eath and the Factory:The Casualties of Maruti Suzuki, Manesar.
JULY 26, 2012
tags: Class War, Death, Fire, Manesar, Maruti-Suzuki
by Shuddhabrata Sengupta

Factories kill people. Occasionally, those who die belong to the
management. Usually, they are workers.

On the first of May, (International Labour Day) 2009, several workers
at the Lakhani Shoe Factory in Faridabad, Haryana, were struck by a
ball of fire, which engulfed them before they could run to save their
lives. The fire, caused by willful neglect of elementary safety
procedures, did not result in criminal charges being framed against
the management or proprietors of the Lakhani Vardaan Group, which owns
the Lakhani Shoes Factory.

A report in the Gurgaon Workers News (No.9/18) has this account of the fire –

“On 1st of May 2009 the Lakhani Shoes factory, plot 122 in Faridabad
Sector 24 caught fire, the newspapers first wrote of six, then of ten,
then of fifteen dead workers. Lakhani is said to be the country’s
largest maker and exporter of canvas and vulcanised shoes, has two
dozen units in the district. A younger worker who is employed in a
neighbouring factory came to Faridabad Majdoor Library three days
later. He said that it is more than likely that 50 – 100 or more
workers have been killed. A boiler on the first floor exploded, the
floor collapsed and buried many workers who were waiting for their
over-time payment in the basement. He said that he saw at least 100
burnt bicycles outside the factory. He met a landlord in industrial
village Mujesar who said that his three tenants, employed at Lakhani
haven’t returned. He met an older woman whose son is still missing.
Most of these workers were not officially employed, their names were
not on the Lakhani pay-roll. Many of them were from Nepal and single,
meaning that they were not immediately reported missing by their
families. From the reported 38 workers who were brought to various
hospitals – in Faridabad there is no hospital for severe burn
treatment – only one worker had an official ESI health insurance
number. The rest is unknown.”

Bodies burnt to cinders are difficult to identify, unless they leave
behind distinct identifying objects, like gold teeth. DNA matches are
possible to do if there are records of relatives. None of the workers
at the Lakhani fire had gold teeth. Many of them were contract
workers, nobody knew who their relatives were. They were incinerated
without trace.

On the 20th of July 2012, a charred body found at the site of an
incident of alleged mob violence the evening before (19th July) by the
workers of Maruti Suzuki India Limited’s Manesar plant was identified
as that of Awanish Kumar Dev, a manager in the Human Resources
department of the Maruti Suzuki Manesar Plant. Mr. Dev had a gold
tooth. DNA samples were also taken and these proved his identity when
matched with DNA samples taken from his immediate family. His family’s
agony, while waiting for confirmation of the identity of the deceased,
can not be imagined. Imagine the agony of the relatives of some of the
evaporated workers of Lakhani shoes.

Several posts in Kafila have gone into the background of the tragic
incident of Mr. Dev’s death in Manesar in some detail. We have
guest-posts from the Maruti Suzuki Employees Union, and posts from
Aman Sethi, Aditya Nigam and Anumeha Yadav. Each of these has been
useful in thinking through this thorny and intractable issue. In the
interests of economy, I will try and not repeat what they have said
already. My concern is death, and the meaning of death, especially
when it happens in and around a factory.

Since the day of the confirmation of the unfortunate and condemnable
death of Awanish Kumar Dev, a sad casualty of the ongoing class
conflict in north Indian Industrial heartland of Haryana, we have
witnessed tsunami of rage from those who view the killing of a manager
in a factory as a calamity. Regrettably, sometimes the most terrible
of tragedies (and the death of Mr. Dev is no doubt a profound human
tragedy for his family and friends) becomes an instrument for larger
and more impersonal agendas.

When a fire engulfs a factory, the body of those trapped inside burns
in the same way, regardless of who they are. Suffocation due to smoke
does the same things to the lungs, regardless of whether the lungs
belong to a worker or a manager. When the results of an inferno are
the same, we need to think about why the consequences of two fires are
so different ? What makes the victim of an alleged act of arson more
worthy of mourning than the victims of an instance of willful neglect?
We have heard a lot about one fire in Manesar in the past few days.
Why have we heard so little about another fire in Faridabad over the
last three years?

As I write, ninety one workers of the Maruti-Suzuki factory in Manesar
have been sent into judicial custody and are currently in Bhondsi
Jail. The Haryana police are looking for five hundred unnamed others.

