Tamil Nadu: Contract Workers of Neyveli Lignite Corporation on a Protracted Struggle for Justice
Neyveli Lignite Corporation of India Limited (NLC) is a central public sector undertaking established in 1956 under the Ministry of Coal, Government of India. The CPSU produces 30 million tons of lignite annually from open cast mines in Neyveli, the coal town of Tamil Nadu and Barsingsar of Rajasthan. It owns thermal power stations with an installed capacity of 3640 MW. Its estimated revenue for 2020 is 11,592.70 Cr with a net income of 1441.37 Cr and it’s total assets worth 53,488.13 Cr.
The CPSU has about 5000 permanent workers and 12000 contract workers. The bulk of contract workers are supplied through Indcoserve, an industrial workers cooperative society. There are many established unions among permanent workers and Labour Progressive Federation (LPF – an affiliate of DMK) is the sole bargaining agent, elected in the latest participatory union elections.
The contract workers are organised by Jeeva Contract Workers Union. The Jeeva Union has been spearheading a protracted struggle for years with the demands for regularisation of contract workers, equal pay for equal work, and other social security benefits.
The NLC is spread over 65,000 acres of land, which was acquired from farmers with an assurance of providing employment, alternative house sites and other benefits. However, the NLC management betrayed the promises and provided employment through Indcoserve, a contract agency, to a section of the people as contract workers. Even as contract workers carry out same and similar kind of work like permanent workers, they are paid a meagre wages and allowances. After repeated struggles, the contract workers were issued uniforms, shoes, safety equipments and provided with canteen facilities. As accidents are quite common in mines, the contract workers are prone to accidents. There have been several incidents of loss of limbs and lives. However, there is a big disparity in the compensation for accidents involving permanent workers and contract workers.
In July 2023, the contract labourers raised a six-point charter of demands including regularisation of services, Rs. 50,000 salary per month until regularization, permanent employment to contract workers who gave their land to NLC. As the NLC management was not ready to look into the demands, the union served strike notice on 26 July. Thousands of workers gathered daily before the NLC gate to voice their demands. Apprehending law-and-order problems, the management of NLC approached the High Court of Madras for prohibiting the strike and protests.
As per the High Court direction, workers shifted the protest spot. The High Court further advised the NLC management to resolve the dispute amicably. As there seemed to be no solution at sight, the court proposed appointment of a one-man commission headed by a retired judge to look into the matter. In the meanwhile, striking workers resorted to indefinite fast. Some of the workers fainted and were rushed to hospitals. The District Collector intervened and called for a tripartite meeting with workers and the management. The Collector advised workers to call off the strike as the court had seized of the matter and also instructed the management not to resort to victimization of workers due to the strike. Accordingly, the union temporarily withdrew the strike.
Wrath of Farmers Against the Expansion of NLC
NLC acquired thousands of acres of land during 1995 to 2006 for expansion. However, the acquired land was not utilised so far and the farmers continue to do their agricultural activities on the fields. NLC wanted to dig a canal and deployed earth movers to destroy the harvest ready standing crops. Irked by the NLC ‘s move, farmers assembled in huge numbers to halt the illegal and inhuman destruction of crops. The police and local farmers had a violent clash. Police resorted to lathicharge and burst tear gas shells. Four policemen were injured. Hundreds of local farmers who gave their land for NLC were arrested and remanded to custody. Responding to a PIL petition, the court ordered a compensation of Rs 40,000 per acre for the loss of crops and advised farmers not to engage in farming in the acquired land in future and condemned the NLC management for not fencing the acquired land.
Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) demanded the closure of NLC saying that it is hazardous to the environment on the one hand and its contribution to the state in terms of electricity production is also very meagre. He claimed that the electricity produced is distributed to various other states and raised concerns over the depleting water table due to mining activities.
NLC’s expansion plans to excavate mines in various blocks of districts of the delta region of Tamil Nadu was earlier stalled by the then ADMK government fearing backlash from the people and declared the region as a protected agriculture zone under a specially enacted act.
In this backdrop AICCTU expresses solidarity with the union and demands :
• All contract workers be regularized, until then a salary of Rs. 50,000 per month be given, as demanded by contract labour union.
• Stop expansion of NLC at the cost of environment and agriculture.
• Immediate release of arrested farmers and dropping of cases framed against them.
• Time bound solution to other demands of contract workers.
• Appeals permanent workers to join hands with contract workers in their struggle for justice.