India: North, West and South. It has sufficient electricity, ample water resources, trained and qualified manpower, and easy accessibility to natural resources of Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam and Odisha. It is the source of business activities across the seven-north eastern states.It has the road connectivity to four neighboring countries: Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar and via Myanmar, to the entire south east Asia. It’s still a major agricultural producer, contributes the highest export revenue through tea, has major railway coaches and container manufacturing units, big steel production units, leading hosiery and shoe industry and a hub of big industrial houses like ITC, Britannia, Balmer Lawrie, Duncans Group, RPG, Bata and Phillips.
In many cases, an inept management led to the industrial disputes. As seen in the cases of Jessop and Dunlop India, the newly acquired managements of the Ruias were unable to handle the situation and take a pro-worker policy. Observers say that Tamil Nadu is one of the states with major industrial disputes. It comes second after Bengal in this regard. The massive unrest in the Hyundai Auto Unit in Tamil Nadu is known. But it never stopped the flow of investment in the State. Massive Auto plant unrests were recurrent in Haryana. No one left Haryana thereafter or closed the factories down. So why Bengal?It has a perspective, which can’t be ignored at any cost. The new Indian economic policy after 1991 has unprecedentedly curtailed the rights and social security of Indian work-force. Contractual labour has become the industrial norms these days. In politically concerned Bengal, if the work force protests often, it can it be blindly called a hostile situation!
Blame It On HM
The workers of Hind Motors blame that the management reached the situation of no return-for their sheer lack of foresight and inability to reinvent to stay afloat. Over the years, its outdated models and engines and a bulky fuel guzzler image, drove the iconic Amby out of competition. Despite tall talks, the management solely dependent on bulk Government order and never took much upgradation drive to cope with the emerging situations. Despite the onslaught of smaller Maruti cars and arriving of larger cars, Hindustan Motors was unable to deliver enough Ambassador cars to its customers. Production the year 1997 rose from 28,000 to 35,000 and there were talks of ambitious plans for the future. But not much happened thereafter.
First the odd 250 Management staff was retrenched with a notice period formality and then the company got rid of the existing workforce doling out a pittance. Though the company was not clearly disclosing it, sources say that there were around 2,600 permanent employees at Uttarpara and 50 contract workers. The company sources said that it was no exception to the global downswing in the automobile industry. Demand for its only product (Ambassador car) had nosedived. So, it was not economically viable for Hindustan Motors to continue manufacturing operations in Uttarpara unit, anymore.
But where was the alternative plan?
On the first week of June, after repeated discussions with the West Bengal Govt’s Labour department, the company paid 2,600 permanent and 50 contractual workers, a one-time payment (or an advance payment of the dues?) just Rs 7,000 each! Workers said they were forced to accept the meagre payment though the company owes them much more. The company owes its workers six months’ salary as arrears. As per sources, on April 30, 2014, the last fiscal year, the company accumulated outstanding liabilities amounting to Rs 94 crore comprising sales tax and other tax dues, salary and wages, electricity bills, land revenue, and bank liabilities.The company reportedly sought the State government’s help to divest the forge and foundry division of the Uttarpara unit. The wages of around 2600 workers have become irregular since last many years.
Chandra Kant Birla, the Chairman of Hindustan Motors, stopped visiting Uttarpara plant. He left Kolkata in 2004 and visited the plant once, after a gap of seven years, in 2011. The State Government was continuously turning the heat on the company for quite some time, allegedly for violating the commitment it made back in 2006. The new State Government strongly felt that the company did not plough back enough from the funds it got from the sale of land at Uttarpara. The previous Left Front Government had allowed 314 acres of land to be carved out of the factory area and sold for real estate development.
West Bengal Labour Minister Purnendu Bose has said that the company had “no real interest” in resuming operations at Uttarpara. He questioned the ethics of the lay-offs at a time the Government was holding meetings with the management to keep the plant afloat. In the past six months, HM has paid only one month’s wages to its workers.
After the meeting with the HM’s top management, the Labour Minister has said that his Ministry would seek legal advice. “Whatever be the appropriate forum — the labour tribunal, the industrial tribunal, the high court — we will have to move it, if necessary,” he said. With a pending salary for last six months, the workers come to the factory gate and meet the Trade Union leaders for some hope. But there is hardly any assurance. There are workers who have who has worked for 20 or more years in the Assembly Unit of the plant but suddenly got out of a job. The defenseless lot doesn’t know how they will run their families, whether they can provide further education to their sons and daughters! Without salary for last six months, they are virtually deep in debt and after they lost their jobs; the creditors have now refused to loan them any money. Many of the workers, after serving the company for so many years, are too old to find a new job elsewhere. It’s a piquant situation: the ever rising inflation, lack of job opportunity and facing the sudden loss of income. Some of the women of the household have taken up odd jobs like sewing or part time teaching to keep the wolf at bay. But that is hardly substituted for a regular job. Those who are fortunate, are thinking of going back to their villages after so many years, to start work as a cultivator again. But not many are that fortunate.
The dejected workers are still hoping for a miracle! They are earnestly hoping that the West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee will ultimately force the HM management to restart production. The much awaited tripartite talks between the Government, the Trade Unions and the HM Management is no panacea. It’s surely a death foretold! Death of an enterprise, death of a hope and the ultimate death of many dreams.
For the thousands, it’s not just the nostalgia or a romance of the halcyon days of Amby. It’s a question that has no answer: “What after Hind Motors?”
By Deep Basu
Image Source: Protests, Yellow Taxi Kolkata, Amby in HM factory, White Govt. Amby, Mamata Banerjje injured, Kolkata, HM workers protest, Red Amby, Top Gear Taxi, Army Amby, Amby in the making, Colorful Amby, Amby with the President, TMC supporters