By Nabamita Mitra
Deputy Chief Minister Prestone Tynsong was cent per cent correct when he said the Mawmluh-Cherra Cement Limited, or MCCL, is virus-affected. But like an astute politician, he kept vague the nature of the virus that afflicted the state-owned company more than a decade ago. The virus is none other than the successive state governments which have made sure that the company, which was and could have continued to be the ‘pride of the state’, dies without treatment.
The cement company, originally named as Assam Cements Ltd, was set up on May 20, 1955. After bifurcation of the state, it was rechristened in May 1974. Commercial production started from November 15, 1966. It was a wet process plant and started with one kiln of 250 TPD (tonnes per day). Old-timers say MCCL’s revenues till 2006-07 were enough to keep it healthy without government aid. But things started moving downhill from 2007. There would be frequent breakdowns and operating problems leading to a fall in production and subsequently revenue.
Several measures, including introduction of dry process production, were taken after that to revive MCCL but the ailment continued. The state government, instead of going all out to help its own unit, resorted to piecemeal initiatives without time frame or accountability and acquired a questionable reluctance. The issue dragged on as employees suffered owing to years of non-payment of salary despite long working hours. Meanwhile, the government continued to pamper private cement companies, giving them land on lease and facilitating them in every possible way. The companies’ advertisements can be seen in all sizes — from a monstrous hoarding along the highway to police barricades. In contrast, MCCL has zero presence. If a medical analogy has to be drawn in this time of pandemic, then we can say a poor critical COVID patient was neglected for a rich outpatient with symptoms of common flu.
Not only that, the constant change in the management of MCCL impacted the working of the cement unit, reducing accountability and weakening dedication in officials concerned. Money for modernisation, like Rs 85 crore in 2006 for production augmentation, was pumped in several times without a concrete outcome.
In no time, MCCL became an ailing orphan that nobody wanted. The state government continued to shed crocodile tears with intermittent promises to save the company.
In 2018, this journalist met a group of former and present employees who agreed that mismanagement, political interference and the government’s lack of good intention are reasons behind MCCL’s plight. The cement produced at MCCL factory was never publicised or marketed despite the fact that it was the “best” in the market. But the state’s politicians with multiple houses are better judge of cement quality and the business.
Production augmentation through dry process plant came too late as private companies have already taken over the market. The state could have earned revenues by imposing local tax on private cement and giving a breather to MCCL cement in order to popularise the product till it became self-sufficient. And it would have worked considering the realty boom in the city. But individual interests in promoting private cement factories were more evident than a holistic approach to save the home-grown factory.
Poor employees never make it to the list of concerns and the state too conveniently forgot them. The 300-odd employees continued work for months and years without pay but none in the state’s power corridor bothered to talk about them or take up their cause. From a flourishing company, MCCL turned into another time-pass topic in the Assembly and occasional ‘story’ material in the media.
MCCL was long dead and the government’s life support machine was non-functional all throughout. So Prestone Tynsong was absolutely honest when he talked about the ‘virus’ infection of the company. Someone in the government finally admitted, if not in as many words.
Some are of the opinion that MCCL should be handed over to a private entity or its infrastructure should be leased out. This raises at least two concerns. First, if a private entity takes over, it will lead to job losses unless the mother company agrees to adopt the old employees too. Retrospective payments to the employees with full benefits will be an extra cost in the acquisition process.
Second, MCCL is a modest cement company with comparatively low production rate and it is not impossible for the state government to turn it around. Handing it over to a private entity will have long-term consequences, like over exploitation of minerals owing to future expansion (it will be foolish to think that a private entity will have more regards for the sanctity of the place than profits).
The factory has 600 TPD capacity but that remains under-used. For starter, the government can ensure that the unit runs in full capacity and simultaneously chalk out an elaborate plan for the turnaround. It should also come clean on the money invested in the past years and the role of various officials who were accountable for the cash spent. But first, the government should be honest about its intentions instead of continuing to feign helplessness.