English Indian Clays Ltd had shut down both its units in August 2020 citing lack of raw material and market scarcity, which led to a worker’s death by suicide.

A few men sit maintaining distance in protest outside the gate of EICL and many party flags can be seen hanging around themFrom a protest outside EICL
news Business Monday, January 18, 2021 - 16:51

On the morning of August 10, 2020, hundreds of employees of the English Indian Clays Ltd (EICL) were dismayed on seeing a notice at the front of the company. The 58-year-old company was shutting down its units in Thonnakkal and Veli in Thiruvananthapuram. About 1,500 employees suddenly lost their jobs. There was a lot of outrage and protests began outside the company units. The management blamed the unavailability of raw material – china clay alias kaolin – and the losses they had incurred during COVID-19.

After continued protests, meetings between management and trade unions and government officials, the unit in Thonnakkal reopened in November. Two months later, when the New Year had just dawned, a 50-year-old worker named Prafulakumar died by suicide inside the closed unit at Veli.

With Prafulakumar’s death, discussions have once again resumed. On January 12, a meeting was held between three Kerala ministers, namely EP Jayarajan, TP Ramakrishnan and Kadakampally Surendran, two management officials, trade union members and additional labour commissioner KM Sunil. Demands to pay the lay-off compensations for employees and immediate reopening of the Veli unit were discussed. Labour Minister Ramakrishnan pushed for immediate reopening.

“Nothing was finalised at the end of the meeting, another one is scheduled for January 20. The CEO of the company, Bhagwandas Bhojwani, will take part in the meeting,” said KM Sunil.

History

The company is owned by the erstwhile Thapar group, a conglomerate founded by Karan Thapar. However, it was originally founded in 1963 by MN Ramakrishnan, a school teacher. Kaolin was an untouched treasure for long.

More than 70 years before Ramakrishnan came along, two English explorers – Ward and Conner – first took note of the kaolin reserves in Thiruvananthapuram in 1891. While surveying the land, they found that the soft white clay matched the quality of the china clay found in Cornwall in the UK. Clay deposits in Thiruvananthapuram had 96% kaolinite content. However, it would all remain untapped till 1963.

Ramakrishnan forayed into the clay mining business after finding success in his previous ventures, according to the EICL website. He set up EICL as a technical and financial joint venture with the English China Clays Ltd, Cornwall. Ramakrishnan and his associates held a 25% stake. The UK company had 24% stake while the erstwhile king of Travancore held another 15%. The rest was held by financial institutions.

The first EICL factory was set up in Veli to process the clay, mined from nearby Akkulam. The processed kaolin was sold to paint and paper companies, and exported to their UK counterpart. The company made profits soon enough. But less than 30 years later, Ramakrishnan decided to sell his share.

The company changed hands in 1992 when Ramakrishnan sold his share to the Thapar Group, after the two were introduced by then Industries Minister TV Thomas. At the time, the annual turnover was Rs 40 to 50 lakh. EICL had also started a factory at Thonnakkal.

Present

Issues at the company began long before the COVID-19 pandemic. In October 2018, a division bench of the High Court said that the company cannot mine in its site at Veiloor village (which it had later bought) since it had not obtained environmental clearance.

“Rules had changed regarding environmental clearance. When the court order came for Veiloor, the government also withdrew permission to mine at Thonnakkal. So we were in effect left with no raw material – as in we couldn’t mine anymore. But we had stocks of subgrade materials – the remains from mining for the last five decades – which the government advised we use until the mines can be reopened. We were doing that for nearly two years. But this resulted in a decrease in quality and we lost some loyal customers. When the pandemic struck last year, it was like the final nail in the coffin. The market was really hit. Hardly anyone wanted to buy,” says a management official of the company.

After the company downed shutters in August, the state government allowed it to mine 20,000 tonnes of clay every month at the Thonnakkal factory. “So we are running 50% of the mines and even then we aren’t able to break even. We also paid Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000 to each employee as salary arrears and bonus when the Thonnakal unit reopened,” the official adds.

Members of trade unions, however, do not buy this version of lack of raw materials or markets being hit. “At the January 12 meeting, the company sent two officials who did not have decision-making powers. If they had any interest in the matter, would they do that? There is no truth in their citing market scarcity. There is always a demand for china clay and the pandemic has not affected that. There are rumours that they want to sell this land and open a plant in Gujarat. They have been threatening the employees who protested by sending them memos or termination notices. The poor employees, who have little or no education, are scared by these notices,” says Radhakrishnan, vice president of the Congress-affiliated trade union INTUC (Indian National Trade Union Congress).

Around 550 of the total number of employees are permanent while the remaining 950 are on contract. About 600 to 700 employees have begun working again since November when the Thonnakkal unit opened.

If you are aware of anyone facing mental health issues or feeling suicidal, please provide help. Here are some helpline numbers of suicide-prevention organisations that can offer emotional support to individuals and families.   

Tamil Nadu

State health department's suicide helpline: 104

Sneha Suicide Prevention Centre - 044-24640050 (listed as the sole suicide prevention helpline in Tamil Nadu)

Andhra Pradesh

Life Suicide Prevention: 78930 78930

Roshni: 9166202000, 9127848584

Karnataka

Sahai (24-hour): 080 65000111, 080 65000222

Kerala

Maithri: 0484 2540530

Chaithram: 0484 2361161

Both are 24-hour helpline numbers.

Telangana

State government's suicide prevention (tollfree): 104

Roshni: 040 66202000, 6620200

SEVA: 09441778290, 040 27504682 (between 9 am and 7 pm)

Aasara offers support to individuals and families during an emotional crisis, for those dealing with mental health issues and suicidal ideation, and to those undergoing trauma after the suicide of a loved one.    

24x7 Helpline: 9820466726

Click here for working helplines across India.

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.