Assam: APOL, the forgotten fabric of society
Guwahati: If you belonged to the mid-1990s, you'd have definitely heard about APOL Fabrics. Assam Polyester Ltd -- or APOL in short -- was a household name when it came to home accessories or clothing items such as shirts, trousers, bed sheets and curtains, among a host of others.
APOL Fabrics held a large market share in major cities across India, and not just in Assam, in its initial years.
But that was till about a decade ago.
“APOL was enjoying a very good market and also the product they had manufactured at that time was one of the best in India. It was a very good organisation initiated by the state cooperative sector It was working nicely and enjoying the benefit spreading its wing not only Assam but around the Northeastern region,” said Pobitro Buragohain, president of Federation of Industry & Commerce of North Eastern Region (FINER).
Initially, there were 1,500 employees of which 1,000 were direct employees and 500 were indirect. “We were able to grab the markets outside Assam, including markets in Mumbai, showrooms across the cities and leading companies like ‘Goenka’ also manufactured their products here. Clothes for the state administrative authorities and military uniforms were also manufactured by APOL,” said Kanuram Kaita, president of APOL Employees’ Association.
APOL was started by the then Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government in Assam in 1986, employing about 1,500 people in a composite mill of spinning, dyeing, sizing, weaving and manufacturing of textile materials and supply of yarn to weavers.
Although APOL products were initially accepted in the market and soon became a household name, they could not sustain due to liberalisation post 1995. They failed to compete in the market due to the presence of big textile manufacturers. Also, APOL could not utilise its installed capacity due to shortage of working capital.
Due to various reasons, APOL Mill suspended its production of December 25, 2003, particularly due to lack of funds. Although the spinning mill was again revived on June 1, 2006 with limited manpower and funds from the state government, operations had to be suspended again on December 31, 2016.
APOL Mill was destroyed by the Congress government, there was no working capital and the machines were getting damaged. When the Congress government was in power, machines worth crores were sold by the management of APOL after which they left and because of which today it is facing this,” said Assam minister and Rangia MLA Bhabesh Kalita.
Protests by mill workers
On November 26, over 400 protesters from APOL blocked National Highway 127 D connecting Rangia in Assam with neighbouring Bhutan. This was after employees sat on a 12-hour fast demanding revival of the mill a few days ago.
These employees have not received salaries for almost 1,000 days now. The government has assured several times that the mill would be revived soon but nothing concrete has happened on the ground so far. Some of them have now even threatened to self-immolate if their demands are not met.
Following suspension of operations, for nearly three years now, APOL workers have been pressing for their demands before the state and central governments to revive the mill. They have also been seeking clearance for payment of their pending salaries at the earliest.
Apart from blocking roads, gheraoing offices and holding a series of demonstrations, irate workers of APOL from Tulsibari locality of Rangia and its adjoining areas have been criticising the various policies of both the Centre and the state government in reviving the mill. The agitating employees have also submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal over the issue but their issues have fallen on deaf ears so far.
“The government can either rescue us from this situation or kill by shooting us here itself. Till date no one from the higher administration could commit us with a specific date as to when the mill will start functioning. We will continue with our protest until someone can confirm us,” said Kanuram Kalita, president of APOL Employees’ Association, adding: “We have submitted several memoranda to the DC’s office and the circle office but we haven’t received any response so far.”
Things have come to such a pass that due to non-payment of salaries for about three years now, employees and their families have been compelled to do odd jobs for survival. While some families are having a tough time to pay their bills, several others are spending sleepless nights over their children’s education.
Failing to get respite from their ongoing financial crises, three former employees of the mill have allegedly committed suicide. Few others died due to diseases after they failed to meet their medical expenses.
After facing strong protests from the company’s stakeholders, including its employees, Bidyagarh Anchalik Students' Union and residents of Rangia, Assam government in a cabinet meeting on March 7, 2018 decided to release a total of Rs 1012.74 lakh (about Rs 10.13 crore) for revival of APOL but so far it has remained only on paper.
CM Sarbananda Sonowal with initiatives from Assam finance and health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma too released a separate amount of Rs 12 crore under VRS to offer financial support to APOL workers.
However, the state government has released only about Rs 462.12 lakh (about Rs 4.62 crore) out of the total proposed revival amount so far. This helped in paying off two months of pending salaries of APOL workers this year.
Team EastMojo met experts from spun yarn industries, among others, to dig out the root cause of the problems. They pointed out several reasons behind the current state-of-affairs. Politicians blamed each other for their laidback attitude in decision-making and overall management.
Some of them pointed out to a lack of long-term planning in decisions, others tried to bring in controversies.
Blaming the state government for their condition, employees revealed that despite several attempts the government refused to appoint a permanent director at APOL or a permanent financial adviser and general manager.
They further alleged that the state authorities always forced extra workload on the director due to which important matters of the mill remained unsolved.
After not receiving any favourable response the government despite their repeated meetings with different political leaders, including ministers, local MLA, etc, on several occasions, frustrated APOL workers have now threatened to go for mass public self-immolation if the state government fails to take initiatives to solve their demands within 15 days.