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Travels through the Hindi belt: Unpaid and unemployed, Kanpur's textile workers slam Modi for failing to revive mills

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.  


Ghanashyam Sharma fumbles, and pauses for a moment before introducing himself. He wonders if he should start with the new job he took up two years ago, or the one he has held for the past 28 years.

"I was 21 when I joined here,” says the 49-year old, pointing towards an abandoned, enormous, but dilapidated structure with broken windows. It is the Lal Imli Textile Mill in Kanpur district of Uttar Pradesh.

“We have not received our salaries for the past 21 months. To make my ends meet, I now work as a newspaper vendor. My salary at the mill was Rs 15,000. I make Rs 3,000 selling newspapers," he adds.

 Travels through the Hindi belt: Unpaid and unemployed, Kanpurs textile workers slam Modi for failing to revive mills

Lal Imli mill worker Ghanshyam Sharma with his wife Malati. Sharma hasn't received his salary for 21 months. Parth MN

Sharma, a peon, is one of the 500 plus workers of the mill who are scrambling for alternative livelihoods. Some work as rickshaws riders, and some have taken up jobs as labourers.

Kamlesh Kumar, 51, has started a tea stall right across the mill where all the old colleagues meet up and find comfort in each other’s miseries. "We have to do something to look after the family," he says, pouring a cup for this reporter.

"My son is 18. I have to fund his studies. The mill owners and the government have totally abandoned us," he adds.

The mill was started by the British India Corporation (BIC) in 1876 when Kanpur was emerging as a hub of textile industry. The heavy deployment of security personnel by the colonisers helped the flourishing textile industry in Kanpur. While the BIC ran four textile mills, the National Textile Corporation (NTC) ran five, earning Kanpur the title of “Manchester of the east”. Tens of thousands of workers operated these mills.

Kamlesh Kumar, 51, who worked in Lal Imli mill in Kanpur now runs a tea stall right across the mill. Parth MN

Kamlesh Kumar, 51, who worked in Lal Imli mill in Kanpur now runs a tea stall right across the mill. Parth MN

Ahead of the 2019 elections, unemployment is probably the biggest issue for the voters and Uttar Pradesh. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), Uttar Pradesh’s unemployment rate is 8.1 percent as against the national average of 6.7 percent. The labour participation rate in Uttar Pradesh is lower at 39 percent as against the national average of 42.81 percent.

The numbers reflect starkly in Kanpur, which, today, is a pale shadow of its vibrant past. Both BIC and NTC – now undertakings of the Government of India – have shut their mills, driving thousands of workers into the wilderness of unemployment. Only two mills remain in semi-functional state. The Lal Imli mill being one of them.

Even though the workers have not received their salaries for 21 months, the mill has been struggling for decades. Famous for its woollen products, not just in India but abroad, the Lal Imli mill struggled to keep up with the modernisation of the textile industry. Indira Gandhi nationalised the mill in 1981, but the losses piled up. For over 10 years, it functioned at 3-5 percent of its capacity, before coming to a complete standstill. The workers arrive, mark their presence and leave.

The bureaucracy and the management have continued to be casual about its revival, evident from the expensive machinery imported from Switzerland lying untouched for a decade. Activists believe corruption has led to the present situation.

While the rest of the mills in Kanpur were declared sick post the economic liberalisation, Lal Imli mill received a revival package from the government, which did not seem to lookout for its workers. The management and the bureaucrats could continue to benefit from the pay commission, while the workers’ wages were cut, their dearness allowance and other benefits removed.

Raju Thakur, labour union leader associated with Pragatishil Samajwadi Party, says at least 41 people have died due to the situation at Lal Imli mill. “Thirty-six of them were workers, 5 were family members," he says, adding, "Some committed suicide, some died because they could not afford the hospital bills. Every worker is owed at least Rs 15-18 lakh. We do not care what they do with the mill. We want our dues.”