The magistrate, in an unusual departure from procedure, delivered her
decision to send the workers into judicial custody in a police
station. The accused in any case are supposed to be presented before
magistrates so that they can record their statements without fear or
coercion, thereby enabling the magistrate to take a clear preliminary
view of their culpability. Here, since it was a manager in a company
as important as Maruti Suzuki that had died, it seems that the
magistrate, police, and the Haryana government found it fit that
normal procedure be kept in abeyance. Ministers (of the government of
Haryana and the centre) made statements. Narendra Modi (as befits a
prime minister in waiting) went to Japan and invited Suzuki
Corporation to sup at his table. Editorial writers polished their
turns of phrase. Captains of industry called for ruthless measures.
Notwithstanding the Maoists’ well known contempt for the industrial
proletariat, The ministry of home affairs hinted at the involvement of
Maoists. Angry, righteous and right-wing bloggers and television
commentators found a made-to-order opportunity to ventilate their well
honed class-hatred against workers. Everyone who mattered, seemed to
want to scrap labour laws.

Meanwhile, a lawyer representing the accused in a communication to me
yesterday said that many of the young workers who are currently being
held in Bhondsi jail were not even in the factory at the time that the
unfortunate incidents of violence occurred, as their shift had not yet
started. The matter of timing and presence, so crucial as evidence in
an ordinary criminal trial is a minor and dispensable detail in this
extraordinary case. What matters is that ninety one young workers are
in jail, currently being persuaded by the Haryana Police to implicate
themselves in this tragedy, so that the angry bloggers, captains of
industry, editorial writers and the good and the great of this land
can have their moment of outrage. Perhaps a Maoist or two or three
will be discovered amongst them by the Ministry of Home Affairs, with
the same diligence with which it has recently found Maoist spirits
lurking within the bodies of dead children in Cchatisgarh.

The Haryana Police is combing the country side around Manesar, and
further afield. The Haryana Police is not known for its gentle
investigative procedures. It is going to the tenements that workers
(many of them migrant) live in, in the villages around Manesar, in
Rohtak and Jhajjhar. They are threatening anyone they can. Families
are being told that unless they give up their sons, they will be held
responsible, and that the police will not hold themselves responsible
for what they do to make them give up their sons.

This one sad, unnecessary and unfortunate death has set back the gains
of more than a year of a non-violent, disciplined intelligent and
militant workers struggle at Maruti-Suzuki by decades. It will take
time to know what exactly happened. Perhaps it will take an eternity.
Who lit the fire? What angry words were said? What provocations, if
any, were present that made the workers lose their careful and
disciplined resolve (that was so visible throughout last year) not to
give in to the temptation of violence? Were there, as has been alleged
by some workers, agent-provocateurs brought in by the management who
lit the first spark? Why is it being said that those who started the
fight did not recognize known leaders of the union? Did someone from
the management pull a gun? Or is this all idle rumor mongering?
Perhaps we will never know the exact truth. The truth is most likely
to be the first thing that will be buried under the mountain of
‘statements’ and ‘confessions’ that will now be harvested by the
‘brave-hearts’ of the Haryana Police in Bhondsi Jail.

But one thing can be said for certain. The exemplary solidarity
between permanent, contracted (thekedari) and casual workers at the
Maruti Plant at Manesar stands threatened today by the climate of fear
that the state and the management will use to divide the workers of
Manesar at every step from now onwards. In situations of class war,
as in chess, the fall of a piece need not mean victory for the
opposing side. A manager is dead, and workers are check-mated in
Manesar. Factories kill people, especially those who enter their gates
in search of a living. Sometimes they kill suddenly, sometimes, they
take their time.

As some one once said. “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like,
only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more
labour it sucks.“

A living wage is harder to come by than death on the cheap.

Three years ago, in October 2009, a twenty six year old worker called
Ajit Yadav was killed in cold blood by police and thugs hired by the
management at a picket outside the F.C.C Rico Factory, also in

There had been a dispute. When is there not a dispute? Workers were
picketing the factory, legally, in support of their demands, and had
won a judicial order that allowed them to set up their protest at a
distance of 50 metros from the factory gate. The management decided to
use force to lift the picket. Ajit Yadav died. At first the police
refused to file an FIR. Eventually, an FIR was filed, but the time of
its filing was changed, and another complaint was inserted at the
behest of the management that made it out that workers attacked the
management. The management’s complaint could be given priority.

