Why the Jackfruit Tree Had Everything & Nothing to Do With the CEO’s Murder

Anuradha Sharma
Grist Media
The CEO's room inside the jute mill. Photo by Ananda Das


The evil that men do lives after them
The good is oft interred with their bones.

Shakespeare could not ring truer than in the labour colony – called the ‘Coolie Lines’ – of the Northbrook Jute Mill here in Champdani in West Bengal’s Hooghly district, almost 35km from Kolkata. Days after a section of them bludgeoned their burra-sahib (the big boss) to death, the workers betray no signs of grief or repentance, recounting with zeal why Hare Krishna Maheshwari, the chief executive officer of the jute mill, “deserved” his fate.

On June 15, Maheshwari was beaten to death, allegedly by angry factory workers agitating against a move to bring down the number of working hours (on which their wages depend) in order to scale down production. The incident, described as the most gruesome in recent times, has sparked off fears of a return of militant trade unionism in a state with a history of industries winding up owing to violent labour politics.

One only has to speak to the workers and their family members to understand the atmosphere of simmering hatred that Maheshwari worked in and the fragile management-labour relations following the deepening crisis in the jute sector, as true elsewhere as at Northbrook.

***

The sky is overcast with dark monsoon clouds that have just arrived. The air in the ‘Coolie Lines’ of Northbrook Jute Mill is thick with moisture and sloth. When I arrive, the mill is declared closed for an indefinite period (it reopened on July 1 after a closure of 15 days), and the workers are waiting around.

I’ve barely begun to talk to a man in a white banyan and blue, checked lungi when a motley crowd gathers about us. A charpoy is laid out under a peepal tree for me to sit on. Most remain standing, some sit on the cement platform around the tree, and some on their haunches. A cyclist balances himself on his mount with one leg on the ground.

Despite the immediate hospitality offered to me, my hosts are not in a particularly pleasing mood, annoyed at the unfavourable media coverage they’ve been getting. “The burra-sahib has been killed in the most gruesome way allegedly by some of your colleagues, shocking everybody. What did you expect?” I’d barely uttered the lines when I found myself in the vortex of angry voices.

“And are we not human beings?”

“Our plight does not shock anyone?”

“To put it bluntly, it is the hunger of the poor – helpless labourers like us – that killed the burra-sahib.” Having said that, the bulky man resumes his way to the market. “There is no point in talking to you. Like others, you will write only their (the management’s) side of the story, not ours.”

Pausing, he repeats: “He deserved his fate.”

A sudden shower fills the following silence. It’s not rain. A gust of wind is shaking the water off the peepal leaves above our heads.

The ends that wouldn’t meet

“Things have been bad for us for a long time but ever since this burra-sahib took up the reins some years ago, things only worsened,” says Shiv Narayan Burman, working at Northbrook since 1990, settling down beside me on the cot. “He used fewer and fewer workers to do the same job. So, while our workload increased, our earnings went down because we were working fewer numbers of days. It has become extremely difficult for us to make ends meet.”

As everybody begins to speak at the same time, a self-appointed moderator gets the workers to speak one at a time.

The workers have been on tenterhooks, particularly since November 2013, when the shifts were brought down to five hours from the usual eight hours. In March, it was closed for over a month following labour unrest, reopening just before the elections with five-hour shifts. When it closed again in June after Maheshwari was killed, it had been just about a month since the factory had restored the eight-hour shifts.

Cutting down on labour was the biggest complaint against Maheshwari, says Mohammed Aslam, a local leader in the All-India Trade Union Congress, at his place later on. “In trying to bring down the labour costs, he earned the wrath of the workers who were living in constant fear and insecurity.” Aslam is a prominent trade union leader at the jute mill and shared a “cordial” and “very good relationship” with Maheshwari.

Northbrook has 3,900 workers on its payroll earning different wages depending on their category. There are generally three broad categories of workers in the jute mill – regular ones, new entrants of 2002 and new entrants of 2010 (tripartite agreements were made in 2002 and 2010 governing workers’ wages) – apart from temporary workers. The wages of regular workmen are governed by the Wage Board, and begin at Rs 400 per eight-hour shift. The new entrants or badli workers, as they are known, get anywhere between Rs 100 and Rs 350 per eight-hour shift. In addition, there are temporary workers earning paltry wages who are not entitled to other employment benefits. Sometimes, jute mills are also known to employ workers on contracts – unofficial arrangements between workers and managements.

