The arrival of Hindustan Machine Tools’ Kalamassery unit has had a defining impact on the way Kerala’s industrial history unfolded over the past 50 years.

As part of an engineering behemoth, which Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called the ‘jewel of the nation’, its arrival on Kerala’s shores could not but be taken notice of.

The aim of the ambitious HMT enterprise as a whole was “to manufacture mother machines to build modern industrial India”. A brief on the initial years of the company in the 1960s is in glowing terms. The success in those years in technology absorption and in production competence ahead of the time schedule prompted the company management to launch diversification and expansion drives, resulting in the duplication of the Bangalore unit. Units at Pinjore, Kalamassery and Hyderabad were the results of this optimism and vision.

V.K. Iyer, who was the general manager of the Kalamassery unit (1967-70) told The Hindu on Thursday that the HMT unit here was the result of an initiative by M.K. Mathulla, the first managing director of the HMT conglomerate.

Mr. Iyer recalled the times when investors confronted great difficulties in Kerala. But Mr. Mathulla took a risk and showed the world that the investment here was a profitable one. The first issue was locating sufficient land and the State government was quick in responding by providing 950 acres in 1964.

Mr. Iyer, who now takes free classes on Thanjavur painting from his home in Chennai, bubbled with enthusiasm when asked about his first years in Kochi after arriving here with Kalamassery unit’s first general manager J.K. Yesudasan.

He vividly remembers the Moplah kalasis, a group of traditional experts in loading and unloading heavy objects, who did all the work on the heavy equipment without using even cranes. “They simply used their intelligence and planning”, said Mr. Iyer over the telephone.

He also remembered how the HMT unit here turned out to be the best of the crop though some troubles set in later, dragging the company’s operations down.

The setting up of the HMT unit had a cascading effect. A whole lot of new businesses imbibed strength from the concept of advanced engineering and rapidly grew around the HMT unit since its inauguration in 1966. The most prominent bus stop on National Highway 47 after Ernakulam used to be HMT Junction. The reputation remains intact to this day despite the travails of the unit and the fact that the new generation may hardly be aware of the great drama that unfolded on the State’s industrial stage on account of its arrival here.

The decline in the HMT unit’s fortunes has been quite dramatic too. The total employee strength has come down from over 3,500 at its peak to the current 362 on the rolls. “Constant shortage of working capital is the most serious problem confronting the unit”, said an official.

But this has not prevented the unit from making record profits last financial year. The unit with its machine tools and printing machines division, made a net profit of Rs. 2.25 crore last financial year. The profit during the previous financial year was Rs. 40 lakh.

Despite repeated recommendations by the BRPSE for provision of Rs. 75 crore as working capital, there has been no action on the recommendation so far. Employee morale is not at its best with them still drawing salaries fixed in 1992.

A group of employees, under the banner of HMT Employees’ Union, CITU, has been on a relay hunger strike for the past 1,365 days, starting January 1, 2010, demanding the induction of professional management, revision of salaries and wages and raising of the pension age to 60 from the current 58 years.

They have backed their demands citing the bright future the unit can have considering India’s dependence on import of machine tools. India produces just about Rs. 300 crore worth of machine tools while the market demand is for about Rs. 3,000 crore, said an office-bearer of the employees’ union on Thursday.

The present conditions can change significantly at Kalamassery if there is sufficient working capital, said a senior official of the unit.

G.K. Pillai, who headed the unit for a year in 2011, said that his experience was that HMT unit in Kalamassery was marked by high skill level employees and commitment on their part. However, the unit needs strong leadership and discipline.

More In: Kochi