Sugar mill of Motihari: A political cause célèbre evoked and erased at convenience

Farmers and workers have been waiting years for their pending dues. Politicians promise to reopen the mill every election season, only to disappear afterwards.

ByBasant Kumar
Sugar mill of Motihari: A political cause célèbre evoked and erased at convenience
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“I want to tell the prime minister I will forgo the money due my father. They talk about Ram temple. They can use the money for its construction. I just want justice. Get this matter investigated by the CBI, and tell me how my father died,” said Brijesh Baitha.

Brijesh, 24, is the son of Suraj Baitha. In April 2017, Suraj immolated himself while protesting against the closure of the Hanuman sugar mill in Motihari, Bihar, and demanding payment of pending dues to farmers and mill workers. Another protester named Naresh Srivastav also immolated himself.

Before Suraj and Naresh took their lives, prime minister Narendra Modi and his former union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh, the local MP, had promised to reopen the mill. It remains shut to this day.

The mill, owned by Vimal Kumar Nopany, was once the primary source of income for people in Chota Badlapur area. Today it’s an abandoned facility run over by vegetation. Machines in the mill have started falling apart and so has any hope the people had of it reopening.

The abandoned mill.

The abandoned mill.

Not far from the mill, Lalbabu Shah sat at a small tea shop. Asked what had happened to the mill, he became furious. “Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi have killed us,” he said.

Lalbabu, 50, explained the cause of his rage. “What do I say? When Modi ji came here, he spoke at the top of his voice and promised to get this sugar mill reopened. He said he will drink tea with sugar made in this mill. Radha Mohan Singh won the election here and became agriculture minister. And what an agriculture minister! His own constituency’s farmers continue to suffer, our rice crop gets submerged regularly. The sugar mill we used to work in remains shut,” Shah said. “We were waiting for Modi ji to return during the 2019 campaign so we could ask his highness if he wanted to have some tea with sugar from this mill, but he didn’t come.”

Modi campaigned in Motihari as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014, and spoke at length about reopening the mill.

Pramod Kumar, Bihar’s tourism minister, disputed Lalbabu’s claim that Modi had promised to drink tea with sugar made in the mill, even though several farmers in the region have confirmed it. “He didn’t make any such promise,” the minister insisted. “How can he promise to run a private entity?”

The mill reportedly employed about 1,400 regular workers and some 1,200 people in seasonal work. It bought sugarcane from around 30,000 farmers. In 1999, according to Lalbabu, the mill paid Rs 30 crore to the farmers and the workers. Then, it all went downhill.

After 2002, the mill ran only occasionally before shutting down for good. Nobody is certain as to when exactly the factory closed, noting that it seemed to just fade away. Its closure, however, has badly affected the local population who complain that neither Radha Mohan Singh nor Pramod Kumar, the local MLA from the BJP, have done much to help.

An erstwhile labourer at the mill, Lalbabu Shah.

An erstwhile labourer at the mill, Lalbabu Shah.

“People are so angry with these politicians,” said Lalbabu. “Neither Radhan Mohan Singh nor Pramod Kumar visit the village. People would have taken them to the cleaners had they visited. People will express their outrage in the election now. Two days ago, the people of an adjacent village pushed Pramod Kumar into mud. Two of our fellow workers died but they did not care at all.”

Pending dues

Though the mill had stopped production years ago, the workers continued to mark their attendance until 2018. Their salaries kept accumulating and were never paid. Many workers died waiting to receive their salaries and now their children are struggling to get what is due their families.

Several families still live in the quarters built for the mill’s workers, even though they are dilapidated and almost uninhabitable now. The buildings are run over by thick vegetation and the drains are uncovered. But in the absence of a steady income and with their pending salaries not paid, the families have nowhere else to go.

Shashibhusan Kumar stays in one of these quarters. He and his father both worked at the mill. He told Newslaundry: “The prime minister came here before the 2014 election and said on his next visit he would drink tea with sugar from this mill, but nothing happened. Radhan babu couldn’t do anything despite being the agriculture minister. All our representatives, be it the MP, the MLA or the municipal corporator are from the BJP, but none have come to look at our condition.”

Shashibhushan Kumar and Vinod Kumar Prasad talking to Newslaundry.

Shashibhushan Kumar and Vinod Kumar Prasad talking to Newslaundry.

