Notes from the dead house


It is India’s worst industrial strife post liberalisation. Revati Laul examines the ground reality at the Maruti plant in Manesar to gauge what went wrong, and why

Violent end A security guard stands near a burnt down structure in Maruti’s Manesar plant
Violent end A security guard stands near a burnt down structure in Maruti’s Manesar plant
Photo: Soumik Mukherjee

NEARLY 1,200 policemen and an oppressive heat hung over the burnt remains of Maruti’s Manesar factory in Haryana, the day after. On 19 July 2012, one day since a workers’ mob attacked senior managers with iron rods and set offices on fire, the place felt and looked like a giant funeral pyre. But even the burnt walls and shattered glass could not convey the horror on the faces of the staff that emerged from the gates. Or the extreme shock of Awanish Dev’s family, the HR manager who was charred to death. Burnt beyond recognition. Ninety-eight managers and staff from Maruti spent the next few days in hospital — 23 are still there, legs in casts, their families stare in bewilderment at the only possible question — who would have thought?

Inside the Bhondsi jail, 75 km from the Manesar plant, 22 year-old Pritesh Singh, had exactly the same question for his prospective lawyer — who would have thought?

TEHELKA spoke to the jailed workers from Maruti charged with homicide. Pritesh claims that like him, most of those arrested were not part of the mob at all. They were picked up from the shanties after their shift was over, because the police arrested whoever they could find from Maruti. Pritesh was on the ‘A’ shift on the morning of the 18th. He’d been working at Maruti for two years and the job meant everything to him. It was a means for him to send money home to his village in UP’s Azamgarh district, to treat his sick parents. On that fateful Wednesday, Pritesh was trying to leave when he found at 4pm that the workers’ union had blocked the gates. Pritesh had been oblivious to the growing tension in the factory since 10 am. Apparently, a supervisor on one of the shop floors had made a casteist remark about a worker called Jiya Lal. After which, Jiya Lal slapped him. The supervisor was told to go home but Jiya Lal was suspended. By noon, the workers union protested and asked the top management to revoke the suspension. By the time Pritesh’s shift was over, things were slowly coming to a head. At 6 or 6.30, he managed to sneak out into the crowd and get back to where he stayed — a village called Aliar. “I thought that since I hadn’t been part of the mob, nothing will happen to me. But the villagers in Aliar started blackmailing me and the other boys, saying they’d turn us Maruti workers in to the police. We fled and the police caught up with us. They didn’t even ask me what I’d done. No one asked me anything.”

Pritesh’s colleague and jail-mate Anupam Dubey also went to his supervisor when the shift changed. “I want to leave but I’m not being allowed to, so tell me what to do.” His supervisor advised him to work overtime, which is what he was doing until he heard an announcement from the workers’ union asking everyone to come to the gate. He was eventually betrayed by his taxi and sent to the police.

Workers suggest there were bouncers within the Maruti plant even as negotiations were on. This is common practice when talks break down, they say

“Can we get a personal lawyer?” “Will you ask our supervisors at Maruti to tell you what they know about us?” “Won’t the CCTV footage prove our innocence?” “Will we get out of jail?” For now, these voices, recorded by their prospective lawyer, Rajendra Pathak, are drowned out by the overwhelming situation the workers are in. A large number of them are perpetrators. The police claim to have caught six of them this week. They’re in police custody. Twelve others, all unionists, have non-bailable warrants issued against them.

But there is another side to this story that needs looking at. A senior Maruti executive who didn’t want to be named stitched together many eyewitness accounts. The grisly story of how a hundred managers at Maruti were beaten with iron rods till their legs fractured so they couldn’t run. And then the mob went after their skulls.

IT ALL began with the Jiya Lal incident at 10am. When the union didn’t budge on their demands, senior management assured the union leaders that Jiya Lal’s suspension would be temporary, pending an inquiry. The workers’ union didn’t think this was enough. By 6.30 pm, people with armed rods were at the gates. They ordered the rest of the workers from shop floors to join in. The mob entered the conference room, where negotiations between workers and senior management had completely broken down. Workers started smashing the conference tables and then their managers’ legs. They then aimed for the heads and when the managers covered their heads with their hands, the hands took the hit. After which they set the place on fire.

