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When the country was busy celebrating a century of Mahatma Gandhi’s earliest experiment with satyagraha at Champaran in April, two mill workers from a small town in east Champaran were staging a protest of their own — demanding unpaid wages for the last 134 months, they set themselves on fire. But no one heard their desperate pleas before their death.
Two months later, sugar mill workers from Motihari have assembled at Jantar Mantar to demand a CBI inquiry into the deaths of their fellow workers, Naresh Srivastava and Suraj Baitha.
“We had spread the word and informed all authorities about their protest yet no one helped us save Naresh and Suraj when they set themselves on fire on April 10,” said Vinod Singh, joint secretary of the Mazdoor Sangh Union. Instead, the group of 25 workers Thursday alleged, police forces came to the spot after the incident and fired at protesters, lathi-charged them and lobbed tear gas shells at them.
“The sugar mill company owes us a total of Rs 75 crore since it shut down in 2002. The owner is from one of the wealthiest industrial families in the country. That is why we have not been able to eke out our wages. No one is investigating the harassment we have been through after Naresh and Suraj set themselves on fire,” said 70-year-old Ram Chander Panit, rolling up his sleeves to show where a bullet had hit him.
Social activist and chairman of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, Swami Agnivesh, meanwhile, alleged that he had written to the ruling dispensation in Bihar, the BJP and several other political leaders, but in vain. “We have contacted many politicians and all of them promised help but nothing has been done so far. We demand a CBI inquiry into the deaths of the two workers,” he said.
The protesters said they travelled to Delhi, thwarting attempts by police and administration to keep them from taking trains to the capital. “Baitha’s wife, Maya Devi, and many workers were not allowed to board the train on Wednesday. Devi and her son will join us on Friday. We, who are here today, made it to Delhi after a lot of trouble, even hiding from police,” Manohar Manav, one of the social workers accompanying the mill workers, said.
Srivastava’s wife, Purnima Devi, alleged the police, politicians and the mill owner were working hand-in-glove to oppress workers and thwart a fair probe into her husband’s death. “When my husband’s body was being driven down to Motihari from a Patna hospital, where he had been admitted, I demanded that they drop us outside the mill, where all the workers had planned to gather to cremate my husband. But police lied to me and drove us to a ghat, where he was hurriedly cremated on April 12,” she said.
The workers also recounted how the sugar mill, spread across hundreds of acres had suddenly shut down in 2002, and had only opened intermittently when it was high sale season.
Wages including arrears, PF, gratuity and interest amounting to Rs 75 crore owed to 600 have not been paid to the workers. After many months of protests, the state facilitated a mediation between the workers and the owner in 2015 but the factory management went back on its word. District authorities, meanwhile, said the matter was under investigated by a Special Investigation Team.