People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXIII

No. 42

October 18, 2009

Horrors of Privatisation Come out

CITU Probe Finds BALCO Management Guilty

 

Dharmaraj Mahapatra

 

THE Chhattisgarh state committee of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) has termed as the horrible face of privatisation the recent incident in which an under-construction chimney at the Bharat Aluminium Company (BALCO) in Korba district came down crashing. The CITU has held the BALCO (Sterlite Group) management squarely guilty for the tragedy that claimed the life of a number of workers.

On September 30, the CITU state secretary released the report of a CITU probe into the incident at a press conference at Raipur, the state capital.

According to the report, it was at about 3.45 p m on September 23 that the under-construction concrete chimney at the BALCO’s new power plant, proposed to be 275 metres high, came down. It was being built by the Gannon Dunkerley & Company Ltd (GDCL). At the time of the tragedy, 50 to 60 workers were at work in the other part of the chimney and more than a 100 on the internal and external parts of the structure. The situation was such that these workers had had very little chances or time to escape. The chimney came down on the nearby canteen and office, and the people working there were also trapped in the debris.

One notes that when the BJP led National Democratic Alliance was in power at the centre, it sold 51 per cent shares of the BALCO to the Sterlite group for a pittance, riding roughshod over the resistance put up by the CITU and the entire trade union movement. Now, after the Sterlite took over the company’s management, they began to violate various labour laws with impunity, callously ignore the safety standards, and recruit on a large scale contract workers, most of whom are outside workers. The CITU regularly fought against these practices but neither the BALCO management nor the local administration displayed any sincerity.    

Resulting from these practices, the BALCO mishap was the biggest industrial mishap in the country in the recent times. Though 41 bodies had been recovered by the time this report came in, no one can be sure about the exact number of casualties till the debris is fully cleared. Yet, the estimate was that the number of the dead could reach up to 150. It was also fear that the management could try to tamper with the casualty figures in order to lessen the gravity of its crime.

The facts gathered from the accident site show that the mishap occurred due to the use of substandard construction materials and substandard technique. Both the Sterlite group and the GDCL are responsible for this accident or tragic death of workers or massacre, whatever one may like to call it. In fact, it is their callousness that took such a heavy toll in terms of the workers’ lives. The CITU union in the BALCO has been constantly warning the management about the substandard materials being used and other mistakes being committed. But they constantly ignored these warnings and continued to violate the safety norms.

It is further to be noted that the Sterlite management also sought to expedite the pace of chimney construction in utter disregard of the relevant norms. Led by its state president Ajit Lal, the delegation of the CITU collected several facts from the accident site, and some of these facts are heart-rending. The team found out that there was kept no proper record of the workers. Identification of the dead bodies was very difficult because of their dismemberment. All this only stressed the seriousness of the crime and the horror of the situation, caused by privatisation.  

According to the information collected, only 90 piles were used in the foundation of the chimney under construction, while the public sector National Thermal Power Corporation uses 350 to 400 piles in constructing a comparable kind of chimney. The iron rods used in it were found to be of 18 to 20 mm thickness while the height of the proposed chimney demanded iron rods of 30 to 35 mm thickness. Nor was enough water used in curing the constructed parts of the proposed structure.

When the CITU team visited the accident site, only 25 per cent of the debris had been removed. But, even then, the BALCO management was conspicuous by its absence.

The management has announced a compensation of Rs 5 lakh for the family of each worker killed. This is totally inadequate.

Through a statement, CITU general secretary Mohd Amin demanded action against those guilty for the mishap and re-nationalisation of the BALCO. Dipankar Mukherhee, CITU national secretary and a former member of parliament, wrote a letter to the union mining minister Vijay Kumar Handique and labour minister Mallikarjun Kharage to demand that the government must use its powers to immediately take the management of BALCO in its hands, take steps to re-nationalise the company and severely punish all those responsible for the tragedy.

It is a matter of great shame that despite having 49 per cent of the BALCO shares, the government has kept mum over such a ghastly tragedy. The CITU has severely criticised this attitude of the government and demanded the company’s re-nationalisation. When the union home minister P Chidambaram visited Raipur to discuss the Naxalite problem with the state government, he did not think it necessary to say a single word about such a big tragedy. This only brings to light the real face of the Congress led central government.

As for the BJP government of Chhattisgarh, chief minister Raman Singh did visit the accident site, but did nothing further. It has been come to knowledge that no permission was taken from the administration for constructing the chimney under construction. So the question is; Who was colluding with the management in this construction? Why did the administration fail to take note of this construction? Why did they not act against such an illegal construction? Will the state government take any action against the administrative officials who are responsible for this deliberate neglect? The chief minister has not given any reply to such questions, presumably because he also is known to be in league with the BALCO management. While the state government has instituted a judicial enquiry into this tragedy, the Congress was demanding only a CBI probe. But the CITU’s categorical opinion was that any such enquiry is meaningless while the present management continuous to control the BALCO. This also requires that the centre must immediately take over the management and move to re-nationalise the BALCO.

The CITU’s demands in regard to this horrendous tragedy are as below:

1) Institution of criminal cases against the management and all other persons responsible for it.                           

2) Rs 15 lakh compensation for the family of each worker killed and also for each workers rendered handicapped by the incident.

3) Job for one family member of each such worker on compassionate grounds.

Immediately after the tragedy occurred, CITU state secretary S N Banerjee, B L Netam, Ansari and the dedicated cadres of the CITU union in BALCO rushed into the rescue and relief operations; they have also been active in consoling the bereaved families and trying to secure all possible help for them. Rescuing those trapped in the debris and rushing help to the affected families were the first priority for the CITU. It also appealed to the workers in other parts of the state to organise help for the affected families, stage solidarity actions with the BALCO workers and demand action against the BALCO management.

The CITU is of the firm opinion that the BALCO tragedy was a manmade tragedy, perpetrated by the management’s callous attitude and greed for profit. It warned the state government and the management that any attempt to tamper with the casualty figures would not be tolerated.

The CITU probe team included Ajit Lal, S N Banerjee, Sujeet Sharma, Rajesh Sharma and B L Netam, among others.