He continued, “We are living in really bad conditions. We have lost all hope of the mill opening again. My father died worrying about this, and he isn’t the only one. The mill owes me and my father Rs 15 lakh. Our earnings of a lifetime and our future security is stuck here.”

Ram Vinod Prasad, who too stays in one of the mill quarters, said he was owed Rs 20 lakh. “The government and the mill owner are both responsible for the mill closing down,” he said. “The owner, Vimal Kumar, kept borrowing from the government and spending the money on himself. The government did not pay any attention and the debt kept piling up. It was during the RJD rule that the mill was closed down. When Nitish Kumar came to power, he didn’t pay any attention either. The BJP people also didn’t do anything.”

Ram added, “Hundreds of people have died due to the lack of food and medicine in this place. One man died recently because of stress. People have no money, all their life’s earnings are stuck. Our children are growing up, daughters have to be married. How will we do it? We went to Nitish Kumar, Sushil Modi, Lalu Yadav, but nobody listened to us. We have one simple demand: pay our dues.”

The Hanuman mill owes money not only to workers such as Shashibhushan and Ram, but also to thousands of farmers in the region.

One such farmer is Shambhu Shah. “We gave sugarcane to the mill and we got receipts in return but were never paid. We kept taking our crops there, thinking that ultimately we would be paid. We kept doing so until the sum increased to Rs 10-12 lakh,” he said. “We have been demanding our payment since 2000. I have saved the receipts in the hope that the government will wake up some day and help us get our money. Some of the farmers have died holding the receipts and now their children are waiting for the dues.”

According to Parmanand Thakur, the secretary of the mill workers’ union, the mill owes Rs 17.41 crore to the farmers and Rs 65 crore to its workers.

The mill's gate remains closed to this day.

The mill's gate remains closed to this day.

No relief

The Motihari sugar mill has become a talking point in this election. RJD leader Tejasvi Yadav recently brought it up to target Modi, “In 2014, he spoke about reopening the sugar mill in Motihari,” he said. “What did he do for the place where he wanted to have tea?”

Rahul Gandhi of the Congress too spoke about the mill on the campaign trail.

Political rhetoric, though, offers no consolation for the people whose lives have been greatly damaged by the closure of the mill. Such as the families of Suraj Baitha and Naresh Srivastav.

Suraj was the joint secretary and Naresh the general secretary of the mill workers’ union when they launched a protest demanding the payment of their pending salaries in 2017. Saying their pleas were going unheard, they self-immolated in front of the mill on April 10, 2017. Naresh died the same night, Suraj succumbed to his injuries nine days later.

Suraj’s family now lives in Badka Bariyarpur. His widow, Maya Devi, said the family struggled to make ends meet when the mill closed down. After Suraj died, even the small income he earned by doing odd painting jobs stopped. Staring at their old photograph hanging in the room, she said, “He left me. I knew he was protesting. But I didn’t know he would take such a step. Had I known he was going to do it that day I would have stopped him. My young children became orphans. Brijesh is my firstborn and he was very young at the time. Now he has started earning a bit as a labourer.”

Maya broke down narrating her ordeal. She said the mill owed her family Rs 15 lakh.

Maya Devi.

Maya Devi.

Suraj’s family have suspicions about his death. Brijesh alleged that his father was killed as part of a “conspiracy” involving the mill’s owners, certain people in the workers’ union and the local administration.

“My father didn’t have a lot of burns. He had recovered and begun to talk,” Brijesh said. “He was being pressured to register a statement under section 164 but he wanted to register his statement in court. As this was going on, a medical team from Motihari reached the hospital. We were told they had come to assist with the treatment. But if Motihari had better doctors then why was my father referred to Patna in the first place? My father died the next day after the team’s arrival. Was it all just a coincidence?”

The family demanded a CBI investigation into his father’s death, Brijesh said, but their pleas went unheeded. “If there can be so much noise for Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, why can’t the deaths of my father and his friend be investigated?”

He continued, “Radha Mohan Singh visited our place and promised to help us in any way he could. At that time, Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar were in power together. A few months later, the BJP came back to power but nothing changed for us. We got Rs 4.15 lakh as compensation from the government only after Swami Agnivesh pressured them. I don’t want the money, I want justice.”

Former agriculture minister, Radhamohan Singh, with Brijesh.

Former agriculture minister, Radhamohan Singh, with Brijesh.