Many auto makers have relied on contract workers with much lower wages to keep their profit margins intact

It’s not clear where HR manager Awanish Kumar Dev was when the fire broke out. Some accounts suggest his legs were broken and he had ducked behind a desk. That he was asthmatic and that when the fire broke out he was unable to move, trapped because his legs were smashed. The postmortem report says he died of suffocation and hundred percent burns.

There is still no clarity on the exact sequence of events. But trade unionists and workers suggest there were bouncers within the Maruti establishment even as negotiations were on during the first half of the day. And that brought an element of coercion to the management side of things. A claim Maruti’s spokesperson rubbishes completely. But workers in jail confirm having seen bouncers. They say this is common practice when negotiations break down. Gautam Mody, a career unionist and currently secretary of the NTUI (New Trade Union Initiative) says, “hiring bouncers is standard practice in Haryana.” A procedure adopted by managements after the 2005 strike at Hero Honda, which was seen as a big victory for workers.

Wage strike Workers from Maruti’s Manesar plant protesting for wage hike and better working conditions in October 2011

Photo: Garima Jain

Hollowed within Employees on contract at the plant earn anywhere between Rs 6,000 and Rs 10,000 per month without medical benefits or insurance

Photo: Vijay Pandey

Even now, the most important version of what happened that day is still missing: the point of view of the perpetrators. Why did they do what they did? To those tracking the Maruti story, a history of hate is clearly visible, leading finally up to last week’s violence. Trade unionists trace this anger back to the 2000-01 strike when Maruti was to be privatised. The strike went on for 84 days. Once it ended, unionists claim, Maruti began a process of subordinating its workers. Supervisors on shifts began timing their tea breaks and refusing to let workers go to the toilet. Workers said that a lunch break of thirty minutes and tea breaks of seven minutes didn’t factor in that the shop floor was often half a kilometre away or more from the canteen. That if they got back to their station a minute late they were scolded and humiliated. A car had to be rolled out on the automatic conveyor belt every forty seconds, no matter what.

Many unionist believed the condition of Maruti workers at Manesar was far worse than the Gurgaon plant. For one thing, 50 percent of them were on contract, not permanent staff. Their wages, therefore, often for doing the same job as their co-workers on permanent rolls was half, or even less. They got about Rs 6,000-11,000 a month whereas permanent workers were paid anywhere between Rs 17,000-25,000.

Aliar, Dhana, Kho – the villages around the Manesar plant where workers stay are visual evidence of depressing living standards. The mohallas have no permanent drains. Dingy and overcrowded homes are rented out to workers where there is one toilet to every four rooms. These are places no one with even a half-decent wage would be willing to live in.

But when workers and their union affiliates describe abysmal living conditions, what they are describing is in fact urban, lower middle class poverty. Which is different from the workers who went on strike in Bombay’s textile mills in the 1980s. Who were much more close to the edge by comparison. Recruits at the Maruti plant — both permanent and contract — were specialised technicians, trained at ITI institutes. They were mostly in their twenties and thirties and as much in a hurry to join the middle class as everyone else. This made them inherently more volatile than the workers who in the 1980s spent their entire lives working in one factory. But liberalisation also brought with it a much more fiercely competitive corporate culture. Many studying the impact of this on workers today say profits, particularly in the highly competitive automobile sector, are made by squeezing wages more and more. Not just Maruti but many auto makers have relied on contract workers with much lower wages to keep their profit margins intact. Which is why, apart from Maruti, most strikes of the last decade like at the RICO auto parts manufacturing unit and Honda have been about making contract workers permanent and about wages. And finally about letting workers form their own unions. Manesar, meant to take India’s shiny new liberalisation dream forward, had begun to split wide open; its workforce pushed beyond the brink — an industrial town hollowed out from within.

