The Working Class Movement in the Dhanbad-Durgapur Area

A. Roy

Spread across the adjoining states of West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa in Eastern India lies an area abounding with natural and mineral resources. Directly or indirectly, this area provides inputs for industrial activity on a large scale. The area is rich in coal deposits, iron ore, copper and rare earth minerals. A number of heavy industries belonging mainly to the public sector have been established in this area, a major concentration of such industries being in the Dhanbad-Durgapur area.

Dhanbad lies on the border between West Bengal and Bihar, and Durgapur is situated some 100 km. to the east of Dhanbad. The sprawling Dhanbad-Durgapur area covers a number of coalfields now belonging to the public sector enterprise Eastern Coalfields Limited, a subsidiary of Coal India Limited. The Indian Iron and Steel Plant, a subsidiary of the steel giant Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) is situated in Asansol, and is located in between Dhanbad and Durgapur, The Bokaro Steel Plant, another major subsidiary of SAIL, is situated some distance from Dhanbad. At the eastern end, the Durgapur Steel Plant and the Alloy Steels Plant form two other plants of the SAIL. There are two fertilizer factories belonging to the public sector in the region – one in Sindri near Dhanbad, and another in Durgapur.

The richness in mineral deposits and the concentration of industries in this region has earned for itself the title of being the ‘Ruhr of Bengal’, the very notion of which conjures up visions of mines, minerals, tall chimneys belching smoke, of industrial activity on a grand scale and of that hub around which the giant wheels of industry and commerce rotate.

The Durgapur-Dhanbad region was the embodiment of a fragment of the Nehruvian dream. But that is all past. Three decades later one finds the course of events taking a different path thanks to the full capitulation of the Indian ruling classes to the dictates of the World Bank and the IMF and following the implementation of the new economic and industrial policies of liberalisation. Strong recession grips the steelmaking sector, thanks to a plunge in domestic demand and dumping from the CIS countries. Reorientation of activities and product mix in the core sector – are either incomplete or are being carried out without conviction. The heavy machinery manufacturing industry located at Durgapur has been referred to the BIFR, and its revival appears to be a distant dream. Scant are the chances of resuscitating the ophthalmic glass-manufacturing factory, also in Durgapur, and once a pioneering industry. The small industries sector stretching right across the belt was fashioned roughly in bits and pieces instead of in a coordinated manner, and at the moment is languishing from decreased demand. Unemployment among the literate youth has assumed staggering proportions. The very future of the region appears to be insecure. The resultant sense of listlessness and despondency is palpable, as was its vigorous vibrancy only three short decades ago. Something vital appears to have gone haywire, and the life essence of the region is being sapped away.

On closer scrutiny one perceives that nothing has gone really wrong as far the potential of the region is concerned. Natural resources are still abundant. A basic infrastructure for supporting development does exist. There is no shortage of skilled personnel trained in various disciplines of consequence. Strong support in industrial Research and Development in engineering, mining and metallurgy, fuel technology and ceramics can be derived from the various organisations located within a radius of only 150 km. Ancillary assistance is available from the small industries sector in the region itself or only at a short distance away. Domestic markets, in spite of their fluctuations, still promise on an average a growth rate of at least 5%. In fact, the essential ingredients for making a success story are all in place. Yet things are not shaping up as it should. But why?

In the first place, one must realize that the industries located in and around the Durgapur-Dhanbad region are all related to three industries in the primary sector, namely coal, steel and power. The successes of these three core industries are subject mainly to the implications of the overall industrial policy currently being pursued. Some local factors do have a role to play, but those are of secondary importance. In fact it is the overall political situation that is wreaking havoc with the economy of this region and with its social life as well.

