Book Review

The Seamy Side of Success


In the minds of most economists, industrialists and supporters of liberalisation, globalisation etc., it is assumed that industry creates wealth for society and brings prosperity to its participants i.e. businessmen (read capitalists) and workers (read exploited). This myth has been propounded ad nauseam.

Marx had dwelt on the fact that industrialisation needed vast amounts of mercantile capital and this was possible only with a vast infusion of loot and plunder from the colonies.

It has also been bandied about that capitalism is an ethical and legal system. This myth was also exploded by all the utopian and scientific socialists, witness the enclosure movement whereby the shibboleth of feudalism that serfs were bound to the soil and could leave it only on pain of death, were forcibly pushed out by the lords to fill the expanding army of the urban unemployed.

Marx's England has come a long a way from his time and while her workers are still exploited, their working conditions are more human and less oppressive. Sadly, this is not so in India where the setting-up of any industry often brings untold misery and devastation to the area around, as well as extreme oppression and exploitation to the workers.

A case in point is the Hindalco Industry Ltd. at Renukoot town owned by the Birlas.

The occasion for a report by the PUDR was the collapsing of a portion of the wall of a fly-ash disposal pond on 10th April, 1996, after which tens of thousands of tonnes of ash-water sludge flooded the Rihand river valley. Several people are feared to have been killed in the accident.

It is ironic but true that a year earlier water had started seeping through the mud wall of the ash-pond. This fact was brought to the notice of the management on 15th March when a delegation from a nearby ashram met senior officials of the company, requesting them to take urgent measures as the seepage had increased. As late as a day prior to the accident, the same demand was also made.

The mud-wall formed the shortest route from the main road to plant-B of Hindalco and was therefore regularly used by the workers going to and from the factory.

As can be seen this is the typical scenario with all the ingredients of a formula disaster film. Let alone anything being done to prevent the accident, the management has been singularly callous, in that, for two days no official from Hindalco or the administration visited the site. No rescue operations were undertaken. When the PUDR team visited the site a month later, the SDM who was conducting the enquiry told them that officially no one had died.

Reading the Report one gets to see the typical way in which an industry is set up and where, instead of prosperity emanating, often there is absolute impoverishment of the countryside. All the promises of well-being aside, despite power being generated from this industry, most of the villages are devoid of the same; inspite of a large dam reservoir, the district has hardly any irrigation.

It is also a myth that a decision of this kind, whereby major factories are set up in the 'national' interest, see to the pros and cons of the project. Very often decisions are taken keeping in mind the profits that will accrue to the private companies, politicians in terms of votes or, to both in terms of taking over lands belonging to the poor and hapless peasants. Where there is resistance a 'national interest' clause is invoked and if that other-worldly ideal proves insufficient, sheer brute force in the form of the police, social bad elements, technology as in bulldozers come to the rescue of industrialists keen on serving the public weal.

Quite a few years back, the Director of the film, Damul which was to be telecast, was interviewed on Doordarshan. He pointed out that all the institutions built up for the benefit of the lower classes, the lower castes etc. were used by the upper class and the upper castes for their own enrichment and for the further oppression of the same people for whose benefit the institutions were created. Not surprisingly the lower castes still remain downtrodden. Sixty-five years after September, 1932 when the Poona Pact was signed the promises made to them have been belied.

This conspiracy is not only of omission but also of commission. The ethics, the legality in getting lands for the setting up for industry are suspect; after the setting up of industry, minimum working conditions are not provided to the workers. There is short-changing in remuneration, of safety standards, of workers' rights and when somebody points it out the resultant whiplash is swift and severe. Going through the PUDR Report makes one suspicious of any company which shows increasing profits over the years along with industrial peace. Any company which boasts of the two would bear looking into closely.

The Report is comprehensive while being objective. On various occasions where it could have overtly criticised the Hindalco Management, it has restrained itself as should any report on the Democratic Rights of any group.

It would have been useful if the report had given details of the existing trade unions along with their membership. It would also have been useful had it given production costs and profit details also. It would have been enlightening to know the export percentage of the profit and production.

A recent report (Economic Times, 6th May) indicates that the turn-over of the company in 1996-97 was Rs. 1,157 crores, of which the net profit was Rs. 390 crores. It also indicates that the drop in production from 1.75 lakhs tons in 1996 to 1.66 lakhs tons in 1997 (financial year) was due to a disruption in power supply in April, 1996 in the Renukoot plant. This rendered production inoperative for two months. It is not indicated in the Report what the disruption in power supply was due to.

A further report (Economic Times 9-15 May, 1997, Corporate Dossier Section) indicates that the Birla Group is speeding ahead with its plans for another Aluminium Company called Aditya Aluminium which would be a Rs. 10,000 crores company. This will be based in Orissa. It is clear that the Birlas are not fazed by any hiccups caused to any of their workers or whole sections thereof.

The Report needs to be seriously read, publicized, debated and acted upon to bring the culprits to book.

The Other of the Success Story is published by the People's Union for Democratic Rights, Delhi.

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