Editor's note: This is part of a multi-article series on the jobs crisis in the three states crucial to Lok Sabha election 2019: Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Raj Kumar Pandey retired earlier this year. Officially. He has been out of work since 2002.
"I turned 60 in January," he says. "I have been home for years. I make little money by working as a priest."
Pandey was a seasonal worker at the Motihari sugar mill in Bihar's East Champaran district that shut down in 2002. Nearly 600 workers were employed at the mill at the time. Most of them have not found jobs since. Their dues, too, remain unpaid 17 years later.
Ahead of the 2014 general election, then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi had visited Motihari and famously said that during his next visit to the town, he would have tea with sugar crushed at this mill.
"Agli baar aaunga toh abhi band mill ki chini se bani chai piyunga," he had said.
But the mill still stands abandoned five years down the line. Located by a serene lake, bushes and trees have grown around the tall, dark chimneys in the deserted factor complex, in which two security guards idly sit and chat with each other.
However, Modi's statement still touches a raw nerve at the Jirat residential quarters around the mill.
Ramvinod Prasad, a 55-year-old who worked as a field supervisor at the mill, says he hoped their fortunes would change after Modi's visit.
"For the longest time now, though, we have been sitting on our haunches," he says, sitting outside his concrete home under the shade of a tree. "The current agriculture minister, Radhamohan Singh, is also from our constituency. He is useless. We still believe Modi is the best person to lead the country. His heart is in the right place. But there is no denying that he has neglected our cause."
Just as Ramvinod concludes, Lal Babu Prasad, a 61-year-old overhearing the conversation, jumps in and says, "Modi is not the best person to lead the country. He is a sell-out. He didn't create jobs, and farmers are committing suicides."
Ramvinod looks at this reporter and says, "He is the only 'Congressi' in the entire vicinity of 200 people."
"I am enough for the 200 of you," Lal Babu quickly replies with a smirk.
"Don't you start a fight now in front of the guest," Ramvinod calms him down.
Workers at the residential quarters around the mill share a certain camaraderie. They have been living here since the 1980s. The vicinity even had a school run by the mill, where their children studied. These people have seen the mill thrive, and they have seen it collapse. They have enjoyed good times together, and they now share their grief of living with the guilt of surviving on their children's earnings.
"Those were the days," reminisces Ramvinod. "We are close to our retirement age. At this age, we cannot find anything new either. A few are breaking their backs in Nepal. Our children are away in other cities because there are hardly any jobs available for youth in East Champaran. They send money back home. The mill owes me close to Rs 20 lakh. It ruined our lives."
Some of the workers even passed away waiting for their dues.
Saroj Pandey's husband, Ramesh, died of diabetes in 2012. He was a turbine fitter at the mill.
"Cheeni ki bimari thi," she says. "We could not afford his treatment. My daughter gives tuitions to children after college and that sustains our household."
Ajay Kabra, general manager of finance at the Motihari sugar mill, says they are in the process of clearing the dues of workers.
"The mill started making losses since the early 2000s," he says. "We needed new machinery. The factory needs huge investments, and we could not fulfil that, which reduced our sugar realisation."
Owned by a Kolkata-based business family, the mill was leased out to the Birlas between 1969 and 1995. Workers say the mill's downfall began after they left.
After the mill shut down in 2002, Ramvinod worked at two different sugar mills, at Narkatiaganj in West Champaran and Riga in Sitamarhi.
"But there were attempts to restart the Motihari mill, during which they changed the management a few times," he says.
In its quest to revive the mill, the Government of Bihar had sold it to Indian Potassium Ltd, in the hopes that production would resume in six months. But this never happened. After 2002, the mill functioned sporadically only to tantalise workers with renewed hope that was soon crushed. The mill last crushed sugarcane in 2012-13.
"When the new management came, we were asked to rejoin. So I quit the mill I was working at and returned," says Ramvinod. "Within two months, the mill stopped functioning and I was jobless again. This happened twice. The management had told me I would lose my gratuity and provident fund if I refused to return."
The sugar mill had been lucrative since its inception in 1930s — when it functioned, it was a profitable venture for farmers cultivating sugarcane; after it shut down, it has been lucrative for politicians in garnering votes.
Every major party in Bihar has promised to reopen the mill in Motihari ahead of elections since 2005, when Nitish Kumar first made the promise as a prospective chief minister. Ten years later, in 2015, when he joined hands with his old foe Lalu Prasad Yadav ahead of the Bihar Assembly election, the subject was raised again.
There are three sugar mills in Bihar's East Champaran distict — Suguali, Motihari and Chakia. Only the one in Sugauli is operational.
Bhagya Narayan Choudhary, a veteran communist leader in Motihari, says workers of the Chakia mill are in a similar situation.
"Around 1,300 workers lost their jobs over there," he says. "They are driving autos or looking for odd jobs."
Sugarcane is a major cash crop in Champaran. Even today, one comes across swathes of sugarcane fields while traveling through the region. Local residents, however, say it was denser a few decades ago. Several farmers stopped cultivating sugarcane because the mills stopped operating.
Choudhary says farmers now have to travel an extra 100 kilometres to Gopalganj to sell their sugarcane crop.
"It increases their diesel expenditure," he says. "The production cost goes up. Many a time, their harvest goes unsold, so they have to come all the way back."
In the meantime, labour unions and activists have consistently staged protests for their lost jobs and non-payment of dues. They had gathered at Delhi's Jantar Mantar in June 2017, where they had pegged the total dues to 7,000 workers at Rs 80 crore.
Two activists, Naresh Srivastava, 49, and Suraj Baitha, 50, even self-immolated during an agitation at a temple in April 2017, a hundred years after Mahatma Gandhi launched his Satyagraha from Champaran.
"They had given a 24-hour notice for what they were planning to do," says Sanjay Kumar, Srivastava's 43-year-old younger brother. "But the police and administration did not stop the agitation or take them into custody even after they threatened to commit suicide. My brother died because of their callousness."
The sugar mill workers mentioned that their children work in other states because there are no jobs available locally. At Motihari's Chandmari area, there is a cluster of coaching classes where hundreds of children study and prepare for government jobs.
Subodh Kumar, who runs one of the largest chains of these coaching classes, Success Training Centre, shares what his students are up to.
How many students do you have and from where do they come?
I have close to 3,500 students. I take in 11 batches, which means I teach for 11 hours a day. The students come from all over Champaran. Some even come from Nepal. We train and prepare them for government jobs.
How many coaching classes are there in Motihari?
There are nearly 200 coaching centres in Motihari. They must have more than 20,000 students enrolled.
What background do these students have?
Almost all of them come from farm or labourer families. They are intelligent, but because of their lack of privilege, they may or may not have scored high marks while graduating. The toppers opt for engineering or medical. The elites go for civil services.
For how long have you been running your classes, and how many students have passed under you?
I have been here for 20 years. More than 20,000 students would have passed under me, most of them boys. When I started off, we only had one or two girls. Now, 25 percent of my students are girls.
Where are they now?
Only around 100 would be in Champaran. The rest are in every corner of India. They are desperate to get jobs, knowing it is not easy. They come from a poor background, so they cannot afford to wait for a perfect placement.
Even qualified people are ready to take up a peon's job because they want to get out of farms due to the agrarian crisis. There was a time when a farmer commanded social status. Those days are gone. A peon's job gets you more respect these days. So the children take up a job wherever they get one, and most do not get a job where they live.
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Updated Date: Mar 18, 2019 12:31:34 IST