To illustrate this, let us look at the state of affairs of the steelmaking industry. India is the world’s tenth largest producer of steel, with a liquid steel production capacity of over 25 million tons. Indian steel, particularly the output from the SAIL plants, is among the world’s cheapest, owing to complete backward integration, abundant raw materials and cheap labour. Even then, problems are cropping up with metronomic regularity and have now assumed the dimensions of a full-scale crisis. Steel consumption is an index of growth. The once high rate of national growth that had created a strong domestic market has receded during the last few years, owing to a slump in developmental efforts. This in turn has caused this domestic market to shrink sizably. Growth of the steel industry at the rate of 7-9%, forecast in the early periods following liberalization and expected to nearly double by the turn of the century, has tapered off steadily and records a meagre 3% at the moment. The post-liberalization period has also triggered off a change in the nature of competition in the rapidly shrinking domestic market. Previously, the trend was to purchase intermediaries from the large integrated steel plants for making end products. With the market opening up and with the entry of new players, the proportion of direct sales has risen. New brands of the basic product, with specialized features like heat and surface treatment are being marketed to cater to specific needs. There has also been a high percentage shift from long products towards flat products – a factor that indicates that the nature of consumption has shifted to the demand-sensitive consumer product sector from the long-term and relatively steady developmental sector, leaving the whole market more vulnerable. Side by side, import duties have been lowered, increasing the threat of dumping from newly emerging steel producing countries, particularly those of the CIS. The combined effects of all these factors have left the entire sector problem-ridden, and a slightly different version of the same story might apply to all the core sectors.

We find that much that has taken place in the post-liberalization period has gone contrary to the earlier expectations, and there were no dearth of protagonists of this very policy in this region too. The most scientific method of enquiry, obviously, is to question the very precepts on which these projections were based. It is strongly felt that in the eagerness to jump into the liberalization bandwagon the objective conditions of the country have been overlooked. The social ramifications of the policy of liberalisation on the the quality of life have never been taken into account, and there was a gross neglect of the degree of social resilience. By bending over backwards to create a level playing field for global competitors, the Indian ruling classes, dictated by the agents of imperialism have placed the country at a highly disadvantaged position. There is yet another very important social aspect. With unemployment soaring and marginalisation of the majority increasing alarmingly, there has indeed been a downward trend during the last six years in the quality of life in and around the region. And the region, along with the rest of the country is steadily heading towards a situation one finds in the experiences of the Latin American and Sub-Saharan countries of Africa, whose indigenous economic structures were demolished and social fabrics completely frayed by the stresses generated by liberalization.

Political Aspects of Importance

The Dhanbad-Durgapur belt, particularly the stretch that lies within West Bengal has a rich history of trade union movement. Militant trade unionism under the leadership of the once left parties reached its peak in the later 60s and the seventies. In those ‘high and palmy days’ of the militant workers movement, Durgapur was popularly known as the ‘Petrograd of Bengal’. Even after the emergency, the allegiance of the working class remained with the reformist left parties, and this pattern is still continuing.

But of late liberalisation, and the effects that it has on society has been instrumental in a palp-able shift away from the reformist left. There is yet no revolutionary force to fill the ensuing vacuum, and the forces of reaction have made inroads utilising this situation. The working class movement has reached a complex stage necessitating a thorough analysis of its aspects, its history in continuity with the general situation prevailing in the country. This is dealt with in a generalised way in the next section.

The combined offensive of the ruling classes and imperialism on the working class movement

1. The industrial policy of the Indian ruling class started transforming from the decade of the eighties. The number of sick industries increased with alarming rapidity. Unemployment also rose with the same alarming rapidity among the workers. A systematic process to gradually render the large organized industries sick was initiated. The ruling classes side by side to this began a vigorous campaign to the effect that government undertakings were bearing the burden of surplus manpower and that sustaining this excess manpower is detrimental to the society. The leadership of the central trade unions was seen executing one black agreement after another with the ruling classes, which went against the fundamental interests of the working class. In the individual factories, the reformist leadership of the trade unions initiated a campaign to the effect that it is impossible to safeguard the interests of the workers unless rapid modernization is undertaken at the earliest. Thus to the army of unemployed workers of the closed and sick industries was added the flow of workers driven out from the organized large industries.