Naresh’s wife, Poornima Devi, was left desolate after her husband’s death. They didn’t have children and when Naresh died, his family members took over his quarters at the mill, forcing Poornima to seek shelter at a relative’s next door.

“They tried to bribe Naresh several times,” she alleged, without explicitly naming the mill officials. “When they couldn’t bribe him he was attacked, but they couldn’t scare him. He kept fighting for workers and farmers. He had only wish, that everyone be paid their dues.”

She too suspects foul play in her husband’s death. “I was visiting my father when it happened. I couldn’t imagine they would do something like this. He had been protesting for a long time,” she said. “We reached Patna as soon as we could. His condition was serious, he was burnt everywhere. I couldn't talk to him. He died at about four in the morning. I survive staying here and there now.”

Naresh Srivastava.

Naresh Srivastava.

Naresh was hastily cremated in the dead of the night without the family’s consent, Poornima alleged. “Nobody paid any heed to his written warning about self-immolation, but when he died the entire area around the sugar mill was turned into an encampment. Power was cut. He died at 4 am, and the autopsy went on until evening. The police arrived with his body late at night and made all the arrangements for his cremation themselves. He was cremated at night. None of our relatives were present. We had wanted to cremate him in front of the mill, so that his statue could be erected there later. But the police didn’t let us.”

Poornima Devi.

Poornima Devi.

After her husband’s death, Poornima, along with Maya, came to Delhi with the social activist Swami Agnivesh to protest at Jantar Mantar. The protest pressured the Bihar government to pay her Rs 4 lakh as compensation. “I got some of the pending dues from the company as well but it ran out,” she said. “The company still owes my husband lakhs of rupees.”

Poornima had filed an FIR against the mill’s owner, Vimal Kumar Nopany, and manager, RP Singh, in connection with her husband’s death. “Police filed a case on Poornima Devi’s complaint just to save themselves,” said Parmanand. “We appealed it in court and a new case was registered as a result. It saw a few hearings but then the manager died. Meanwhile, the owner got bail from the Patna court. He too is dead now.”

No hope

Unemployment is a major campaign issue in this election. Although the employment scene was never good in Bihar, the return of labourers en masse during the coronavirus lockdown has only made the situation worse. Most sugar mills or such places of employment are shut. Politicians promise to reopen them when in opposition but forget about them when they take power.

The local legislator, Pramod Kumar, was himself associated with the sugar mill workers’ union once. He would always be at the forefront demanding that the mill function properly and the workers be paid on time, his fellow workers from the time said. After he was elected and became minister, he forgot about the mill and its workers, they complained.

Asked about the closure of the mill and the struggles of the workers, the minister wouldn’t give a straight answer.

Inside of the now closed mill.

Inside of the now closed mill.

The sugar mill was a private enterprise, the minister said, but after the self-immolation by Suraj and Naresh, Radha Mohan Singh had advised Bihar’s government to acquire the mill and reopen it. After a few months, the RJD-JDU alliance split up and Radha Mohan Singh’s own party, the BJP, came to power, but even then the suggestion was not taken up. Sushil Kumar Modi had visited Motihari to meet the workers in the wake of the deaths, and attacked the RJD-JDU government. He became deputy chief minister not long after but did nothing about it.

“When the BJP was in opposition the sugar mill used to be their main issue to attack the government, but the moment Radha Mohan Singh became the agriculture minister it disappeared from their agenda,” Anand Prakash, a seasoned local journalist, said. “Today, the land of the sugar mill is being sold at throwaway prices despite being opposed by everyone here. People in the government know this but no one is listening.”

Sanjay Kumar, who lives in one of the mill quarters, said, “The workers’ union took this matter to the Patna high court. An order was given to pay the workers and the farmers what they were owed. The order said they should be paid by selling the property of the sugar mill. The land till the gate of the mill has been sold, and big houses are coming up there but no one has received a single rupee. People have died waiting to receive their dues. There’s no hope that the sugar mill will open again.”

UPDATE: Modi held a campaign rally in Motihari on November 1 where he spoke about job opportunities for Bihar’s youth. He said the increasing use of ethanol for fuel would create more avenues for employment like at the Sugauli sugar mill, which is about 24 km from Motihari. The prime minister didn’t mention the Hanuman sugar mill.

A version of this story was previously published on Newslaundry Hindi.

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