Kolkata: The around 700 vigilantes guarding Tata Motors Ltd’s small car factory at Singur in West Bengal have not been paid for five months, even as the task of managing them has moved from a private firm to a union associated with the state’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, and their role has diminished after the car maker brought in its own security.

Landlocked: The land for the plant has been acquired from villagers, some of whom were reluctant to part with it and had protested. The guards, hired locally, had played an important role in protecting the site. (Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint)

The guards played an important part in protecting the site, and the workers putting up the plant.

Now, the protests have faded in intensity, the plant has its own security detail, and the vigilantes, all of whom were promised permanent jobs in the factory by local CPM leaders, aren’t exactly needed.

“Whenever we enquire about our wages, we are asked to keep quiet," says a villager from Beraberi who is part of the ragtag bunch of vigilantes. “If we protest too much, we fear we may not be given permanent jobs in the factory when it starts," he adds, asking that his name not be printed because he fears reprisal.

The vigilantes are managed by a trade union affiliated to the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (Citu), which in turn is affiliated to the CPM. Their role initially was to help the police protect the 12.5km fence around the plot, which was frequently attacked by activists opposed to the location of the factory there. They also guarded the floodlights that were strung up on posts along the fence and the generators that supplied power to them.

The workforce was initially managed by a private security agency, but now the mandate to manage it has been given to Paschim Banga Nirman Karmi Union, headed by controversial CPM leader Lakshman Seth. The vigilantes have been issued two identity cards each—one by the local police station and the other by the union. CPM parliamentarian from Tamluk in East Midnapore, Seth was held responsible by his party for precipitating the stand-off at Nandigram where the government planned a special economic zone devoted to petrochemicals and chemicals. After protests against the acquisition of land there, the zone was shifted, but that did not stop subsequent clashes between CPM activists and their rivals.

The district administration admits that the vigilantes had not been paid their wages—Rs68 a day—because of an “administrative delay", but WBIDC would not comment on the issue. Calls made to its managing director, M.V. Rao, were not answered or returned. Later, a spokesperson for WBIDC said bureaucrats from West Bengal’s commerce and industries department couldn’t speak about the issue until the panchayat polls end on 18 May.

Seth couldn’t be reached despite several attempts. “You are saying all this without doing any investigation. We are paying everyone who works for us," claims Citu’s West Bengal general secretary Kali Ghosh.

“The local police station maintains the muster roll (of attendance) of these people because they supplement the police. At the end of each month, the muster roll is sent to WBIDC for payment through official channel. It takes time, and there’s always been a (time) lag, but I can assure you, eventually everyone’s going to get paid," says Hooghly district magistrate Vinod Kumar.

The disbursement of payment, too, is a long drawn process, said officials at the local block development office. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one of them says the block development officer receives a cheque from WBIDC for every month’s wages. He cashes it and gives the money to the gram pradhan (village headman), who in turn distributes it among the heads of the 28 groups that make up the 700-strong workforce.

“There’s delay at both ends —sometimes it takes up to two months to dispatch the master roll, and WBIDC, too, takes time to release payment," says the head of one of the 28 groups who spoke to Mint on the condition of anonymity.

“It (the delay) might well be a ploy to discourage people from reporting to work. Some have already left, many are looking for alternative employment—but most of us still believe, if we stay on, we’ll get permanent jobs at the factory when it starts," he adds.

“A couple of weeks ago there was a move to reduce our numbers, but because of our protests the move was shelved," says a vigilante who had given up a third of an acre for the project and did not wish to be identified.

Kumar, the district magistrate, confirms that the need for these vigilantes was fast diminishing because Tata Motors had brought in its own security guards, and attacks on the factory had almost stopped. “And because the need (for vigilantes) was fast diminishing, the private agency (that used to manage them) was fired," Kumar says. He isn’t aware of the arrangement with the trade union. “I haven’t even heard its name."

Meanwhile, the vigilantes continue to work in the hope that they will eventually be hired by Tata Motors. Thus far, the company has sent around 100 villagers, some of them former vigilantes, to Jamshedpur for training and most of them could be hired by the company.

Another batch of 57 (including some vigilantes) was to be sent to Jamshedpur, but these people have been asked to stay back by the CPM till the panchayat polls are over.

“We need people now. How could we let them go ahead of the polls?" asks the party’s local leader Ziaul Haque.