The all-out attack against the working class throughout the industrial sector intensified further after the adoption of the new economic policy. The problem of the closed and the sick industries was relegated to the back seat from the forefront. The unemployed workers gradually began losing hope. Whatever little movement there was at first finally came to a halt. Downsizing the working force through the so-called voluntary retirement scheme in the large organized industries became the order of the day. Side by side the workload on individual workers went on increasing in the name of restoring ‘work culture’. The process for rendering sick such important industrial sectors as steel and coal came about in a systematic manner and by degrees. As a consequence of this process, industries based on steel, coal and engineering in the widespread industrial belt stretching from Durgapur in West Bengal to Dhanbad in Bihar have been left struggling for existence.

The attack on the working class in these important public sector undertakings further intensified following the GATT agreement. None of the reformist communist parties of diverse shades had opposed this offensive which the ruling classes had brought about in the direct interests of imperialism. On the contrary, they have in some form or other been active collaborators, aiding and abetting the offensive. Like true revisionists, they instead of organizing the working class to resist, advised the workers to rely on parliament for the mitigation of their problems. And the pattern through which they have led the working class away from the arena of class struggle towards reliance on the bourgeois parliamentary system constitutes no exception from standard revisionist practices.

2. The urge on the part of the working class to launch resistance movements against the offensive of the ruling classes and imperialism became palpable with the increase in the intensity of the attack. But what stands in the way is the non-completion of the process of forging widespread unity of the working class based on a thorough and complete dissociation from the established opportunist-revisionist leadership. This departure could not be established decisively, except in isolated cases, across the entire industrial belt. And this is the reason why a resistance movement against the joint offensive of imperialism and the ruling classes on the basis of widespread unity among the working class is not materializing. It is no longer a secret to the common worker that the emergence of such a resistance movement is not possible as long as the established trade union leadership continues to hold sway over the working class. As a consequence, the demand and desire for an alternative leadership is increasing among the common members of the working class. However, this felt-need for an alternative leadership shall have to be comprehended against the backdrop of the development of resistance movements against the combined offensive launched by imperialism and the ruling classes.

3. In respect of developing resistance movement, the necessity for alternative leadership palpable among the common workers could not be addressed due to two major factors. These are:

a) The communist revolutionary groups active among the working class are not being able to set as a target anything other then the common aim of developing resistance movements. As a result, whenever the communist revolutionaries undertake programmes for developing resistance movements, it creates hope among the common workers. But there is a sea of difference between resistance movements in isolated factories and a resistance movement throughout a spread-out industrial belt. And when these isolated instances fail to create a basis for the unleashing of resistance movement across the entire industrial belt, or when such isolated resistance movements fail to assume leadership of the resistance movement on a magnified dimension, their fate is sealed. The isolated movements become arrested within themselves, and, falling far short of the expectations of the common workers finally fizzle out. Such a few isolated movements of resistance can never catalyze resistance movement on a wider scale and dimension. The movement becoming arrested, the communist revolutionaries become more concerned with the perpetuation of the struggle within individual factories. In other words, the communist revolutionaries concentrate on activities and propaganda so as to be considered identified with the desire and demand of the common workers for resistance movements. As a result, political conservatism spawns within the camp on the one hand, while on the other can be noted decided deviation towards the rightist trend. So much so that the communist revolutionaries begin to employ the parliamentary tactics of depending upon forces external to the working class while appearing to be remaining attached to the demands and desires of the common workers. The only reason for this deviation is the blind urge to spontaneously materialize into resistance movements the desire and demand of the common workers.

