Swiss cement giant Holcim crushing nascent Indian workers’ movement

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Persecution of contract workers union Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh by the multinational corportation, Holcim in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh

This letter is to alert you to the developing situation in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, where the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM) – a popular worker-peasant organization - and its cement industry affiliate labour union, the Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh, are coming under intense, concerted attacks from the Swiss Multinational cement manufacturer, Holcim, and the right-wing state government of Chhattisgarh.

The latest incident occurred on 6th March, when YP Singh, the Security Officer of Ambuja Cements (which is now controlled by the Swiss cement giant, Holcim) got into an altercation in the village market of Rawan, district Raipur where the Company is situated. According to villagers, YP Singh, is a universally disliked, tyrannical person against whom villagers and workers have repeatedly complained to the company. On this day, he was brandishing his revolver, and threatening and abusing some persons in the marketplace, when a group of unidentified youth chased him and roughed him up. Using this incident as a pretext, YP Singh and another company official have lodged a bogus complaint in the local Police Station accusing senior union leaders and activists of the Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh of dacoity, alleging that they have snatched the cartridges of his revolver! Hundreds of villagers are witness to the fact that these leaders were never at the spot, and it can be easily established that Lakhan Sahu was attending a funeral in Raipur, while Bhagwati Sahu was entertaining some outstation guests at his home. The alacrity with which the police, at the behest of the Company, have maliciously implicated these senior union leaders in such a serious offence in a completely spurious case, highlights the present atmosphere of repression in Chhattisgarh.

Background

This incident has to be viewed in the context of the determined struggle of the Union to protect the rights of the contract workers, a majority of whom are from local peasant families whose lands were acquired for the plant and mines. The Union has organized a substantial section of the contract workers to demand minimum wages, provision of Provident Fund slips, statutory proofs of employment like attendance cards etc. Before the workers started getting organized, this Swiss multinational giant, which is the second largest cement manufacturer in the world, was even deducting money for safety helmets and boots from their paltry wages!

The contract workers struggle in this plant is unique in the support that they have drawn from the local farmers, who are also organized for their own grievances against the company. The company has not yet rehabilitated all the farmers whose lands it occupied 25 years ago. Of the 38 farming families of Village Rawan which lost their land to this company, only 20 have received some form of compensation. The company has also failed to fulfill its promises of providing local employment and is accused by the villagers of illegally encroaching their “nistari” lands.

However, this joint struggle by farmers and contract workers for their lawful rights has resulted in a severe backlash of repression against their organizations. Over seventy-five of the most active union workers have lost their jobs at the factory in the past six months, and police cases were registered against 20 workers and farmers last year by simply labeling them as “criminal elements.” In January this year, Bhagwati Sahu, the leader of the local farmer’s movement was picked up from his house in the middle of the night, on the pretext that he incited villagers to riot after a company truck had crushed a 16-year old girl, when in fact, he wasn’t even at the scene of the accident. It was only after the contract workers spontaneously struck work at the plant that the police was forced to release him.

Attacks on Local Movements in the Context of Neoliberalism

The attacks on labour and farmers groups in the Ambuja plant are happening at a time when the cement industry in Chhattisgarh is booming, many more cement plants are coming up and there is an ever-increasing involvement of multinational companies in this sector. Initially cement was a controlled product with strict regulations on pricing and distribution, but the liberalization wave of the 1990s saw the entry of many foreign manufacturers in this industry. Riding on the concurrent wave of large-scale infrastructure projects, Indian cement industry has become a lucrative destination for global finance.

India is already the second largest cement manufacturer in the world, and its cement manufacturing capacity is expected to grow by leaps and bounds over the next few years. Approximately, 40% of the current cement production in India is done through multinational cement companies, of which Holcim is the largest.

The state of Chhattisgarh, with rich limestone deposits in the Raipur-Bilaspur belt, is poised to become the largest cement producing state in India. Currently, it has 7 cement plants with a total production capacity of 13.8 MTPA, but it plans to add over 100 MTPA capacity, which would result in total manufacturing capacity that is 51% of India’s current cement manufacturing capacity. Ironically, while the private sector in Chhattisgarh can’t have enough of cement, the public sector plant of the Cement Corporation of India at Mandhar (district Raipur) has been declared sick!

In this scenario, the Cement Wage Board Award (known as the Nevatia Award), a hard-won agreement between All India Cement Manufacturers Association and the central trade unions, becomes of crucial importance. According to this agreement, to which Ambuja Cement company (now, Holcim) is a signatory, no contract labour would be employed in cement manufacture at all, and even if such labour is employed, it would be limited to the loading and unloading of raw materials and packing, and would be paid at the same rate as the permanent workers.

