Cachar Paper Mill
Spread over an area of around 3,000 bighas, the Cachar Paper Mill is located at Panchgram in Hailakandi district

SILCHAR: Life for 59-year-old Debabrata Nath has been nothing less than a nightmare for the past couple of years. His only daughter Rituparna died of cancer two years ago, at the age of 24. His son Deboshri has been in a paralysed condition since then.

An employee of southern Assam’s Cachar Paper Mill, Debabrata has been passing his days helplessly and hopelessly after the mill, which used to be the only source of his livelihood, was shut down suddenly in October 2015. Things became worse when his salary was stopped after about one year of the mill’s closure.

Debabrata, who was the sole earner in his family, lives with his wife and son at 2nd Link Road in Silchar. A few years ago, he started working as a stenographer at a local institute to manage his household expenses, but he lost that job during the first nationwide lockdown in 2020 in view of the coronavirus pandemic. 

At present, he is somehow making ends meet by using little money he had saved during his last job and by the financial help he gets from relatives at times. Altogether, an uncertain future is hovering over him and his family.

Numerous employees of the mill, which is the only industry in the industrially-backward Barak Valley, have similar woeful tales to tell. Some have even lost their children after not being able to afford their medical treatment because of the financial crisis, and many had to stop their kids’ education, while many others had to sell their property to run their families after the industrial unit was shut.

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Located at Panchgram in Hailakandi district and spread over an area of around 3,000 bighas, the Cachar Paper Mill had 600-member strong staff. It was, however, associated with the livelihoods of lakhs of people in this valley, including the mill’s employees, contractual workers, bamboo and limestone suppliers, vehicle drivers and others along with their families. The mill’s employees have not received their salaries for the past 62 months. 

Cachar Paper Mill employee Debabrata Nath (right) with his wife and son

Talking to EastMojo, Debabrata said life had really been very tough and painful for him and his family, especially over the past two years of the pandemic. 

“I lost my daughter Rituparna, who was suffering from cancer, in 2020. I could do nothing to save her because of the financial crunch. I have a son, who had suffered a heart attack prior to my daughter’s death and has been on medication since then,” he said.

Debabrata said he does not know what will happen to him and his family if the government does not pay his dues soon. “Almost all my savings are finished. Relatives, too, cannot help forever. I am afraid to imagine what will happen to me and my family in the future,” he said.

Did he try finding any other job? He contacted a few people, he said, but luck has not been on his side. Debabrata Nath said he appeals to Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma for necessary steps so that the dues of the mill’s employees are remitted soon.

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President of the Joint Action Committee of Recognised Unions (JACRU) of the two mills, Manabendra Chakraborty, told EastMojo that the mill’s closure in 2015 was a “bolt from the blue” for its employees and many are yet to come to terms with it. “No one had expected that the mill, which was once a profit-making industry, would get closed. Even the day before the mill was closed, it had produced around 298 tons (i.e. 99 per cent of the total production),” he said.

He said most of the mill’s employees were middle-aged at the time of the mill’s closure, and as such, there were very few chances of them getting jobs anywhere else. Moreover, Barak Valley did not have any other industry, which made the situation even more difficult for the mills’ employees as far as their chances of getting employed were concerned, he said, adding that the situation for the Nagaon Paper Mill’s employees, in comparison to the Cachar Paper Mill’s employees, was “bit better” as there are some employment avenues and industries in that part of the state.

Manabendra Chakraborty, president of the Joint Action Committee of Recognised Unions (JACRU) of Assam’s Cachar and Nagaon paper mills

Chakraborty spoke about the death of 101 employees of the two paper mills at Cachar and Nagaon and held the BJP government responsible for all the deaths. 

“101 employees have died since the mills were closed, mostly because of their inability to afford medical treatment despite suffering from various critical ailments. The situation is getting tougher and tougher for the other mill employees. All the employees and their family members will have to die in this tragic way if the dues are not paid soon,” he told EastMojo.

Dipak Chandra Nath, the general secretary of the Cachar Paper Mill Officers and Supervisors’ Association, told EastMojo that the mill’s closure had severely affected the economic growth of Barak Valley. The mill, which catered to the large-scale paper needs across India and also exported paper abroad, will give a much-needed fillip to the economy in this valley if revived, he said.

Also Read | Assam Cabinet sanctions Rs 375 cr to bid for taking over assets of closed HPCL units

Recounting the plight of the mill’s employees and their families, he referred to an incident from January 2020, when Cachar Paper Mill employee Liakat Ali’s daughter Umma Kusuma, along with a few other children, had begged on the streets to arrange money for their education. He added that all the mill’s employees and their family members would be compelled to beg on the streets if the government did not clear their dues soon.

Arup Chakraborty, another employee of the mill who worked as a highly-skilled technician (instrumentation), said nothing has been done to alleviate their pathetic situation despite the many promises made about the mills’ revival and payment of dues to its employees by many leaders of the ruling BJP, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and present chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. 

“They (BJP leaders) have been making promises and doing nothing in reality. How are we going to survive?” he asked.

And the Covid-19 pandemic only exacerbated their condition with an “abnormal” spike in prices of commodities. 

“We were suffering already because of the financial crisis and then came the Covid-19 pandemic all of a sudden. Everything was in a mess for months,” he said. Arup, who is the only earning member in his family, lives in Silchar with his wife and elderly parents.

Also Read | Kerala paper plant’s revival sparks hope for 2 defunct mills in Assam

Azizur Rahman Mazumder, another mill employee who is also the general secretary of the Cachar Paper Project Workers and Employees’ Union, said Barak Valley has no industry or other employment avenues where they could have worked after the mill was closed. 

“The valley has always been industrially-backward, because of which unemployment is a major issue here. Had there been other industries, the employees and workers of Cachar Paper Mill could have got jobs,” he said.

Former All India Congress Mahila president and present Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha MP from West Bengal Sushmita Dev told EastMojo that the condition of the two paper mills of Assam testifies the lies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

“The government, in a planned way, had this profit making industry (Cachar Paper Mill) go bankrupt. Only 92 lakh was owed to the creditor who filed for liquidation. The government is now selling it for peanuts. This is backdoor privatisation of a valuable asset,” Dev asserted.

Congress MLA of Karimganj North assembly constituency Kamalakhya Dey Purkayastha slammed the BJP government saying that they had been making “fake” promises to the masses in Barak Valley over the years about reviving the mill for its political benefits and nothing else.

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“All they (BJP leaders) know is to hoodwink people with false assurances and gain their trust to win elections,” he said.

He also came down heavily on the BJP government, saying the saffron party had failed to bring industrial development in Barak Valley even though it had made umpteen promises about the same over the years.

Silchar BJP legislator Dipayan Chakraborty said the BJP government is aware about the plight of the mill’s employees and efforts were being made to resolve the issue. “Hopefully, the matter will reach a positive conclusion very soon,” he said.

It may be mentioned that chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had signed an agreement with various unions of the Cachar Paper Mill on September 28, 2021, as per which a relief package of Rs. 570 crore was to be disbursed for payment of dues of the two paper mills’ employees within two month. But, the payment has not been cleared so far.

After a Cabinet meeting in Guwahati last week, minister Pijush Hazarika had told reporters that the Assam cabinet had allocated an amount of Rs. 375 crore for participating in the bidding to take over assets of the Cachar and Nagaon paper mills and a leasehold land of the HPC in Haflong. The minister also said the dues of the mills’ employees would be cleared within three months.

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