b) As a consequence of this blind urge, the only aim that materializes is that of resistance movement of the workers against the combined attack of the ruling classes and the imperialists. Yet another consequence for the communist revolutionaries is the absence of the task of painstakingly developing from amongst the working class an alternative leadership. And it is due to this reason that the communist revolutionaries start projecting themselves before the common workers as an alternative leadership. A protracted history of dependence on the leadership makes the common worker assume likewise and accept the communist revolutionaries as the alternative leadership. But soon the common workers come to realize that the communist revolutionaries themselves are fragmented into numerous groups and that there exist between these individual groups an atmosphere of unhealthy competition. As a result the common workers cease to consider the communist revolutionaries as an alternative to the opportunist leadership and start criticizing in the interest of their resistance struggle the disunity among the communist revolutionary camp. This situation strengthens within the communist revolutionaries groups the propensity of undertaking joint programmes for conducting the movement. But no real benefit as to the emergence of alternative leadership or the development of resistance movement can be discerned. This further demoralizes the common worker. Confronted with the onslaught on them, the common workers tend to support one of the many parliamentary parties for their mere existence.

But it is the advanced detachment of the workers that find themselves most badly placed. On the one hand, they can not exist isolated from the common workers; on the other they fail to advance so as to constitute that very alternative leadership which the common worker demands. No help for this advanced section is forthcoming from the communist revolutionaries so that this section can emerge against the revisionists as the alternative leadership of the working class throughout an industrial belt. The communist revolutionaries are content to formulate the revolutionary programme of the resistance movements. However, when it comes to organizing the advanced section of the working class for a resistance movement against the onslaught of the imperialists and the ruling classes; when it comes to the political consolidation of the advanced section of the working class against revisionism and reformist politics – the communists are found wanting in ideas and programmes of action. The advanced section receives the very treatment that is reserved for the common workers. As a result, the problem of developing the leadership of resistance movements is left unaddressed. This is also the reason why to the common workers the communist revolutionaries appear as nothing other than the leaders of the resistance movements. It appears from the behaviour of the communist revolutionaries as if there exists no problem regarding the development of an alternative leadership for the conducting of the resistance struggles, the only problem is developing the resistance movement itself. And this descent to the level of consciousness of the common workers neither solves the problem of the advanced workers to emerge as leaders, nor helps in the development of the resistance movement itself.

4. It is ironical that the differences between the numerous communist revolutionary groups vanish here. Everyone is perturbed as to how resistance movement of the working class can be developed. But that this problem of developing resistance movements is intimately associated with the emergence of an alternative leadership as against the established leadership is recognized by none of the communist revolutionary groups. None of the communist revolutionary groups active in the Dhanbad-Durgapur belt works in this direction of consolidating an alternative revolutionary leadership from within the workers of this region. The crisis prevailing in the consciousness of the communist revolutionary groups is fully apparent here. The fact that the present resistance movement of the workers is pitted against the interests of imperialism and the ruling classes is taken so lightly that the dimensions of this struggle and its ramifications hardly make any impression on the notions of the communist revolutionary groups. The communist revolutionary groups further fail to comprehend the importance of the present day resistance struggles as an extension of the struggle for revolution and socialism. The failure to nurture the promising elements of class leadership from within the working class and the failure to comprehend the import of this sustenance to the development of the alternative leadership and the present and future class struggles relegates the effort of the communist revolutionaries to somehow develop the resistance movement. Even this is not being done. Neither the advanced detachment of the working class, nor the common workers can envisage either the efficacy or the future of existence as communist revolutionary groups. And in this process both the present and the future of working class movement are appearing to be bleak to both the advanced and the common members of the working class.

5. Despondency and frustration have started gripping the common workers as a consequence of the failure of the communist revolutionaries to convert the aspirations of the workers into militant movements. This is actually paving the way for such retrogressive notions as ultra-nationalism, caste divisions and communalism to strike deep roots into the fertile soil of overall despondency. This means that the workers are being forced into a path which deviates from the beaten track, but which again is reactionary in nature. And in this manner the industrial belt spanning from Durgapur to Dhanbad is fast becoming a stronghold of reaction. Only the working class can crush this stronghold of reaction. It is on the basis of such trust in the capacity of the working class that the workers shall have to turn away from the dark forces of reaction. And this needs serious introspection on the part of the communist revolutionaries. The workers shall have to be consolidated into a class force once again through the consolidation of the leadership of the advanced workers.

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