The real rupture at Maruti, however, was not about the appalling conditions of its workers at Manesar. But the total breakdown of communication between them and Maruti’s management, especially after October’s strike was crushed.

While workers saw their plight as a continuous history of suppression, their managers inhabited an altogether different universe. One in which Maruti’s spokesperson says everything was going well. “The issues of last year were completely resolved. Wage negotiations were proceeding smoothly with unions in Manesar as well as Gurgaon. There was no sticking point at all.” The punishing targets on the automatic conveyor belt were changed. Tea and toilet breaks were no longer an issue. And Maruti’s Chairman RC Bhargava had also announced that the system of depending on contract labour would end by March 2013.

Village economics The economies of the nearby villages are dependant on casual labourers who rent rooms in the villages

Photo: Vijay Pandey

Homestead Non-permanent staff at the plant live in abysmal conditions in the nearby villages

Photo: Vijay Pandey

This, of course, is the official version. Telling the story any other way for Maruti’s management would be an extremely inconvenient truth. For them to see a history of continued suppression would mean conceding that their 1,700 cars per day production by a staff of 4,000 odd workers is based on a highly exploitative work structure. Therefore, Maruti’s Chairman RC Bhargava described the incident of 18 July as an “absolutely unforeseen event,” a ture rather than a continuum. It’s this theory — of presenting the violence at Maruti as erupting out of nowhere — that became a much more convenient truth to foster. It’s taken the state government down the path of suspecting outside influences, Maoists at work, a pre-planned attack — everything that points outwards and away from the disruptive history between Maruti’s workers and managers.

The Maruti story, in fact, sits in a landscape of violence. Of workers across corporate India attacking their managers once they’re suspended. In the year 2009, thousands of workers in Haryana went on a strike in solidarity with their co-workers from the company RICO, where a worker died in a clash following a strike. And in January this year, another workers’ strike in Puducherry’s Yanam district met a horribly violent end. When their leader was allegedly killed by the police, they retaliated by smashing the skull of the president of the company they worked for. Aditya Nigam, currently researching a book on ‘Capital’ and a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, puts things in context. Workers today, he says do not have labour commissions that look at how companies often violate the Factories Act. “Today, these labour departments are playing second fiddle to corporate interests.”

The real rupture at Maruti was the total breakdown of communication between workers and the management

WHAT HAPPENED at Maruti was violence on a scale that is perhaps unprecedented in the history of workers’ violence following economic liberalisation in India. And it is therefore even more essential that last week’s violence be seen in its entire ugly truth. Not as hermetically sealed from the past, but as an uncontrolled violent out outcome of it. If Maruti has to truly honour its HR Manager Awanish Kumar Dev, then many would argue, it needs to do what he did. Listen to both sides.

A worker who knew and respected Dev speculated that it’s precisely this quality that may have made Dev feel hemmed in by workers’ demands on one side and management on the other. And made him turn in his resignation to Maruti six months ago. But Dev’s wife and close friend don’t want to see it like that. They say Maruti was his dream job. He may have offered to quit but then he took that back and stayed on. Either way, his colleagues in the management and workers agree perhaps on just this one thing. His death is terribly ironic.

Should Maruti’s management now take their cue from the HR man they’ve lost and listen, even to the voices of jailed workers who claim they were not part of the mob? For now, the opposite appears to be happening. In response to TEHELKA’S question on whether Maruti will stand by and testify on behalf of potentially innocent workers, this is what their spokesperson said. “The investigation, arrests and legal action are being handled by the government. It is not proper for us to comment.” Further, they say, “there was no breakdown of communication between workers and management.” Critics would describe this as Maruti with its eyes wide shut.

But critics of Maruti often have a fixed line of vision as well. ‘Capital equals exploitation equals the total suppression of workers.’ If Maruti’s corporate bosses speak in absolutes, so do unionists and by extension, workers.

If the fixed positions on either side have led to the spilling of this much blood, can those absolutes change? The burial of the dead must begin by at least looking at these questions. And tell the story of violence with history rather than without.

Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
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