Burra-sahib could have been in a similar situation earlier too,” Aslam tells me, describing an incident on March 4, two days before the factory lockout. “The management had contracted work at the bale godown to some workers. When some workers of that department reported for duty and discovered that their work had been contracted to others, they created a ruckus and even attacked burra-sahib. Had it not been for a group of other workers who cordoned him off and whisked him away, the encounter could have been fatal.” After a month-long closure the factory reopened, but the relation between the workers and the management remained soured like never before.

Lungi-clad Ambika Ram ambles in to our tree-shade symposium wiping his sweat with a gamchha. Our moderator allows him to speak out of chance. “I retired in 2011 and I am yet to get my gratuity. This is what I get after putting 36 years in the company.” Later, during the walk through the labour quarters, another retired worker, Aniruddha Paswan, comes along. He says he is also yet to receive his gratuity even though he retired in 2012. Both are convinced that if their burra-sahib had willed it, they’d have got their dues in time.

Inside Coolie Lines

Some 800 families of workers live in the Northbrook Coolie Lines, a colony believed to be as old as the 106-year-old jute mill. Each family is entitled to one mid-size room and a small kitchen space at the entrance. A big open drain runs right through the kitchens of all units. “The roof (of earthen tiles) leaks,” says Mina Devi, wife of a mill worker. A big bed occupies most of the space in her room. Trunks are stacked against one wall. On the other side, a portable television set vies for space with a legion of gods and goddess that spill over from a wooden shrine fixed on the wall. Mina Devi lives with her husband and two sons in that room. There was a time when that room accommodated eight people. “All four of our daughters are happily married. They visit us occasionally,” she says.

It’s dark inside and she switches on an overhead CFL lamp. They receive electricity for only two hours in the day – from 12pm to 2pm – and eight hours in the night – 6pm to 2am. “Imagine how hard it must be for my children to study here. One of them is in class eleven and the other in [second year BA],” she adds.

Mina Devi and a couple of women take me through the Coolie Lines, insisting I see their bathrooms and lavatories. “There are only two toilets and bathrooms each for the Hindu and Muslim lines,” one of them says with the air of a tour guide. “That’s the bathroom,” she says pointing to a corner. The bathroom is a doorless open space with a moss-grown brick floor and has water running from a pipe at the top.

A group is playing cards under the shade of a tree. However, not a single worker who was at the mill when the tragic incident took place is to be found. They’ve all fled, presumably to their homes in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa fearing arrests, according to my guides. They show me the deserted quarters and locked doors. “Everyone is scared. Anyone can get arrested,” says Seemanto Paswan, who is loitering in front of his house wearing nothing but a gamchha waist-down. “Even we go into hiding at nights. We cannot be risked being found in our homes.”

Tapan Singh, the brother of arrested security guard Swapan Singh, is angry. “All those who could be involved have fled, and they have picked up my brother who has nothing to do with the crime,” he says during the ‘moderated’ session under the peepal tree. “My brother was taking a walk after dinner when the police came and picked him up. If he were guilty, would he have been around when most others have fled or are in hiding?”

The police have arrested eight workers so far. “The investigations have been handed over to the Crime Investigation Department (CID),” says Sunil Choudhary, the Hooghly district police superintendent, on the phone some days later. He is not willing to reveal anything significant.

While I’m interacting with the workers in the Coolie Lines, a team of CID officials are examining the scene of the crime inside the jute mill premises.

The house that jute built

Sixty-nine-year-old Maheshwari, the president and chief of operations at the 106-year-old Northbrook Jute Mill, was a “loving and caring” father to his children. “He was protective of us, yet he prepared us to face the world as it comes,” says Mayank, Maheshwari’s 31-year-old son, at his father’s company flat at Northbrook. His uncle Jai Krishna and sister Payal join the conversation in the gloomy living room.

Born in Rajasthan, Maheshwari had moved to Bengal as a young man. Over a 40-year career he worked with a range of employers, all in jute. He is survived by his 65-year-old wife Sunita and three children – Payal, Anjali and Mayank.