The tragedy is that this landmark Award is being grossly and blatantly violated by all private cement plants in Chhattisgarh, including the multinational companies of Holcim and Lafarge, and the huge Indian company Ultratech, of the Aditya Birla group. The proportion of permanent workmen in Chhattisgarh cement plants is barely 10%. Holcim, which pays its European workmen $8 for every hour, pays their counterparts – the contract workers of Chhattisgarh -- a mere $2 for an entire day (a 32-fold difference)! It is small wonder that Holcim has closed down its Spanish plants, is preparing to close down plants in the US, while signing MOUs for several more plants in Chhattisgarh.

Farmers, organized under the banner of “Udyog Prabhavit Kisan Sangh” are strongly opposing the setting up of new cement plants. These farmers have faced displacement with paltry compensation and there is an almost universal violation of the State’s Rehabilitation Policy promising permanent employment to one family member per affected family. Today, the farmers also face a severe crisis of water for irrigation purposes since the water is getting diverted for industrial houses, and cement companies are encroaching on village commons – grazing grounds, roads, canals, and village ponds. Recently, a dam built for irrigation in Village Kukurdih was “acquired” for the purposes of Ultratech Cement, and more than 600 farmers in the villages of Guma and Pounsari are being coerced into giving their consent for mining, further stirring up an already agitated population.

The Union - and the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha - to which it is affiliated – have been determined supporters and organizers of the farmers struggle.

Attacks on Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha

Indeed there are many reasons why the CMM should earn the wrath of the state Government led by the pro-Hindutva Bharatiya Janata Party. This working class organization is trying to unite all workmen of the cement industry across union lines; and has been in the forefront of agitations against industrial accidents like the Balco (Vedanta) chimney collapse in which 41 workers were killed, or the Godavari Ispat incident in which 20 persons burnt to death. This group is an active constituent of various popular fronts like the Chhattisgarh Visthapan Virodhi Manch and Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan which have been agitating against the unprecedented displacement, loot of resources, destruction of environment, and deprivation of peasants, particularly the tribals due to unbridled industrialization. CMM played a key role the scrapping of a Special Industrial Zone that covered seven villages in Rajnandgaon district, and was in the forefront of the struggle to save five major bastis (slums) of Raipur from demolition. CMM has repeatedly exposed and strongly opposed the stranglehold which the corporations have established today over all democratic institutions, government departments, political leadership of all parties and the media.

CMM has resolutely raised its voice against the brutal ground-clearing operations of Salwa Judum in the Maoist affected district of Dantewada and the violation of civil liberties of ordinary adivasis and non-combatants during anti-Maoist operations by security forces. CMM played a key role in the organization of the Satyagraha for the release of the human rights defender and doctor - Dr. Binayak Sen, who himself had been associated with CMM in the past. Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj, a senior activist of CMM, also regularly takes up cases of many people’s organizations fighting for their democratic rights, and is the General Secretary of the Chhattisgarh branch of the Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties, a leading human rights organization in the state.

Given this history of defiance, it is not surprising that CMM has faced increasingly intense repression over the years. Thirty two CMM activists, including the legendary trade union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi, have lost their lives due to police firings or other industry-sponsored violence. More recently, attempts are being made by the state to identify CMM with the Naxalite (Maoist) movement, thus delegitimizing the organization. A couple of years ago, the DGP of Chhattisgarh - Mr Vishwaranjan wrote in an article that “Niyogi was the first Naxalite.” In response, CMM held a massive protest rally in Jamul, Bhilai – which is its stronghold - and he subsequently claimed his words had been misinterpreted.

A more serious incident occurred in October 2011, when police claimed that two Maoists had been killed in an encounter in the industrial basti of Jamul, close to CMM’s office and to the ACC cement plant (also a Holcim plant). CMM publicly raised serious questions about veracity of the police story, since all available indications showed that these two persons had been killed elsewhere and their bodies were simply dumped in Jamul by the police. It is widely suspected that the bodies were disposed off in Jamul only to provide the police and the Holcim Company with a pretext to create an atmosphere of terror in the area and cast vague allegations against the trade union movement. An independent Fact Finding team composed of various civil liberties organizations which visited Jamul in November 2010 vindicated the observations made by CMM. Till today the copy of the FIR registered in this incident has not been made public.

The present spate of false cases seems to be another attempt to crack down on CMM, which has proved to be a lively and well-rooted working class movement, playing an important role in solidarity with peasant struggles against displacement and with the civil liberties movement. We request you all to protest against the attempts to brutally suppress the workers movement by the multinational company Holcim, which is earning super profits from cheap labour and the loot of resources, with the connivance of the police and administration in Chhattisgarh.

Sudha Bharadwaj, Bansi Sahu, Lakhan Sahu, Kaladas Dehariya, Ramakant Banjare, Neera Dehariya, Kalyan Patel, Rajkumar Sahu, Shalini Gera.

On behalf of
Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakarta Committee)