Fear of closure leaves AFT workers in the lurch

Tough days: The once profitable Anglo French Textiles (AFT) Mill on Cuddalore Road in Puducherry has become a liability with the government unable to decide on its future.   | Photo Credit: S_S_KUMAR

Amid the ongoing tussle between Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi and Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy on closure of the century-old Anglo French Textiles (AFT) mills, the future of 675 workers in the mill is at stake.

The Industries Department’s decision to close down the mill under Section 25-O of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, has sparked resentment among trade unions, triggering panic among the workers.

The move has triggered a war of words between the Lt. Governor and the Chief Minister. While Ms. Bedi says an expert committee had recommended closure of the mill, Mr. Narayanasamy hit back stating that the recommendation of the government for introduction of voluntary retirement scheme had been rejected by the Lt. Governor who insisted on closing down the unit. He said the Cabinet headed by him had taken a decision that the mill should never be closed.

The management has not offered any clarity on the future operations in the mill. There is a sense of fear among workers and employees that the mill will not be reopened once it is closed.

One of the few surviving industrial vestiges from the colonial era, the Anglo-French Textiles, once known as Rodier Mill, was established in 1898 by a firm with its headquarters in London.

Pride of Puducherry

In 1899, the mill was even provided with a railway branch line connecting the Puducherry-Villupuram railway mainline to facilitate freight movement and went on to become a major exporter of cotton fabrics to the U.S., the U.K., France, Italy, Germany, Australia and Belgium.

The mill was a major source of revenue to both the Union and Puducherry governments after the specially floated Pondicherry Textile Corporation (PTC) took over the administration of the mill in 1984. The mill was the main source of supply of material to the Indian Air Force and Navy for its requirement of parachutes.

“The Congress fought the election in 1985 only by projecting the AFT mill issue and because of the promise given by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the mill was taken over by the territorial government and gave a guarantee of livelihood to workers. The administration by an IAS officer P.M. Nair as managing director gave a new life to the mill.

“In fact products made in the mill were much sought after by tourists. But over the years the mill was not managed properly leading to the present situation. On no account, the mill should be closed,” said S. Nadarajan, a senior citizen.

“To be an employee or a worker in the AFT was a prestige for the workers. The mill is a landmark in the industrial growth of Puducherry but over the years constant intervention by political parties crippled the smooth working of the undertaking,” said an official on condition of anonymity.

AITUC general secretary V.S. Abishegam blamed the ruling Congress and the AINRC for the present mess. The government should have taken steps to prevent the trend of loss in the initial stage itself but when the situation became worse, the intervention of administration led to the slow decline in the production, he charged.

The Industries Department had issued a similar order for closure of the mill in 2010 but the AITUC resorted to a legal recourse and the Madras High Court ordered that status quo be maintained, he pointed out.

While operations in the mill continued, the previous AINRC regime announced a VRS package and announced lay off in November 2013, which had been continuing till date. The mill, which once had a strength of over 6,600 workers, now had a meagre strength of 675, he said.

Mr. Abishegam said until the financial year 1993-94, the AFT, Swadeshi and Bharathi Mills fetched ₹250 crore revenue to the Union government through exports. But the Union government had not done anything to renovate these mills, he alleged.

Mr. Narayanasamy and AINRC founder N. Rangasamy had failed to follow up on their plea to the Centre to earmark ₹500 crore to revive the mill, he said.

Workers were now caught in the crossfire between Lieutenant Governor and the Chief Minister. The mill workers were living in abject poverty with wages not paid to service workers and dues to retired personnel not settled.

CPI(M) secretary R. Rajangam said that there was still room for rehabilitation of the mill either by appointing experts or by resorting to effective strategy to ensure its functioning as before.

The AFT, along with Swadeshi and Bharathi mills, were a major source of revenue and employment. The government could adopt a pragmatic approach and all the mills could be integrated and brought under one roof to facilitate large scale production, he suggested.

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Printable version | Oct 29, 2020 11:37:36 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/puducherry/fear-of-closure-leaves-aft-workers-in-the-lurch/article30662846.ece

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