Industrial workers on Kolkata’s outskirts resigned to their fate

No political party has offered a cogent plan to revive industries, say ill-paid and starving industrial workers

Industrial workers on Kolkata’s outskirts resigned to their fate

Tapas Chakraborty

The lower middle-class backyard of Kolkata is often reminiscent of Victorian England described by Charles Dickens in his novels, marked by poverty, squalor and people struggling to eke out a living.

The stretch between Maharaja Nand Kumar Road and Kali Krishna Tagore Lane on the northern outskirts of the city is home to a century-old factory, the Baranagar Jute Mill. Despite strikes and labour trouble, it has survived the trauma of 2001 when a personnel manager and the then CEO were burnt alive and a labourer was shot dead.

Baranagar, a constituency once represented by former chief minister Jyoti Basu, has witnessed Naxal violence and police reprisals including massacre of 90 young men in 1971. Today it reflects the industrial ruins of the city.

Both sides of Barrackpore Trunk Road (BT Road), which connects Barrackpore to the industrial zones of Sodpore, Khardah and Titagarh, once used to be dotted with hundreds of industrial units that manufactured agriculture and industrial machinery, chemicals and cotton processing units. Old-timers recall the bustling Mohini Mills (NTC), Beni Engineering and Basanti Cotton Mills. Today they have all disappeared.

Khardah Jute Mill used to employ over 10,000 workers and was nationalised in 1980. But it closed down in 2004, was revived for some time and shut down again in 2018. Titagarh once had high employment generating paper mills but today very few like Prabartak Jute Mills at Kamarhati survive.

Land vacated by industries have given way to towering housing projects, says Satish Mal, an employee at Kamarhati Municipality. Most of the sad looking people one encounters at Kamarhati seem to live on nearly nothing. They depend on occasional work that come their way and most of their women folk work as maids nw.

Roads off BT Road take one to residential areas of Baranagar, Belghoria and Kamarhati where printing, tailoring, fabrication and engineering job works, packaging units, battery charging units once thrived. Now they have shut down and have been replaced by pathological laboratories, offset printing presses and beauty parlours.

“The industrial map of Baranagar needs to be reimagined”, says Gopal Banerjee, a trade union leader. When the Left Front took over in 1977, it inherited an already declining industrial economy. Left’s new industrial policy that shifted the focus from heavy industry to small and cottage industries, affected bigger business houses and multinational firms and led to flight of capital. Many jute mills shifted to Andhra Pradesh and Bangladesh. The beginning of a non-Communist government by Mamata Banerjee failed to reverse the trend.

“We want industrial peace in West Bengal”, says Saugata Roy, Trinamool Congress MP. “Baranagar Jute Mill is the biggest of the 56 mills in West Bengal which have survived,” he points out. But the cycle of low production and low wages haunts workers. “We are resigned to our fate. We only pray that the factory should keep running even f we are paid a pittance,” says one of the workers, Hiren Adak.

None of the political parties seems to have a clear road map of how to revive the industries around the city. Glib talks and glitzy manifestoes do not seem to have lifted the sentiment. Workers, once militant and aggressive in demanding better conditions, are now resigned to their fate. Surviving one more day is the only goal left.

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