Industry

The saga of jailed Maruti Suzuki workers

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“We are neither permanent workers nor temporary workers. We had nothing to do with the union.”

The first of the jailed workers I meet at the Gurgaon District and Sessions Court is Raj Kishen, a chubby, soft-spoken young man in his mid-twenties. He looks distracted, a bit lost, more Joseph K than the stereotype of a militant worker. I ask about the charges against him. He rattles off some numbers, “302, 147, 148, 149, 452, 307, 436, 332, 353, 114, 381, 382…” These are sections of the Indian Penal Code. “There are supposed to be 18 of them,” he says. But he could remember only 12.

Mr. Kishen, like the vast number of non-permanent workers at Maruti’s Manesar plant, is an Industrial Training Institute (ITI) product. The 2-year Mechanic Motor Vehicle course is a much sought after one. One of its attractions is the opportunity to do a 1-year apprenticeship at a factory. This apprenticeship was a win-win: the student gets valuable work experience, and the company gets cheap labour. (Mr. Kishen said he was paid Rs. 6,000 a month by Maruti.)

Mr. Kishen finished his 2-year course at ITI, Hassangarh, and joined Maruti’s Manesar plant as an apprentice in 2011. He worked on the chassis line. His job was to inspect and mark the exhaust pipe and brake switch of the Maruti Swift hatchback. “I worked on 450-480 cars a day, we had about 50 seconds per car,” he says.

Career trajectory

Mr. Kishen’s erstwhile prison companion, Satish Kumar, is a slender young man with a thick voice. His career trajectory is similar to Mr. Kishen’s, except that he was an apprentice from ITI, Rohtak. “I worked in B-plant, fitting latches and glass on the rear doors of Maruti Swift,” says Mr. Kumar. “I did around 450 cars a day.”

Both Mr. Kishen and Mr. Kumar had started working at Maruti around the same time. “We had less than one month of our apprenticeship left,” says Mr. Kumar. “Why would we get involved in this trouble?” I ask them if they would have got an increment, or become permanent workers if they had managed to complete their apprenticeship. “No,” says Mr. Kumar. “We would have been dismissed.” Instead of a job, they would have received a certificate from Maruti stating they had done their apprenticeship at its Manesar plant. “We are neither permanent workers nor temporary workers. We had nothing to do with the union. We were not even present where this incident happened. We are just apprentices,” says Kumar. “Why were we arrested? Why are we on trial?”

Plant A

So what did they see that night? “I came to know about it only after it was all over,” Mr. Kumar says. “I was working in B-plant. Everything happened in A-plant. There was an announcement asking everybody to move out. When I came out, I saw police vans approaching. Everybody was running. I also ran. I flagged down a Suzuki Powertrain bus to take a lift. The police stopped the bus at Farrukhnagar and arrested all the workers wearing a Maruti uniform – I was one of them.”

Mr. Kishen has a similar story. “I didn’t even know I would be arrested until I was,” he says. “At first, I was told I’d be let off after questioning. But they put my name on the charge sheet, and kept me in jail for more than two years.”

I ask them about their days in jail, and for the first time, Mr. Kishen’s face becomes animated. “I was home sick,” he says. “I missed my mother and brothers. I spent many days crying.”

Prison food

Mr. Kishen and Mr. Kumar seem traumatised by the prison food. They can’t stop talking about it. “The rotis were either uncooked, half-cooked or burnt,” says Mr. Kishen. “They had hair, jute fibre, and God knows what else in them. The dal was so watery you could not find a particle of dal in it.” Mr. Kumar takes over: “We thought the cooks had undergone special training to prepare bad prison food. Not even animals would eat it.” Then how did you manage, I ask. “Even in prison, we were spending Rs. 8,000-10,000 a month from our own pocket,” says Mr. Kumar. “That’s how we managed.”

Though both got bail in March this year, they have to keep marking attendance at the Gurgaon District and Sessions Court. Neither have been able to land a job. “I tried at Hero Honda in Gurgaon, I tried at H&G, I have also tried at a couple of other places. Everywhere they see the case against me and turn me down,” says Mr. Kumar.

Mr. Kishen is despondent. “Zindagi barbaad kardi hamari toh” [They have ruined my life], he says. “Two years of my ITI have gone waste. My one year apprenticeship has gone waste. Two years wasted in jail. One year wasted looking for a job. I have been robbed of six years of my life.”

A crowd of black coats swarm out of Court No 3. The hearing is over. Workers’ families and a handful of scribes scamper to have a word with the defence counsel, Vrinda Grover. “Certain aspects of the defence have not been put to the prosecution witnesses.” she says. “So we have moved an application for recall of some of the prosecution witnesses.”

Both Mr. Jagbir and Mr. Satbir have some questions about their wards’ bail plea. Will they get bail any time soon? When will this case end? Can they really hope for justice? But their lawyers have no definite answers to give them. “Koi guarantee nahi hai,” says Mr. Kuhar, rather brutally. He reminds the two fathers that a judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court had cited investor sentiment as a factor for his rejection of the bail plea. The judge had observed, “The incident is most unfortunate occurrence which has lowered the reputation of India in the estimation of the world. Foreign investors are not likely to invest the money in India out of fear of labour unrest.”

Mr. Satbir shakes his head. “Is foreign investment more important than justice?” he wants to know. “My boy rots in jail for three years so that my country doesn’t scare away foreign investors. They call this the temple of justice. We can all see what kind of temple this is.”

Another setback

On December 16, in another setback for the workers, the trial court dismissed their defence counsel’s application for recall of prosecution witnesses.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 2:17:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/business/Industry/the-saga-of-jailed-maruti-suzuki-workers/article8008617.ece

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