One hundred thousand workers from the Gurgaon Manesar industrial belt
went on strike. Two people were arrested, but workers allege that not
a single person actually associated with the crime was detained. Some
workers were also held on general charges of rioting. But nothing
happened about Ajit Yadav’s killing. No one from the management was
even questioned. The case dragged on in court. Witnesses turned
hostile. Money changed hands. The management, which had heaped abuse
at Ajit Yadav only days before, offered ‘compensation’ and
‘condolences’ to his family. An agreement was reached, brokered by the
labour department. Peace returned to the Rico Factory, over the dead
body of Ajit Yadav. Reportedly, The HR manager and the police officers
associated with this case have all been promoted. There were no pious
editorials. No angry blog posts calling for hanging the culprits of
Ajit Yadav’s death. The captains of industry were on Diwali vacation.
No minister made a statement. It did not make breaking news. Ajit
Yadav was not Awanish Kumar Dev.

Ajit Yadav is not the only other casualty in the roster of workers and
those who have acted in workers interests who have fallen to
management’s moves. We could add the names of M. Murali Mohan, a
worker and labour organizer at Regency Ceramics, Yanam, (an enclave of
Puducherry in Andhra Pradesh) who was killed while being on a picket
outside his factory by police that acted at the behest of management.
Workers retaliated by rioting, which led to the death of a manager. A
key pawn was taken, and a knight sacrificed. Capital played its next

We could add the name of Sunil Pal, labour activist, close to CPI (ML
– Liberation) in the mining industry who was shot dead by ‘ unknown
miscreants’ in Haripur, Burdwan, West Bengal, allegedly by CPI(M)
cadre. We could add the names of popular theatre artist and CPI(M)
activist Safdar Hashmi and CITU member Ram Bahadur, whose Congress
Party linked killers were convicted fourteen long years after the
death of Hashmi and Bahadur in Sahibabad, UP. Other well known ‘cold
cases’ include the assassinations of independent trade union leaders
Datta Samant and Shankar Guha Niyogi. In none of these cases was the
involvement of management interests ever probed in any great detail.
In the Shankar Guha Niyogi, case, despite overwhelming evidence, the
industrialists suspected of conspiring to kill him were acquitted,
only Paltan Mallah, the lone hired killer who pulled the trigger at
their bidding is doing time in jail. There have been police firings on
peaceful workers protests in Faridabad (the infamous Neelam Chowk
firing of 1979) and massacre of workers of the Swadeshi Cotton Mills
in Kanpur (1977), or more recent incidents like the harsh assaults
like the attack by police on striking Honda workers in 2005, but the
memory of these incidents never stains the commentariat’s angry
denunciation of working class behavior.

Even Maruti’s own history is marred by an earlier episode of violence
where the victims were clearly workers, not management. During the
strike in the Maruti factory in Gurgaon in 2000, two workers – water
pump operator, Chander Bhan, fifty six, and Rajesh Kumar, a twenty
year old apprentice died mysteriously on the same day, (October 18th)
while a third , thirty nine year old draftsman Anand Singh Bohra, was
committed to a psychiatric ward in a hospital the following day. All
three workers had been forcibly detaine (along with several others)
within the factory premises for several days in order to continue
production while the strike continued. Chander Bhan was declared dead
on arrival in the hospital and Rajesh’s dead body was found ten
kilometers away from the factory. The union was denied access to post
mortem reports and no member of the management was ever investigated
for these mysterious deaths.

Death does not come to the factory riding only bullets and the lethal
blows of police lathis. It comes casually, with the accident, or in
solitude, with suicide. Across the world, there is a growing incidence
of workplace deaths.

China leads the world in work place suicides. Closely followed by
Japan and South Korea. The US recorded 5,734 workplace deaths due to
traumatic injuries in 2005 while in the same year, there were 1097
workplace deaths in Canada. An average of 1,376 people die each year
in industrial or workplace accidents in Italy. In India, the
government figure of 668 total workplace fatalities (last recorded for
2009) seems to be a strong case of under-reporting, especially as the
majority of workers are not permanent and so do not show up on
records. ILO estimates suggest that the gross under-reporting of
Industrial accidents in India actually hides some of the highest
industrial accident fatality figures in the world. According to
“Decent Work – Safe Work, ILO Introductory Report to the XVIIth World
Congress on Safety and Health at Work”, released in September 2005,
India could have as many as 40,000 deaths per year due to industrial
accidents alone.

Devastating fires, like the one at the Lakhani factory in Faridabad,
which (officially )killed 15 workers on the 1st of May 2009 are far
more frequent than they need to be.