It’s been two weeks since his father’s death but Mayank’s eyes are still red from fresh tears. The Chicago-based consultant with an IT firm remembers his father for a very strong work ethic. So much so his father asked Mayank not to rush to India when he had a heart attack last year. “I wanted to be by his side, but he insisted I concentrate on my work instead.”

Mayank was expecting to see his parents in the US towards the end of July. The tickets were all booked and Maheshwari was “greatly looking forward” to his trip (as trade union leader Aslam had earlier recounted).

Over two years ago, the Maheshwaris moved into a spartan flat in the River Breeze apartment complex bang opposite the main gate of the Northbrook Jute Mill. The upscale housing complex on the Hooghly riverbank has come up on the land on which the burra-sahib and other management staff traditionally had their quarters. The management staff are housed in one of the ten-block complex.

The Maheswaris believe that the murder was a “pre-planned job” but are at a loss to fathom the reason behind it. “He was a good boss and enjoyed the love and respect of workers,” Jai Krishna, Maheshwari’s brother says. “He was someone who’d always stand by his workers. He has even helped them with money from his own pocket – sometimes even Rs 20-30,000 to each worker – whenever they had a wedding at home or some medical emergency.” The son adds that his father loved the workers as much as he loved his job.

Maheshwari had had many stints at Northbrook before and after it was taken over by the current owners, the Punrasar Group, in 2005. From 2000 till his death, he was “called back by his current employers five times,” according to his brother Jai Krishna. His latest stint was from 2012, his last years coinciding with one of the worst times for the jute sector.

I ask the siblings if the stress of working in the crisis-ridden industry ever showed at home. “Never,” the son is quick to reply. “He always kept his professional and personal lives separate.”

But nevertheless Maheshwari’s family was “generally concerned” about his well being, largely owing to Bengal’s track record of violent trade unionism and the progressively worsening jute sector, but there was nothing specific to fear. “How on earth could we imagine such a fate awaited our father! We’d have never let him stay here if we’d even got a whiff of what was to come,” says the son.

Jai Krishna once asked his brother about his retirement plans. Maheshwari told him that in the jute sector, they could go on working as long as they were fit and enjoyed themselves. “This is because there are very few people left with the experience and ability to run jute mills these days. So, my brother continued working, never once thinking of retiring.”

“We have very fond memories of growing up in the bungalows of the jute mill. It was a beautiful childhood,” says Payal, Mayank’s sister, a homemaker currently living in Mumbai. The siblings are grappling with the idea that the jute mill areas which they so far associated with their fond childhood memories should be the cause of such pain. That the same jute mills have meant deprived childhoods and adult lives to most of the workers there is something the siblings are predictably oblivious to.

It isn’t just labourers, even the management staff of jute mills seem to be denied some important privileges, Payal points out, with little sense of irony. “It is so surprising that the company does not offer group insurance coverage to its staff. If my father had some kind of coverage, my mother would have been entitled to some benefits at this hour of crisis.”

Little big things

At the Coolie Lines, a worker who does not want to be identified recounts how he was refused medical leave by the burra-sahib about a month ago. His leg was hurting and he could not use the machine, but still the burra-sahib did not let him go. According to a new rule started by Maheshwari a little more than a month ago, the workers were reportedly asked to get the CEO’s signature on their dispensary forms if they took ill and wanted medical leave. “Only he had the authority to decide whether or not we were sick enough to take leave, sometimes overruling the decision of the dispensary staff,” says the distressed worker.

All through the tree-shade adda and during the walk through the quarters, workers’ wrath hangs in the air like moisture. Everyone has a tale to tell of the burra-sahib. “I once saw him hitting a worker with a rod,” says one. Others nod but no one backs up his claim.

Their anger is directed as much at their lives as at their burra-sahib. The issues need not be big or, sometimes, even concern them directly. They are angry that their children who used to bring their breakfasts are no longer allowed to come inside their workplace and are asked to wait near the gate (the morning shifts generally begin at 5am). They are angry that the burra-sahib did not remove his shoes at a religious ceremony organized by them last year. They are angry that the gates are opened only chink-wide for them to enter, instead of keeping them wide open. They are angry also that Maheshwari sold off the factory’s scrap. “He sold off an entire jetty on the Hooghly, imagine!” And they are angry that the fruits and vegetables that grew on the factory premises are not shared with them anymore. “We no longer get to even touch the jackfruits, the green coconuts and the drumsticks growing in our trees,” one of the women walking with me says.

