Kolkata: The Ambassador brand is changing hands, but at the factory that once built the iconic car, there is little hope of a second life.
“Will they not come back to Uttarpara?” asked Binod Singh, one of the 600-odd workers at the factory in the Kolkata suburb where Hindustan Motors Ltd (HM) manufactured the car till 2014.
On Friday, Hindustan Motors announced an agreement with Groupe PSA, the maker of Citroen and Peugeot cars, to sell the Ambassador brand along with all its goodwill for Rs80 crore. The announcement fuelled speculation that the command economy icon of Indian roads might be brought back to life.
Over the weekend, the French car maker clarified that it hasn’t decided on products and brands to be launched in India. Groupe PSA has agreed to form a joint venture company with Hindustan Motors’s promoter, the CK Birla group, to manufacture cars in India for local needs.
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The joint venture, in which Groupe PSA will hold 80%, will manufacture cars in Tamil Nadu. The CK Birla group has a car assembly facility in Chennai, which was once a part of Hindustan Motors and has now been carved out and is held under Hindustan Motors Finance Ltd.
“We have not yet decided on the products and brands we will launch in India,” said Pierre-Olivier Salmon, head of corporate information at Groupe PSA. “But the partnership between Groupe PSA and the CK Birla group will benefit from the iconic Ambassador brand.”
An Hindustan Motors spokesperson said in an email that the company continues to “explore opportunities” with potential partners to revive manufacturing at Uttarpara, and that the sale of the Ambassador brand will help pay off workers’ dues and settle liabilities with lenders.
But the likes of Singh had expected more from the sale of the Ambassador, which, in their view, can still be revived for Indian roads.
The Ambassador clearly failed to keep pace with competition and was withdrawn at a time when its demand even as a taxi on the roads of Kolkata was almost gone. That happened when the local administration lifted restrictions on registration of other cars as taxis in Kolkata. The crutch taken away, the Ambassador couldn’t cope anymore. The once ubiquitous car is now mostly seen as rickety “meter-taxis” in Kolkata, struggling to stay afloat in competition against app cabs.
The picture at Uttarpara is somewhat similar: the homes in Hindustan Motors’s worker colonies have not had power connections for two years. Some 350 families still live in company residences, said Shashibhusan Rai, who started to work at Uttarpara in 1997 as a contract worker after his father, a permanent worker, died.
The management is pressuring workers to leave with a compensation of Rs1 lakh each, claimed Digvijay Singh, who refused to accept the severance package previously offered under a voluntary retirement scheme.
“Even water comes to our homes in a trickle, and only for one hour, whereas the company had committed that we will receive water for at least three hours a day,” he said.
But the biggest concern for people who have not yet left the factory is law and order. Machines are being routinely stolen from the factory, claimed Rai. “Only the other day, something fell off the truck while being lifted,” he said. “We informed the police and it was recovered.”
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Rai, who travels 3km everyday to collect drinking water, doesn’t venture out of his home once night descends. For him and his colleagues at Uttarpara, there’s still no dawn in sight even with the Ambassador driving into the stable of a revived French automobile giant.