Beyond Manesar mayhem

Maruti violence... Are more dark truths hidden beneath the charred remains?

Beyond Manesar mayhem

The large polythene sheets flanking the locked iron gate of the Maruti Suzuki Industries Limited’s state-of-the-art plant at Manesar in Haryana hid seared walls and scalded remains of a security post – the scars inflicted on the automobile giant on July 18 last. Beyond the gate, the charred office complex has more tell-tale signs of the mayhem that a frenzied mob of workers unleashed that fateful day. The company’s General Manager (Human Resource) Awanish Kumar Dev was beaten up so badly that he could not flee and was soon engulfed by the fire set by irate workers. Over 90 of his more fortunate colleagues ended up in hospitals with broken legs and arms and bleeding head and neck injuries. The country’s biggest car manufacturer declared a lockout at the 600-acre facility. 

In its 30-year-long journey that revolutionised the country’s auto-industry and changed the way the nation commutes, the MSIL or its earlier incarnation, Maruti Udyog Limited, experienced only a few stirs by workers, at least till 2010. The old-timers can recall only two major strikes – one in 1988, and another in 2000. “The strike in 2000 went on for three months, but without any violence,” says the MSIL chairman R C Bhargava, who has been with the company since its birth as a public sector enterprise in 1981.

But 2011 saw as many as five strikes in the plant at Manesar, as workers demanded better wages, pay-parity between permanent and contract employees and a union independent of the one based at the company’s older facility in neighbouring Gurgaon. A tripartite agreement among the MSIL, workers and Haryana Government ended the last strike on October 21 last. The Maruti Suzuki Workers Union or MSWU came into being this February. “It was Dev (the deceased GM-HR) who helped the workers register the union. I too got a pack of sweets from them,” recalls the MSIL’s Chief Operating Officer (Administration) S Y Siddiqui. The company started wage negotiation with the newly-constituted union after the latter submitted its charter of demands in April.

What then sparked off the unrest on July 18? MSWU president Ram Meher says that while the company top brass wanted to derail the wage negotiations, what triggered the flare-up was a supervisor’s abusive remark to a permanent worker, who was immediately suspended. The workers protested and the management called in musclemen in its payroll, resulting in a scuffle, alleges Meher.

“If the workers were attacked, why were none of them injured? Why did only the managers and supervisors end up in hospital?” counters Bhargava.

Siddiqui adds that Jiyalal’s suspension was kept in abeyance after the union leaders called him from Manesar, but that failed to pacify the workers. 

But why is only the Manesar plant witnessing unrests while operations at MSIL’s Gurgaon unit have been  smooth after the strike in 2000? “There is a lack of mutual trust between the management and workers in Manesar. Most of the workers in Manesar are young and aggressive and lack maturity,” says Kuldeep Janghu, general secretary of Gurgaon-based Maruti Kamgar Union. He contends that the workers’ body at Gurgaon plant keeps a distance from trade unions affiliated to political parties, unlike the new one at Manesar which is  influenced by organisations like CPI-affiliated All India Trade Union Congress.

But Maruti workers at Manesar allege that the leaders of the union in Gurgaon enjoy tacit support of the management and, hence, never complain though much of the exploitation is common to both the plants, including pay-cuts and a strict work schedule that allows workers only two breaks in an eight-hour shift – one for about seven minutes to have tea and/or respond to nature’s call, and another for about 30 minutes for lunch.

The transformation

Manesar transformed from a sleepy village to India’s ‘Motown’ over the past one-and-a-half decades, as Maruti Suzuki and other automobile biggies like Hero Motocorp, Rico, Sona Koya, FCC Rico, Suzuki Powertrain, Suzuki Motorcycle, Mark Exhaust and Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India set up manufacturing plants. Labour unrest and violence are not new phenomena here. Honda witnessed it as early as July 25, 2005, when about 150 agitating workers were hurt in a police cane charge. So did the others. “Most of our demands like minimum wages of Rs 15,000 a month, ban on contract labour and strict implementation of labour laws are yet to be met. These are now universal demands of the workers in Gurgaon-Manesar belt,” says Harjit, general secretary of the HMSI Workers Union.

The local people too are worried. Ishwar Dutt Bharadwaj gave up his two-acre fertile land for Manesar’s  industrialisation eight years back and turned into a grocer. The 48-year-old still complains about the paltry compensation he got for his land, but is more worried over prospects of the MSIL shutting down its troubled plant permanently. “If Maruti goes, others too will follow suit and I will be left with no customers. My family will have to starve,” he says. No wonder, a ‘Maha Panchayat’ of village chieftains blamed the migrant workers from other states for the violence and vowed not to allow leftist trade unions to foment more trouble.

The MSIL’s expansion plan in Gujarat and the recent meeting between the State’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi with Suzuki Motor Corporation chairman Osamu Suzuki in Tokyo fuelled speculation about the company’s plan to shift from Manesar to Hansalpur near Ahmedabad. But, even in Modi’s Gujarat, the biggies like General Motors and Hitachi experienced strikes and agitations by workers in the recent past. The Confederation of Indian Industries’ Chairman Adi Godrej says the incident in MSIL plant at Manesar might dent the country’s image as a safe investment destination, particularly as it happened in investor-friendly Haryana. Wipro Chairman Azim Premji is perhaps right when he says that it reflected building social unrest in the country.

As uncertainty looms large over ‘Motown’, Maruti Suzuki put the ball in Haryana Government’s court and stated that it could reopen the plant only when law and order situation improved. Though Haryana Police arrested over 90 workers after the incident, the cops’ role during the mayhem drew flak.

Nearly 50 policemen were deployed around 3-15 pm after the first signs of tension were noticed in the plant. Although full-scale violence erupted nearly three hours later, the police largely remained mute spectators, it is alleged. “Had they acted, my husband would have been alive,” laments Suparna Dev, wife of the dead GM (HR). Are the polythene sheets hiding much more than just the charred walls? 

 

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