The workers of M/S Andaman Timber Industries (now called M/S ATI Ltd) have been reeling under abject poverty ever since the company closed its operation rendering thousands of workers jobless. To add insult to the injury, workers retirement dues had been linked to liquidation of company’s immovable property, which is the subject matter of court’s proceedings.

M/S Andaman Timber Industries having its plywood manufacturing company at Shore Point, Bambooflat in South Andaman closed permanently on 9th October 2000. Following wide spread protest, the then Hon’ble Lt Governor intervened and convened a meeting at Raj Nivas involving ATI management, the then MP, ATI workers representatives, and Senior officers of A&N Administration on 08/09/2001. Subsequent to the deliberations at Raj Nivas and with the MP later in the day, ATI management issued a notice under Ref No 231/118/2001-02 dated 17/09/2001 promising its workers enhanced retirement dues. Para 2 of the said notice is reproduced here in verbatim:

The revised benefits admissible under the VRS [Voluntary Retirement Scheme] and towards statutory dues will be payable in 3 (three) instalments as under :

a)            Payment of Rs 4000/- on or before 30.09.2001 against admissible legal dues, on receipt of Transport Subsidy from Andaman Administration.

b)            Balance amount of admissible legal dues on or before 31.10.2001 on receipt of Compensation from the concerned authority towards acquisition of company’s immovable properties (sic) situated at Haddo, Port Blair.

c)             Amount of VRS compensation and amount in full settlement towards wages for suspension period as stipulated herein before on or before 31.03.2002 on receipt of compensation from the concerned authority towards proposed acquisition of company’s immovable property situated at Shore Point, Bambooflat, Andaman.

From the above, it is aptly clear ATI management used the opportunity and held workers retirement dues at ransom to press for early release of transport subsidy and compensation towards acquiring of company’s immovable property by A&N Administration. Workers unaware of the covert designs and the consequences thereof, nodded their head in acceptance since it had the assurance of the island’s highest office.

Incidentally the first and second instalments were paid. Also the A&N Administration on its part kept its promise. It not only found a public purpose to justify acquisition of company’s land holdings, it ‘s various arms (read departments, subordinate offices and directorates) worked overtime to complete the daunting task of surveying, inventorisation, reckoning market value of the property etc. In a record time of 12 months, the Administration acquired 3.64 hectares of company’s landholdings and released compensations to the tune of Rs 3,03,03,567/- (Rupees Three Crore Three Lakhs Three Thousand Five Hundred Sixty Seven Only) in favour of ATI during Sept 2002.

This amount, according to company’s notice dated 17/09/2001, should have been disbursed to settle VRS [Voluntary Retirement Scheme] and other statutory retirement dues to about 800+ workers. But somebody had very rightly said promises are made to be broken, and this instance is not an exception. The ATI management not only pocketed workers share of retirement dues, it even slapped a legal dispute on the face of the workers before vanished in thin air.

Surprisingly the ATI management, after spending more than a decade in legal procedures, in its own volition deemed it fit to knock the Administrations door one more time. It thus sought leave to withdraw the application which the Hon’ble Supreme Court granted vide its order dated 20/04/2012. Consequently the ATI management made a fresh representation dated 14/05/2012 running 8 pages to the Administration and followed it up with reminder dated 25/06/2012. Unfortunately the application, and along with it the plight of 800+ workers could not evoke a response at the hands of the concerned authorities yet.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court in its [latest] Order (dated 01/04/2013) rapped the authorities for their inaction and went on record saying “we find no justification on the part of appellant No 3 [Collector of Land Acquisition, A&N Administration] in not considering the said representation although more than nine months have passed since it was made” and directed the appellant to consider the representation dated 14/05/2012 [made by ATI] objectively, fairly and in accordance with law as expeditiously as may be possible and in no case later than April 20, 2013. The onus has thus fallen on A&N Administration which till this time has been maintaining a tacit silence on the issue.

The Administration which earlier failed to protect the interest of ATI workers while releasing the compensation could make good use of this opportunity to bring the otherwise evasive ATI management on the discussion table and eventually settle the workers long pending retirement dues.

By Debkumar Bhadra

Shore Point, Bambooflat, S Andaman