The five-legged elephant

Shankar Guha Niyogi’s vision of a politics beyond demands for wage raise and his concern for all aspects of a worker’s life were crucial to the uplift of thousands of contract employees of the Bhilai Steel Plant. Photo: Bijoy Ghosh   | Photo Credit: SUPPLIED PICTURE

On September 28, 1991, Shankar Guha Niyogi put aside his copy of Lenin on Trade Unions and Revolutions, and fell asleep under a mosquito net in his room on the ground floor of an apartment in the Bhilai industrial township. In the early hours of the morning, a young man rode up to the house, looked in through the bedroom's well-lit window and shot him dead.

At the time, Niyogi stood at the helm of a movement to unionise the thousands of contract workers employed in factories across what would become the State of Chhattisgarh. Twenty years on, as India appraises the legacy of two decades of economic reforms, Niyogi's life and violent end offer a snapshot of the turbulence that presaged the dawn of the India's ‘New Economy'.

Dhiresh Guha Niyogi was born in 1943 in Jalpaigudi, Bengal, and studied in Jalpaigudi and Calcutta. In the early 1960s he came to Bhilai to work at the Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP), and established himself as a labour organiser. BSP was emblematic of the possibilities of India's public sector: the integrated steel plant and township spanned over 22,000 acres, operated captive iron ore mines in Dalli Rajara, limestone quarries in Dani Tola and spawned a network of privately-owned ancillary factories that employed thousands of workers.

In 1967, Niyogi and his colleagues organised one of the BSP's first strikes for better working conditions. A year later he was thrown out of the BSP, and spent the next several years travelling through Chhattisgarh.

In 1970s, a young man who called himself Shankar arrived at the BSP's limestone quarries in Dani Tola. His past was unknown, but he seemed interested in the working conditions at the mine. In time he married an Adivasi called Asha, whose parents worked in the mines.

“Shankar worked in the mines like everyone else,” said Asha in a recent interview, “No one knew much about him, except that he was from Bengal. One day he was in Dalli on some work when some LIB people [local intelligence branch] came to Dani Tola. Indira Gandhi had passed the MISA [Maintenance of Internal Security Act, passed by Parliament in 1973] and the LIB people asked about him.”

It was from the LIB that Asha learnt her husband was not ‘Shankar', but unionist Dhiresh Guha Niyogi, who had been thrown out of the BSP for “partybaazi” at a time when State governments were using the MISA to detain those perceived to be working against the establishment. “They arrested him in Dalli.” she said, “We had been married one year.”

“Once released, he set up a bakri [goat] business to show the police he was just running a normal business now,” said Asha with a laugh. “We went from village to village on foot and bought goats which we sold in the markets. But at each village he held meetings where he gave speeches about jagruti [awareness].”

In 1975, Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency and Niyogi was rearrested. He was released in 1977, a time when the contract workers of Dalli Rajara were contemplating a mass action.

“There were about 12,000 contract workers in Dalli,” said Janaklal Thakur, a labour leader who began work in Dalli in 1972. “We were paid about Rs.2 per day for 14- to 16-hour shifts. None of the existing trade unions were willing to represent us, so a group of us approached Niyogiji.”

The contract workers at Dalli had approached the management with a specific demand of raising the yearly bonus; once he arrived, Niyogi made it clear that he envisioned a politics that went beyond wage increments and bonuses.

“Will a ten-per-cent increase in our bonus bring revolutionary change to this country?” asked Niyogi in a speech, years later. In 1977, Niyogi, Mr. Thakur and the contract workers of Dalli established the Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS) workers union.

“Niyogiji often said ‘Ours is not an eight-hour union, ours is a 24-hour union'. He was concerned with all aspects of a worker's life: history, education, gender, everything. CMSS set up 17 departments to look into worker welfare,” said Sudha Bhardwaj, a lawyer and trade unionist who came to Dalli in 1986 and taught in a union-run school. “The red and green union flag symbolises the unity of farmer and worker struggles,” she said.

Shahid hospital was one such initiative that began as a dispensary in an unused garage in 1982. Today, it is a self-financed 100-bed hospital dedicated to providing quality low-cost health care to workers and villagers around Dalli.

“Shahid hospital was set up in memory of Kusum bai, an Adivasi woman, who died from a ruptured fallopian tube in 1979 because she had no access to health care. Contract workers could not go to BSP's hospitals,” said Dr. Saibal Jana, who came to Dalli from Calcutta in 1981 and is now the head of Shahid hospital, “By 1983, the hospital had 10 beds and four doctors but no money. So each worker donated a month's mine allowance [Rs.30] to the hospital. We collected about Rs.3 lakh and bought a truck which we leased for about Rs.5,000 per month to cover running costs of the hospital.”

By 1990, CMSS had about 10,000 members, and had engineered a series of mass actions and negotiations that ensured that they were amongst the best paid contract workers in the country. “We were making six to seven thousand rupees a month. We had gratuity, cycle allowances, house rent allowances like the permanent workers,” Mr. Thakur said, “The old union leaders told us we would get bonuses only when elephants had five legs. Once when we won a battle with the management, we took out a parade with a statue of such an animal.”

In 1990, Niyogi and the CMSS sought to expand their presence amongst the contract workers in Bhilai's ancillary industries, which were run by a powerful group of industrialists including Moolchand Shah of the Simplex Group, Chandra Kant Shah of Oswal Steel Pvt. Ltd., K.P. Kedia, and B.R. Jain of the famous hawala dairies scandal which entailed illegal payments to some of India's most powerful politicians.

It was then, Niyogi's supporters believe, that a group of businessmen sought to eliminate him. “These businessmen did not allow an independent union … after all, improving work environment and increasing wages would hurt their bottom lines and absurd profit margins,” said journalist and author Sanjay Kapoor, who followed the case.

In 1997, a Madhya Pradesh Sessions Court convicted Moolchand Shah, Chandrakant Shah and three others of conspiring to kill Niyogi and sentenced Paltan Mallah, the hired assassin, to death. However, in 2005 the Supreme Court held that there was insufficient evidence to convict the industrialists and commuted Mallah's sentence to life imprisonment.

Niyogi is survived by his wife Asha, his three children Kranti, Jeet and Mukti and a legacy of building flexible, broad-based organisations that think beyond the immediacy of the present and the contingent.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 4:31:48 PM |

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