The two boards, paint chipping off them, drip with irony. One board reads, “Kaam bandi kisi ke liye hitkar nahin (Stopping work doesn’t help anyone)”. The other says, “The plant maintains you, you maintain the plant”. Inside the once mighty Motipur Sugar Mill, now full of foliage, snakes and rotting equipment, these boards almost mock its erstwhile workers, still waiting for pay. They also tell a story not only of the absence of new industry in Bihar, but the rotting away of the ones standing.
Spread over a 115-acre campus, the Motipur Sugar Mill began as a private enterprise in 1933. In 1980, it was taken over by the Bihar State Sugar Corporation (BSSC), and by 1998, its operations shut for good. In 2011, the mill was leased to Indian Potash Limited, but the matter has been challenged in court.
In the process, says Ram Parvesh Rai, secretary of the workers’ union who worked at the mill for over two decades, over a thousand of them have been left fighting for their dues for 22 years, clinging to the hope that the mill will reopen. “At least Rs 30-35 crore is owed to the over one thousand seasonal contracted staff, and the 113 permanent staff.”
The Motipur Sugar Mill is symptomatic of the failure of Bihar to encourage industry, as well as the collapse of its once thriving sugar mills. Around the time the BSSC took over the Motipur mill, Bihar accounted for 30% of the country’s sugar production, and 28 functional sugar mills. It has now come down to less than 5% of the production, and has 10 mills.
At the beginning of this Assembly’s term, 2015-16, when the industrial sector grew at 7.1%, it contributed only 19% of the Gross State Domestic Product.
This was far below the national average of 30%. While rising since then, the sector’s contribution was still only around 20% in 2017-18. At the end of 2016-17, only about 2,900 of Bihar’s estimated 3,531 factories were operational, employing on an average 40 people each. The national average is nearly double, 77 workers. The average salary per annum per worker in Bihar then was Rs 1.2 lakh, again less than half of the national average of Rs 2.5 lakh.
The Motipur mill falls under Baruraj Assembly seat, currently represented by Nand Kumar Rai, a JD(U) leader who contested on RJD symbol as part of the Mahagathbandhan in 2015 and is now standing on an RJD ticket again. On October 28, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to address a rally in the area.
The constituency votes in the second phase of polls on November 3.
As they take a round of the deserted mill premises, workers carry sticks, “against snakes, even jackals”, says Mohammad Usman. Water is collected in pools with mosquito swarms over them across a narrow gauge rail line running through the premises. Four rail engines that once carried goods in and out have had their metal stolen over the years. “I am owed at least Rs 3 lakh,” says Manmohan Bhagat, who used to be a seasonal labourer at the mill, working the rest of the year in his sugarcane field.
With the mill shut, farmers like him havegiven up sugarcane farming. “I sow paddy, for which I don’t earn as much. This factory would process 1,250 quintals a day. When there are floods or drought, like this year, I had money from the mill to fall back on,” Bhagat says.
“The entire economy of the region has fallen apart,” Rai says, talking of a market that once used to thrive near the mill compound. “Motipur became a nagar panchayat because of the mill. Now there are shops, but nobody has money to buy anything.”
Every poll cycle, there are promises to revive the mills. In 2005, incumbent CM Nitish Kumar made one such promise standing on Motipur mill’s grounds. “He said he would get prosperity to Muzaffarpur by reopening the mill. He said he would never ask for votes here again if he didn’t. But he hasn’t,” Bhagat says, adding that MLA Nand Kumar has done nothing other than raise the matter in the Vidhan Sabha twice. “He doesn’t even meet us.”
So, on election day, apart from a hope for revival of the mill, their vote will be decided on other factors, including caste. The union leader Rai, who belongs to the Yadav community, says, “We thought about voting NOTA, but what is the point of that? I might vote for Tejashwi because he is talking of opening up industries. Aadmi aasha ki taraf hee naa jayega (A person can be drawn only by hope, no)?”
However, a worker who belongs to the Kushwaha community, points out that the factory shut down during Lalu Prasad’s time. “Nitish too never gave any money.” As the community’s tallest leader, Upendra Kushwaha, spearheads a “third front”, the worker says, “I will vote for NDA. If I thought Tejashwi would do something, I may have changed my mind.”
As preparations are made for Modi’s visit, Rai points said that they had voted for Modi in the 2014 as well as 2019 Lok Sabha polls. “We thought the son of a poor person would understand us. But in six years, we are still where we were. If he is coming here, with folded hands, we ask him to take up our problems.”
Behind him a voice, from under the two boards, says, “No one will do anything. We have no trust left in anyone.”