Workers say they have not received a hike since 2005, and the salaries have been inconsistently paid for over a decade.

Malati Sharma, wife of Dhananjay, says it has been a struggle to look after the household.

"We have to pay the tuition fees of my daughter. She needs to buy books as well," she says.

"You can adjust for 1-2 months but this is getting unbearable. It started with salaries not being paid for 7-8 months. Now it's almost two years and we have not received a paisa.”

Ashish Pandey, president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress in Uttar Pradesh, says the policies of the government have not been worker-centric. "They now have their eyes on the land," he says. "The nexus between mill owners and government is aiming to sell the land, make crores of money, and leave the workers in lurch."

With a wistful smile, Malati, sitting outside her home, which is part of the quarters given to all the workers of the Lal Imli mill, says they cannot even borrow money from anybody else.

"Everybody living here is dealing with the same issue," she says, adding, "Fights among families have increased. Men feel embarrassed that they do not have the money to look after their families. The only silver lining is that there is no health issue in our family. Those who have an ailing patient to look after are suffering the most."

Arun Tripathi says Narendra Modi govt failed to fulfil its promise of reviving the textile mills in Kanpur. Parth MN

Arun Tripathi says Narendra Modi govt failed to fulfil its promise of reviving the textile mills in Kanpur. Parth MN

Arun Tripathi, one of the mill workers, has had to borrow money from private sources at exorbitant interest rates to treat his wife, who has been diagnosed with cancer. "My daughter had to drop out of college,” he says, adding, "We were supposed to be eligible for the insurance. But the mill has not paid the premium on our behalf."

When Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister in 2014, one of his union ministers, Anand Geete, raised false hopes by promising to revive two-thirds of the industries by pumping in money. A year ago, Uttar Pradesh's industry minister Satish Mahana also said they are keen on reviving the city’s mills.

"Modi has turned out to be a liar," says Tripathi, adding, "He visited Kanpur and called it an industrial city. Our sitting MP Murli Manohar Joshi had visited the mill, and made empty promises. What has Smriti Irani done as the textile minister? They should see what we been going through."

The story of Lal Imli encapsulates the story of Kanpur. A glorious past is all it has to boast about in the decedent present. The livelihoods of its workers have collapsed, much like the broken windows of the mill. Once bustling with activity, the mill is at a standstill today. Spread across acres of land, it resembles a ghost town. What has remained functional is its clock tower, and the junction it is named after.

First person

One of the textile mills declared sick in 1991-92 was the Elgin Mill. One fine day, it rendered thousands of workers jobless. Since then, they have staged protests in front of the gate of the mill. It has been 27 years, at least one of its workers would be sitting in front of the gate, to mark their protest, to remind the mill of the injustice meted out to its workers. On a scorching afternoon, this reporter met Rajjan, who was fixing a kid’s bicycle at the gate of the mill.

Rajjan, a former employee of the Elgin Mill which was decalred sick in 1991-92, now fixes bicycles outside the mill. Parth MN

Rajjan, a former employee of the Elgin Mill which was decalred sick in 1991-92, now fixes bicycles outside the mill. Parth MN

What did you do at the mill?

I worked in the spinning department. I had joined in 1978. And was thrown out along with others in 1991.

How old are you?

I would be around 55-60.

How much money are you owed?

Frankly, I do not remember. It has been a long time.

Have you been repairing cycles since you lost your job?

Yes, I had to do something. How else would you sustain a household? How else do I eat lunch and dinner? I have two daughters. I need to get them married. When they kicked us out, they initially told us that we would be reinstated when the fresh orders arrived. But that never happened. Eventually, I started fixing cycles.

Why at the gate?

Whenever you come to this gate, you would find at least one former worker here. Summers, winters, monsoons; it does not matter. We keep rotating. If you come on a Sunday, you would find at least 35-40 of us. We are all struggling for survival. And we do not want them to forget what they did to us.

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Updated Date: Apr 29, 2019 15:12:59 IST