Let us look at one ‘accidental’ death. Mohammad Rabban, a garment
worker employed at the Medolama Factory, in Gurgaon died an utterly
unnecessary death on the 17th of January, 2011 . Here is an excerpt
from a report in the Gurgaon Workers News of January 2011. This death
was referred to in an earlier Kafila post – ‘The Republic of
Exploitation‘ uploaded by Sunalini Kumar on January 27, 2011.

“At around 3am on the morning of 16th January or, the 15th night’s
overtime, 17 and-a-half hours into continuous sewing and stitching for
the 21hour shift, sitting on his iron stool, Md. Rabban, died
instantly of electrocution through one of the live wires protruding
out of the production line in the garment factory, Modelama Exports in
Plot no.105-106, Phase 1, Udyog Vihar, Gurgaon.

Md. Rabban, who had been working, sampling, stitching, sewing,
washing, ironing and producing clothes for Modelama, for the past more
than 7 years and in the 105 unit since its production started three
and-half years back, hailed from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, and was paid the
measly minimum wage of Rs.4200 (after the cuts for ESI, PF, and the
‘breaks’, from Rs. 4800). As usual, on 15 January also, Rabban reached
in the morning 9.30 am shift to start his day on the production line
to work till 6.30am the next day, to resume work again at 9.30am.
There were two breaks of half-hour each at 1.30-2pm, and then again at
6.30-7 (which workers pay for themselves, and for which wage is
deducted from the workers themselves), a dinner break from 8.30-9.30pm
(tasteless stale food in the canteen, for which the company pays a
mere Rs.20), and then a next chai break at 2.30-3am. Ten minutes later
into resuming work, at around 3.10am, in the overtime and already 17
hours into work, one of the live wires protruding out in front of his
machine, electrocuted Rabban as his hand was caught in between the
line. A number of complaints were regularly made about the safety
conditions and specially about the leak in the current in the electric
machines in the production line, and nothing as would cost the company
was done about it. The usual thing that does get done in such
situations by the management is the ‘management’ of the body, i.e. to
wipe it out of sight, as workers recall earlier incidents of the
sweeper in the morning sweeping out litres of blood on occasions of
the death of workers due to over-work, clash with management etc.
However, before any such ‘cleansing’ attempt, the around 80 workers in
the production line who witnessed the incident, made an uproar, and
tried to help their saathi/work-mate. There was a cry for immediately
taking Rabban to the hospital, and because the company had neither
doctors nor an ambulance for such (frequently occuring) situation, and
was also unwilling to spare its own cars, the workers offered to take
him themselves to the hospital in a hired car in front of the company
and were pooling in the Rs.1500 required for the transport. Sensing
the workers reaction, the management (the supervisor and other staff)
shut production immediately, took possession of the body, and took him
to the hospital where he was declared brought dead, and then to the
morgue after post-mortem, and with an rapidity which only came later,
also took the body to the Nizamuddin cemetry and buried him. The
police was informed and an F.I.R registered under Sec.304-A which
declared it a freak ‘accident’.

Meanwhile the workers of the production line, were joined by those
coming in for the morning shift, and anger erupted outside the closed
gates of the factory, with over a thousand workers pelting stones and
breaking the sleek glass front of the company. The low pay, the single
overtime, the non-payment of back wages, the no-offs strictness, the
continued and regular harassment in the form of abuse and even slaps
and beatings, the strong surveillance in the from of
finger-print/biometric entry and the CCTV cameras at every nook and
line with the suspicion of workers-as-thieves while clearly it is the
other way round, all took form in this solidarity action. Workers of
other companies in the area going for their morning shifts also joined
in to express their solidarity and anger. Police was employed to
control the anger, and disperse the angry workers who demanded justice
for Rabban.

The company however came out much later, and made an oral statement
about the promised payment of Rs. 1lakh to the family of the deceased.
And by around 2pm on the 16th, the spontaneous wave of anger was
stifled with the threat of police, targetting-and-possible-suspension
and management-through-the-family. The next day’s newspapers reported
in an insignificant column, an accident in the Modelama company which
was resolved. Work remained suspended on the 16th. /on the 17th
morning, when workers got back to the company, after some initial
tension at the gates, work was resumed. however soon after, in many
departments, many workers again took up the previous day’s incident
and its sham resolution in a general uproar, which the management
stifled with selective representation of some workers, and a promised
50-50 joint-fund of workers and the company’s contribution which will
be paid to the family of Rabban. That it was a direct case of
negligence of the company was skirted and work was resumed again, not
after a fire broke out (it was unclear how, or by whom) in one of the
departments which took some time to be doused.

Read more here -