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Closing factories, losing jobs

Parvathi MENON

Sunday 28 March 2004, by MENON*Parvathi

in Bangalore

WITH the drought, debt and hunger driving rural peasants to suicide, is the feel good factor an urban phenomenon fuelled by the boom in Information Technology?

The IT industry is the country’s fastest growing sector, which billed revenues of Rs.117 billion (11,700 crores) in 2002-2003. Official estimates of the number of jobs created in the IT sector for Karnataka alone are in the region of 1.85 lakhs, a figure expected to touch two lakhs by the end of 2004. The majority of these jobs are in Bangalore. In Bangalore too are the largest number of jobs lost in the industrial sector, particularly in the once flourishing State public sector units which have been or are in the process of being closed or privatised by the State government in a conscious policy decision.

"Shining, did you say?" asks B.Rajaram, an ex-worker at NGEF, once Karnataka’s most prestigious and profitable State public sector company. "The politicians are shining. There is nothing for us workers," he said. Rajaram, who was machine operator earning a monthly salary of Rs.6,800, opted for the Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) that preceded the closure of the company in December 2002. As an employee he received free medical facilities for himself and his family, and free canteen and bus services. In his VRS settlement he received just Rs.72,000 after loan deductions. His three children were below 12 when he lost his job. He now sells peanuts in front of the factory gate, earning Rs.50 a day. Rajaram is one of 6,500 NGEF employees who, seeing the writing on the wall, had but to take voluntary retirement. They have received compensation ranging from Rs.50,000 to Rs.2.5 lakhs.

Of the original workforce, 119 employees have refused to accept the VRS package and are fighting a legal battle in the Karnataka High Court for a better VRS settlement. Machamma is one among them. She put in 21 years of service as an accountant in the company and was earning Rs.10,000 a month at the time of closure. Her husband is too ill to work and her two daughters are studying. "I have had to borrow for subsistence and am in debt for almost four and a half lakh rupees," she said softly as she brushed away her tears. She has not been able to find a job, and now pins her hope in her college-going daughter who intends to start working after her degree.

"About three lakh workers have lost their jobs in Karnataka since liberalisation started in 1991. Of these at least two lakh were during Prime Minister Vajpayee’s `Shining India’ period," said V.J.K Nair, president of the State unit of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). "There is nothing shining in the lives of the 4,000 workers, 80 per cent of them Dalits, who lost their jobs when the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) was closed. It was a company for which we gave several viable recovery proposals to the government. Nor is it shining for the workers of companies like Mysore Lamp Works Ltd, Mysore Kirloskar, NGEF, or textile mills like Binny Mills, Mysore Mills or Minerva Mills. All these companies have closed down or are on the verge of doing so," he said. Mysore Lamp Works which once "lit the streets of urban India with its sodium vapour lamps" according to V.J.K. Nair, was closed in May 2003. While, 1,046 workers applied for VRS, 523 refused to accept the scheme. According to official statistics, the decline in public and private sector employment in manufacturing in Karnataka has been from 6.25 lakhs in 1997 to 6.01 lakhs in 2001. Twenty seven State enterprises have already been closed or will shortly be closed or privatised as part of a comprehensive restructuring programme by the Karnataka government to meet the terms and conditionalities of the $250 -million Economic Restructuring Loan from the World Bank.

Karnataka’s growth rate in the second half of the 1990s was around 8 per cent, much of it in what are seen as frontier areas of industrial development like Information Technology and biotechnology. Its growth has, therefore, been largely driven by private capital. This has, however, been accompanied by a stagnation in employment, the growth of rural and urban poverty, a shrinking workforce in the organised sector, and the growth of an unorganised workforce. As a city that has grown primarily in the era of liberalisation, the high-tech gloss of Bangalore conceals an urban reality where unprecedented levels of wealth and poverty coexist.

The Ambedkar Slum Dwellers Colony in Gangenhalli is one among the 733 slums of the city listed in the 2001 Census. The slum’s 85 families, all Tamils, are mainly employed in the tar-laying industry in the city. A young worker, Marimuthu, was recently crushed to death when the road roller he was driving went out of control, plunged down a slope, and toppled over, trapping him underneath. "At least eight workers from this slum have died in the last 10 years in work-related accidents," said Dasarathan, president of the Gangenahalli branch of the Karnataka State Construction Workers Central Union (KSCWCU). Union office-bearers negotiated a compensation of Rs.85,000 to be paid to Marimuthu’s family by the man who contracted his services.

"Marimuthu did not have a licence, and the vehicle did not have a registration number, which is why we are not filing a case under the Workman’s Compensation Act in court," said S. Jeevanand of the KSCWCU.

"Although we have been fighting for separate legislation to be enacted at the Centre and in the State for unorganised workers, the governments have been unresponsive," he added.

For the thousands of casual workers of the city - constructions workers from drought-hit areas working on the city’s flyovers and roads, domestic workers, petty vendors, head-load workers, child workers, rag pickers, flower sellers and people in a host of other marginal occupations - there are no employment certainties, and the promised legislation for the unorganised sector has not been enacted by the Central or State governments.

"The union has helped us get a number of amenities like water, roads and lighting in our slum," Murthy, a young resident of the slum, told Frontline. "But for people like us - who are seen as low-caste and uneducated workers - there has been no improvement in our lives in the last few years. Elections are near, and perhaps that is why they need to say that India is shining."

See online : Frontline


in Frontline, Volume 21 - Issue 05, February 28 - March 12, 2004.

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