Amidst the primarily agrarian setting of Kolkata’s outskirts, cavernous sheds built in the 1800s reverberate with the drone of machines as they press jute fibre into thread. On most days, gaunt men and women go about lifting bales of raw jute, feeding them to the machines and sorting them into yarns. But now, four of the mills stand empty, their entrances locked, following the murder of HK Maheshwari, the CEO of the Northbrook Jute Mill in Hooghly’s Bhadreshwar. On June 14, Maheshwari was beaten to death by factory workers demanding an increase in weekly working hours that would have allowed them more pay. In the aftermath of the murder, the lockout has put the 3,500 odd temporary and permanent workers at Northbrook out of a livelihood.
At the Phasua Bagan workers’ colony nearby, Dalu Singh, 60, leads us through muddy lanes to her one-room quarter where her ailing husband is sleeping on a charpoy. Once inside, she breaks down in tears. “The police took my son, Swapan, away on June 15. He is a durwan (guard) with the Northbrook jute mill and had finished his shift by 10.30 am. The incident happened later in the day. How can they blame him?” she asks.
The air reeks of fear at the colony which is inhabited mostly by jute mill workers of the area. The community tap is close to a flowing drain, the roofs perch perilously over the shanty and the padlocks on most Northbrook employee quarters are telling (“They have left for their village in Bihar”). Ganesh Chaudhury, 65, who worked with the Northbrook jute mill as the headmaster of their in-house school till early 2014, says he hasn’t received his gratuity yet. “Things have been steadily going bad with the place for a long time. The mill was closed for some time a few months ago. What are the workers supposed to do?” he asks.
“What are the owners supposed to do?” echoes Kalyan Mitra, CEO, Samnuggur Jute Factory, Bhadreshwar, sitting in his office in the sprawling mill. Mitra has been in the business for more than 33 years and says things have gone from bad to worse. “There is no denying that this is a dying industry, and to top it all, there are 20 different trade unions in our factory with various demands,” says Mitra.
Jute mills, however, were the foundational premise of the industrialisation in Bengal in the 19th century. “Calcutta in the late 19th century was a vast and thriving city. New investments in various industrial activities transformed the hitherto rural riverside regions of Howrah, Hooghly and 24 Parganas into a highly urbanised and densely populated area. Pivotal to this process of industrial activity was the growth of the jute industry. Jute mills stretched over an area continued…