The issue of the fruits was officially raised among other issues by union leaders at the meeting – which was to propose a scale-down of working hours – held the morning that Maheshwari was killed. “Jute mill workers, living in those ramshackle quarters all their lives, share a close relation with the factory premises,” Aslam reasons. “It’s where they spend most of their time. They have a strong sense of ownership over the natural resources around. They did not take very kindly to the fact that burra-sahib sold off the fruits and vegetables outside.”

The extent of Maheshwari’s demonization is complete with his gun-toter image. No one has seen it, but everyone believes that he carried a gun with him. “Not just one, he carried two guns,” says a young worker as our entourage winds its way back to the peepal tree where it had begun.

Aslam, who lives in a three-storied marble-floored residence very close to the labour lines, laughs it off. “I never saw it.”

Repressed aggression

Long-term suppressed aggression, says Ishita Chatterjee, assistant professor in the department of applied psychology at Calcutta University, is a possible reason why Northbrook workers turned violent. “Sometimes a small trigger is enough to give vent to the repressed aggression and that takes a big shape, resulting in extremely violent behaviour,” Chatterjee, who specializes in industrial psychology, says on the phone. “I visited some jute mills recently. A lot of anger and frustration is latent in the workers. They work under a lot of pressure. They are not satisfied with what they get paid for their work. The monotonous nature of their job only makes things worse,” she adds.

Anuradha Talwar, a labour rights’ activist, says extreme job insecurity and growing socio-economic disparity between the jute workers and the urban rich of the surrounding areas are major causes of frustration and discontentment among them. “The crisis is deepening and it is sadly the workers who have to bear the brunt of it while the owners seem to get away with everything,” she says in a phone interview. The situation is not just confined to the jute sector. In all the three key sectors – jute, tea and engineering – workers are earning lesser than even those in the unorganized sector.

Among the top three

In the swanky Brabourne Road office of the owners of Northbrook, the Punrasar Group, corporate advisor Nandlal Shah is examining a stapled sheaf of hand-written notes. “This is the plan of a 200-loom project prepared by Maheshwariji. He handed this to me a couple of days ago,” the septuagenarian says. He then breaks into mock laughter before reading out some of the contents, written neatly in round, wide-spaced handwriting on ruled sheets.

A diversified group, Punrasar owns two other jute mills in West Bengal and a jute park in Bihar, and has interests in real estate and financial services.

“He was a sound technical person and I, a chartered accountant,” says Shah. “Trained in jute technology, Maheshwariji had more than 30 years of experience in the industry. Together, we made a great team,” he adds, fishing out a copy of a project proposal made jointly with Maheshwari. “He was among the top three CEOs around.”

Earlier, Sanjay Kajaria, the former chairman of the Indian Jute Mills Association and who formerly employed Maheshwari, had told me at his Dalhousie office that the slain CEO was among the 10 best senior executives in the state. “He had vast experience and the ability to run a mill in trying times,” he said. “Any company would have hired him anytime.”

Northbrook Jute Mill has had a chequered past. In his office, Punrasar Group chairman Prakash Chand Choraria says the mill was a sick unit when he first joined as a co-promoter in 2005 and later acquired it from the Ganeriwals in 2008. “We’ve finally been able to bring about a turnaround and are slowly nursing it back to health.”

There’s no point in speaking of profit, he says. “Most of our earnings are still going in clearing past liabilities.”

Like most mills in the industry, Northbrook runs at 60 to 70 per cent capacity, Choraria said. In answer to every question on Northbrook, both Choraria and his corporate advisor Shah emphasize that there’s no reason to single out the jute mill. Choraria says, “If you compare us with industry standards, our workers are much better looked after. We pay our full-rate workers Rs 575 a day, which is higher than the industry average. It may not be the perfect place, but we are trying. Our contributions to the employers’ provident fund and Employee’s State Insurance are also more or less up-to-date. We’ve also been able to handover pension and other benefits to our retired staff at the time they are retiring; not many in the industry can make that claim. We inherited the company with all its liabilities. There was a massive backlog in gratuity payment. Every month, we’ve been clearing the gratuities of at least 10 retired workers. Not too many retired workers are left now.”

