HIND MOTOR: A decrepit factory in various stages of rust, crumbling staff quarters, hospital in coma, deserted streets that was the sight that haunted visitors to Sahaganj after the Dunlop factory closed down.
Driving into Hind Motor a decade and a half later, one is gripped with a sense of deja vu. The scenes are all too familiar; only the setting is different. In three short years since work was suspended at the plant near Uttarpara, decay has taken roots and turned this bustling township-factory into a ghost town.
As the day dawns, ghosts emerge from decrepit buildings, amble over to the crumbling platforms at the base of sprawling banyan and peepal trees and slouch on them to while away time. The blank eyes betray neither life, nor hope.
There is no anger or resentment over their fates being sealed by the sale of brand Ambassador (the one product that had sustained the plant for half a century) to French auto major Peugeot. Neither is there curiosity over a vague assurance on the plant’s revival.
“The revival story is a joke that doesn’t evoke laughter. It’s been told too often. When 314 acre was carved out of the plant and sold for Rs 285 crore to ostensibly revive the factory, nothing happened. There is no illusion that Rs 80 crore earned from sale of Ambassador brand will turn this junk-yard around. Minus Ambassador, there’s nothing in Hindustan Motors,” stated Raj Kumar Jha who joined Hindustan Motors in 1986 and worked 20 years at the press shop and the rest in the foundry.
In fact, they believe the sale has nothing to do with Ambassador’s revival or a comeback in a new avatar. It is, they believe, a means to facilitate transfer assets like the company’s sales channel to Peugeot without legal hassle.
Chandrabhushan Singh, who worked in the car AC control before production was unceremoniously suspended on May 24, 2014, says everyone played a part in Ambassador’s, and hence Hindustan Motors’, demise: the owner did not reinvest in the plant; the management didn’t upgrade the technology; and the unions did not care.
“When Ambassador sales began to slide after Maruti’s arrival, we realized the grand old warhorse needed to transform. But those at the helm refused to see the inevitable. Since 1983, Ambassador was forever playing a catching up game, only the gap with modern cars were widening further,” he said.
Some had a foreboding in the mid-1990s when sales plunged, losses mounted and salaries were delayed. The company floated a series of VRS that pruned the workforce from 22,000 to 2,300 at the time of work suspension. Another VRS that offered Rs 1 lakh ex-gratia has seen the staff count dwindle to around 500. However, only two dozen guards on the payroll actually draw a monthly salary. They patrol the factory and township in a white Amby that is now a rare sight at Hind Motor that in the 1980s churned out up to 125 Ambassadors a day. By 2014, daily production had trickled down to five. Now, two press shop dies of the Ambassador’s roof and rear windshield lies like a relic in Uttarpara PS, recovered from 1 km off the plant site while being siphoned off at night.
Ramkrishna Saha, who ran a cycle store at a market adjoining the township when Hind Motor flourished and Ambassadors ruled the road, rues the change in fortune that has impacted not just individuals but dented the region’s pride.
“I have heard from my grandfather that this was the first automobile factory in the country and only the second in Asia after a Toyota plant in Japan. In 1948, Uttarpara had made Bengal the auto hub of India, decades before Gurgaon, Chennai, Bengaluru, Pune and Ahmedabad became such centres. It is sad to see history going to the seed,” he said.
The near-irretrievable situation at Hind Motor is a far cry from Cowley in England where the Morris Oxford plant from where it derived the Ambassador, is located. Set up in 1912, it had its ups and downs but battled resolutely on till BMW purchased it in 2000, revamped the plant and machinery and relaunched the Mini in its new avatar. There has been no looking back since.
As dusk draws over Hind Motor, the workers without work melt into the darkness and their ghostly existence.