By Atonu Choudhurri Feb. 25, 2019
As the Lok Sabha elections approach and the industrial sector in West Bengal’s Asansol continues to dissolve, BJP MP Babul Supriyo’s chances of a second term look bleak. The problems facing Supriyo are symptomatic of the ones that have been haunting his party on a national level for some time now.
In Asansol, West Bengal, in the heart of the state’s industrial belt, the vikas that the whole country has been waiting for since 2014 seems even farther off than it does in other places. With a population of close to 12.5 lakh that is growing at a rate of 2.06 per cent compared to Kolkata’s growth rate of 1.73 (according to the 2011 census), Asansol is West Bengal’s fastest growing urban sprawl. But the widespread closure of industrial units here is also closing all avenues of employment for the local workforce, and this puts the local BJP MP Babul Supriyo, into something of a bind.
Though he made his name in playback singing, possibly his most memorable numbers are the songs of praise he sings for PM Modi. The Hooghly resident’s loyalty paid dividends as he got Asansol’s BJP ticket from PM Modi, who then made him Minister of State for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises in 2014. As the Lok Sabha elections approach and the industrial sector in his constituency continues to dissolve, Supriyo’s chances of a return as an MP are bleak. Unfortunately for him, during his February 2 rally, the PM focused on the Union Budget, and said nothing about reviving industries in the once-thriving industrial belt.
But the problems facing “humara Babul” (as he insisted the locals call him) in his own constituency are symptomatic of the ones that have been haunting his party on a national level for some time now. A report from last month in The Caravan titled “Why Have Narendra Modi’s Job Schemes Led to High Unemployment” quotes data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) that reveals as many as 1.1 crore citizens lost their jobs in 2018 alone. Even as Modi offers vague rejoinders about how the “traditional matrix of jobs is simply not good enough to measure new jobs in the new economy of New India,” there’s no denying that unemployment was one of the deciding factors during the state assembly elections last year, when the BJP suffered a string of upsets in five states. For a government that campaigned on the plank of job creation in 2014, the statistics as it comes up for re-election are not as favourable as it hoped they would be.
Back in Asansol, 45-year-old daily wage labourer Subodh Tarafdar’s story is much like the stories of the other 40,000 workers in the industrial units of the region who lost their jobs over the last 10 years. The purge hasn’t stopped yet. Another 50,000 fear to lose jobs after more units are likely to shut down operation, industry sources say. Tarafdar was a loyal employee at Asansol’s Rupnarayanpur unit of Hindustan Cables Limited (HCL) for 10 years. And then one day in 2016, as it happened in Bollywood movies of the ’80s, factory par tala lag gaya. Three years later, Tarafdar continues to do odd jobs – a part-time at a grocery store, some repair work in neighbourhood homes. And money is a constant concern for his family of five.
The response to protests and campaigns run by workers’ unions is such that Supriyo hasn’t appeared in his constituency since 2017.
For many like Tarafdar, the job loss came as a jolt. “We were repeatedly assured of the unit’s revival and job security. The government kept us waiting in the hope that our fortunes too will be revived. It never happened,” he complains. Under Supriyo’s watch, it’s not only Tarafdar’s unit which had to down its shutters – it was preceded by the closure of Burn Standard Company Ltd unit in 2015 and followed by Durgapur-based Refractory Industry in 2017. The closing down of these units, given Supriyo’s position as MoS, Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises has led locals and his political opponents to accuse him of failing to deliver on the campaign promises he made in 2014.
Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) leader and former Asansol MP Bansagopal Chowdhury drives the point home, saying, “Subsequent governments at the Centre ignored the plight of industrial workers in Asansol and Durgapur… Though it’s a collective responsibility of the Centre and the state for the lack of industries in Bengal, but if I speak about Asansol and Durgapur, I must blame the Centre. Babul as a representative of Asansol in the Parliament failed to convince the government to take timely measures to save industries. He rather remained busy with his showbiz.”
The response to protests and campaigns run by workers’ unions is such that Supriyo hasn’t appeared in his constituency since 2017. The workers’ anger is because the minister – who is often vociferous in his protests against Trinamool Congress’ (TMC) land acquisition policy and lack of conducive environment for industry in Bengal – never uttered a single word on the closure of these units. At the eleventh hour, Supriyo is hoping that promotional gimmicks like distributing blankets and organising sports meets in West Burdwan will win him Asansol’s Lok Sabha seat again. But it is counter-productively attracting more criticism as the numbers of those affected by closure of industries are adding up to those already in search of work.
With the general elections months away, no political party except the Left is speaking about reviving Asansol’s industrial potential. Instead, the BJP is passing the buck to the TMC for the closures. All that awaits Asansol and Durgapur now is rising unemployment and a bleak future, whatever the election outcome.