The indomitable trade union leader Atul Chandra Saikia
The genesis of a trade union sprang from the necessity of time and the growth of industry to protect and secure the rights and interests of the workers in a collective way.
The genesis of a trade union sprang from the necessity of time and the growth of industry to protect and secure the rights and interests of the workers in a collective way. The International Labour Organisation recognised trade unions as an essential part of a modern industrial system. The Indian Constitution, under Article 19(1)(c), guarantees the right to form a trade union. Trade unionism originated in Great Britain, continental Europe, and the United States in the second half of the 19th century.
Though the industrial revolution ushers in economic growth, the working class has had to face some problems right from the beginning. Hazardous working environments, low wages, inhumane atrocities, exploitation by the management, the use of child labourers, and long working periods were some examples of the problems that the working class faced for a long time. The social reformers’ or socially concerned peoples’ year-long effort and advocacy for rights and security, the backbone of the industrial revolution, compelled the British Council to enact the First Factory Act, the Factories Act of 1881. This Act limited the working hours of child labourers, imposed safety requirements in the factory, and established an inspectorate to enforce the provisions of the Act. This Act was considered a landmark piece of legislation that had far-reaching implications in other parts of the world.
Towards the end of the Victorian era, the British parliament directed their proconsuls in India to introduce local legislation aiming to cripple the growth of indigenous industries “capable of challenging the dominance in Asia of British manufacturers.” Thus, the first Factory Act of India was framed to preserve the interests of British industrialists by exempting British-owned tea gardens and coffee plantations from this act.
The Indian Factory Act, 1891, increased the minimum age of child labour from 7 to 9 years and the maximum age from 12 to 14 years, reduced maximum working hours for children to 7 hours a day, fixed maximum working hours for women at eleven hours per day with a one-and-a-half hour interval not regulating working hours for men, and provided a weekly holiday for all.
But the management did not follow the regulations properly. And the labour unions gradually came up in India during the British regime. The first trade union in India came up in Mumbai in 1850 with the establishment of textile mills. The Jute Mills gave rise to a trade union in Kolkata in 1854. The first labour association in India was formed as the Bombay Mill Hands Association’ in 1890 under the leadership of Nalini Pandit Narayan Meghaji Lokhande, the Father of the Trade Union Movement in India. Thus came many trade unions in British India.
The changing scenario after the First World War, the rapid growth of communication, and worldwide awareness of the trade union movement gave birth to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) at the end of World War II in 1918.
The Trade Unions Act, 1926; the Trade Disputes Act, 1929; the Industrial Employment Act, 1946; and the Bombay Industrial Relations Act, 1946, strengthened the trade union movement in India. In 1947, Sardar Ballabhbhai Patel established the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) with affiliation to the International Trade Union Confederation.
But it was not so easy to organise a trade union in Assam during pre-independence or in the 1950s. Noted freedom fighter and trade union leader Late Robin Kakoti planned methodically to organise INTUC in Assam. He urged the conscious social activists to organise trade unions, where trade union-trained youth Atul Chandra Saikia was also there. A diploma holder in Personnel Management and Industrial Relations from Mumbai, Late Saikia had studied Trade Unionism in Canada under the Colombo Plan and worked as a faculty member in the then International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), Kolkata, with its headquarters in Brussels. But he quit his lucrative job to work for the workers in Assam. So, Robin Kakoti bestowed responsibility on him for initiating the formation of INTUC in upper Assam as one of the first batch organisers. The young trade union activist devoted himself to uniting and enlightening the downtrodden workers. With that spirit, he, along with his colleagues, succeeded in establishing a trade union in the coal and plywood industries. As an INTUC worker, he sincerely dedicated his effort to organising the tea workers. It was a very tough job to organise the tea workers under British estates. The tea planters were against the formation of a workers’ union. Meanwhile, trade union leader Mahendra Nath Sarma, along with leaders like Kamakhya Prashad Tripathi and others, established Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS). Feeling the need to work in sectors like transport, oil, banking, and others, Atul Chandra Saikia was shifted to Guwahati. He founded the State Transport Workers’ Association and was its general secretary for a decade. He was also the founder president of the Refinery Workers’ Association, HPC Jagiroad Workers Union, Assam Spun Silk Mill Employees Union, Jagairoad, Assam Cooperative Apex Bank Employees’ Union, and Assam Cooperative Apex Bank Officers’ Union until his death. He established the Cinema Workers’ Union and the Taxi Driver Union. He was connected with the Assam Jute Mill Union, Silghat, HPC Paper Mill Union, Tuli, Nagaland, and the N.F. Railway Employees’ Union. He was also a board member of ASTC, Assam Cooperative Apex Bank Ltd., as a worker representative. He was the General Secretary of the All India Transport Workers Federation for decades. He could well motivate the employees to stand united for common benefit and was associated with more than 50 workers’ unions in the Northeast region.
Atul Chandra has developed and cultivated the habit of serving people honestly and with full dedication since his childhood. He saw his mother, the fire maiden Chandraprabha Saikiani, who devoted her life every day to the betterment of society, particularly the oppressed. While he was a student leader, the British government put him in jail along with his mother for their active participation in the Quit India Movement in 1942.
The friend of the common people believed that political power should be utilised to fulfil the aspirations of the common people. He was elected to the Assam Assembly from the East Guwahati Constituency in 1972. In the Assembly, he fought for the common people and raised questions mainly on labour-related issues, putting his own ruling party colleagues in acute embarrassment. He was indomitable and uncompromising with his ideology. After independence, the Trade Unions were inclined to get national or regional political party affiliations, weakening their hold on the primary concerns of the workers. The committed trade union leader understood it and so opposed the support of INTUC to the Congress (I) party before the 1979 mid-term polls. As a result, he was removed from the Executive and General Councils of INTUC.
This could not prevent his zeal for working for the workers. The assembly politics also soon disillusioned him. He devoted himself to his work, and till his death, he kept on safeguarding the rights of the workers. His clear understanding of trade unions and the laws of the land made many legal disputes favourable for the workers. He himself pleaded in many court cases for the workers. For his knowledge and expertise, he was nominated to represent India in the ILO several times and invited for lectures and discussions in countries like the U.K., the erstwhile USSR, Romania, Japan, the Netherlands, Canada, Switzerland, Romania, Japan, Belgium, etc.
Trade unions in Assam have been sparingly discussed until now. Much research and discussion on the subject will unveil a new aspect of social change. On his birth centenary this day, August 13, the indomitable trade union leader is greatly remembered.