The house that jute didn’t build

Choraria admits to the appalling living standards of Northbrook workers. “It is even worse in many other mills,” he said, careful not to let me “judge Northbrook in isolation”.

He believes a good living environment would go a long way in improving labour standards and coolie-management relations, but says this is not something that he, or any other mill owner, can do on their own. He says, “Workers need education and better facilities, but all these are beyond our means. No matter how much I agree that it is essential and we want it, we cannot afford to build modern living quarters for the workers. Five years ago I had written to the local municipal authorities offering our land for a joint housing project. I had envisioned multi-storied apartments of one bedroom-hall-kitchen units and a children’s park. Nothing came of it.”

Jute owners have their own share of complaints against the workers living in Coolie Lines. Kajaria had sounded helpless. “Retired workers do not vacate the quarters. Many sub-let them illegally. The Coolie Lines are beyond the reach of the management and are under complete control of the local landlords who are often found sub-letting rooms. With the meagre house rent deducted from their wages, it’s not possible to maintain the quarters properly,” he explains.

The blame on workers piles up. Choraria says he has no problem providing them with 24-hour power supply, “but only for their metered, domestic use and not to be pilfered indiscriminately by power-theft gangs” that operate in the labour lines. “We are forced to ration the supply of power. We’ve always found a huge difference in the power supplied to them and the meter readings, according to which they pay. We’ve told them, we will extend whatever cooperation as may be required from us in order to get a connection from the state grid.”

Power theft, according to Kajaria, is an “industry-wide” menace and that labour groups are often found running “mini-industries” on the side in their labour lines using pilfered power.

The money end

An employee gives me a tour of the Punrasar Group’s office, especially the section dealing with diversified jute products that the company produces from its jute park in Bihar. The fancy bags and carpets are almost entirely exported. The company has been trying to promote jute-diversified products for the past three years or so. But it’s a small portion of their business.

Industrywide, only about 3-5 per cent of jute is used for diversified products, while the rest is used in sacking and hessian. Central government procurement of jute bags for mandatory jute packaging of sugar and food-grain via the Food Corporation of India has been the lifeline for the jute sector. But the orders are a small fraction of what it used to be. After the incident at Northbrook, as many as five other mills have suspended work. Labour unrest prevails in several others.

The order promised by the government of India for the May-June period was 4.5 lakh bales, but the actual order came to just 2 lakh bales. Low government orders and superficially created overestimation, and the deliberate move to accommodate polluting plastic bags for packing food grain and sugar have ruined the industry in the past few years,” says Kajaria.

With shrinking orders and overflowing godowns of jute that was bound to go bad in the rains, the Northbrook management thought the only way out was to curtail production. Choraria says the management was “forced” to resort to proposing – “mind you, it was still at the discussion stage and nothing was finalized” – a three-day shift or reduction in working hours to cut down on production.

Labour costs

In the financial year ending 2013, Northbrook clocked a turnover of about Rs 170 crore, of which Rs 40 crore went into labour costs. “The labour costs comprise roughly 25 per cent of the total turnover, which is massive,” Shah says. “The cost of raw jute was 55 per cent.” With labour costs being the major challenge for the company, Maheshwari tried, in his own way, to increase labour productivity and bring down costs, at the cost of earning the workers’ wrath.

Choraria says that in March, before the closure, the workers were opposed to both cutting down staff and increasing productivity. “In the finishing department, 20 workers were employed against the industry average of seven,” he said. “When Maheshwariji tried to bring this down to a realistic level, the workers agitated, leading the factory to a lock-out. The mill reopened after a tripartite meeting at the Deputy Labour Commissioner’s office, in which it was settled that nine workers would be employed.”

In defence of the little big things

Many who knew Maheshwari closely described him as a tough taskmaster and stickler for discipline. Both Choraria and Shah complimented Maheshwari on bringing discipline to the mill.

“He had a good grasp of mill work and could get workers to give their best,” Aslam, the trade union leader had said at his residence in Champdani. “However, he went too far in bringing everything under his control in his bid to enforce discipline among workers.”

