The murder of a jute mill executive in West Bengal’s Hooghly district has again turned the focus towards the ailing jute industry and workers treading the path of violence in response to pay cuts and the prospect of joblessness. With demand low, several jute mills have scaled down production to 60-65 per cent of operational capacity in recent months, and the Northbrook Jute Co Ltd, where the murder was committed, was no exception. The mill which operated on a five-hour-shift since November last, was closed down for 40 days after March. Apparently, the management’s request to scale down operations to just three days a week incensed the workers and reportedly spurred the rampage. The artificial prop that the Union government accorded, making jute bags mandatory for transporting foodgrains and sugar through the 1987 Jute Packaging Materials Act, during an earlier crisis phase, has been progressively diluted recently and triggered this duress. Further, the availability of cheaper synthetic alternatives like polypropylene, the failure of modernisation efforts, and the low labour productivity has hurt the jute industry badly.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was at pains to mollify worried industrialists and, predictably, blamed the violence on Left and BJP trade unions. The sensitivity towards preserving the investment climate and allaying industrialists’ fears of labour unrest is shared by every Indian state now. This was in evidence in Haryana after the Maruti Suzuki workers protests at Manesar, where worries over the auto-maker shifting to Gujarat prompted unprecedented measures to intimidate striking workers. With a history of militant actions, West Bengal’s trade unions, like elsewhere, have failed to educate workers or locate their problems and needs in the context of the larger global movement towards neo-liberal reforms, which prioritised returns on investment over all else. But in Bengal where the unarrested decline of traditional industries was aggravated by the Left Front government’s inability to invite fresh investment, trade union activities have helped neither workers nor their employers, as has happened at Northbrook. Rather than hooliganism, trade unions must lead the call for reforms to revitalise the jute industry and in turn, secure a better deal for workers in terms of minimum wages and social security.
The immediate consequence of India’s entry into a globalised world order following the 1991 economic reforms was a declining focus on the working class. Many among the estimated 1.5 lakh casual workers employed in West Bengal’s 55 jute mills are alleging violation of labour laws. With jute mills reportedly running up uncleared stocks and huge losses, the workers demands for regularisation may never be met.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has espoused a “skilling” initiative, the benefits of such schemes reaching semi-skilled and unskilled workers in unproductive industries, thus enabling an occupational transition, are doubtful. Past efforts at jute mill modernisation failed because they targeted owners, who in many instances had leased out and disengaged from the industry. The die was cast since 2012 when the Union food ministry, which procures 40 per cent of the 2,000 million jute bags produced annually, began clearing 30-60 per cent usage of plastic bags. With five more mills closing after the Northbrook violence, the onus is on the Central and West Bengal governments to initiate another modernisation drive, infuse capital through banks or state funds, abide by the 1987 Jute Procurement Act, and reassure jute workers that their interests will be safeguarded.