Maheshwari’s new, hugely unpopular, rule that all permission for medical leave could be granted only by him was to ensure that workers did not falsely call in sick. “He need not have bothered himself with it and should have got others to look into it,” Aslam said.

A Northbrook insider who didn’t want to be named draws my attention to another possibility: “Maybe his uncompromising attitude went against him and he had to pay for it with his life. The attack on him seems to me like an act of revenge by the workers,”

“But what had he done?”

“He must have charge-sheeted some workers who got back at him.”

According to the Factories Act, 1948, the services of mill-workers cannot be terminated at the will of the owners. Shah explained, “It’s more like a show-cause notice. A domestic (internal) inquiry follows a charge-sheet and a worker is dismissed only if he is found guilty.” Maheshwari was a charge-sheet-happy burra-sahib, the workers had said.

More explanations that Maheshwari’s actions were grossly misunderstood. “Shipments do not arrive in barges anymore, so who needs the jetty anyway,” Kajaria said responding to the “petty” complaints the workers had piled up against Maheshwari, one of them being his selling off of factory scrap.

Choraria said: “If he didn’t allow their children to get inside factory premises with their breakfast, it was for the safety of the children who could injure themselves. Again, he had workers’ safety in mind when he did not allow them to climb the tall coconut trees.” And, with a few trees and thousands of workers and their families to partake of them, the fruits and vegetables were a constant source of quarrel between workers. “So, it was better to sell them off,” Choraria explained.

The last day

On June 15, 2014, Maheshwari arrives at his office around 6am as he has done in the recent past. Earlier, he would usually be at the mill between 4 and 4.30 am. The meeting of the management and workers represented by their nine trade union leaders begins around 8am. Chairman Choraria comes over from the Kolkata headquarters of the company and is joined by his top management executives, including Maheshwari. The main agenda is to propose the scaling down of working hours. [“Many issues were discussed, and, yes, also this about those fruits and drumsticks,” Choraria recalled at his office.]

It is a cordial meeting. The management side puts their situation before the trade-union leaders and tells them the mill can run only three shifts a week for the time being. [“They understood the problem. It was a peaceful meeting and they said they’d discuss among themselves and hold another meeting at 4pm.”] The meeting ends around 10.30am and Choraria leaves for Kolkata immediately.

As the word spread, rumours that the mill will be closed down circulate. Agitated workers stop work and begin to march to the main office across the lawn. [“The spinning, winding and weaving departments shut down one by one,” Aslam recalled. He was at the weaving department when the burra-sahib called to ask if that department too had closed down. “I said yes and he quickly disconnected the line.”]

In the meantime, senior officials gather inside burra-sahib’s chamber as workers begin sloganeering against him. The security guard locks the collapsible gate that the workers are banging.

Maheshwari rises saying he will speak to the workers. One of them, probably general manager Kamal Nath Jha, holds his hand to stop him. Maheshwari shakes him off and when the security guard hesitates to open the gate, he says: “Who’s the burra-sahib? Open the gate. I will talk to them.”

When Aslam arrives at the scene, burra-sahib is already out speaking to the workers. He stands next to him and tries to calm the workers. Some heated words are exchanged, but the mood is still under control.

Suddenly, a young worker raises his voice against Maheshwari, at which point someone asks him to mind his tongue. “Why should he?” some workers shout and that triggers another agitation. Suddenly a brick is hurled at Maheshwari. More bricks are hurled and before long the burra-sahib is swallowed by the crowd. He slumps to the ground. The workers do not stop even after the burra-sahib falls. They attack him with rods, flowerpots and slabs of broken concrete. [“They were ruthless, like monsters. They were pointed in their attack. They hit him from a very close range.”]

By the time the police arrive, which is not too long afterwards, they flee. Maheshwari is lying on the ground barely alive; his head is bleeding and his blue-and-white striped T-shirt are soaked in blood.

When Maheshwari is taken to a private hospital at Uttarpara, he is declared brought dead.

H K Maheshwari's murder: Timeline of events


Anuradha Sharma is an independent journalist based in Kolkata. She writes on politics and culture. She tweets @NuraSharma