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Chennai, Dec. 7

IT WAS an expectant but small group of workers that had gathered at Dunlop's plant at Ambattur, a western industrial suburb of Chennai. As the clocked ticked by, the workers patiently waited. It could be a momentous day for them, after all. The new chairman of the company was visiting the plant, which has not been producing anything for quite some time.

At 11.20 a.m., when the Chairman, Mr P.K. Ruia, got down from his car along with his family members and senior company officials, the workers greeted him with shouts of "Dunlop zindabad" and "Dunlop workers zindabad."

After a brief welcome ceremony at the gate, Mr Ruia and his entourage walked straight into the facility, past the overgrown lawns and a plaque that reflected the heritage of the plant. It read: "This facility was declared open on February 12, 1959 by Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri, Minister of Commerce and Industry, Government of India."

There were other reminders too about Dunlop's glorious past, which the workers and the new management hope will be revived. "Driving to the future," read a sign with Dunlop's still popular logo, while another at the first-floor reception said, "Dunlop: Recharge, Resurge, Regain."

Some workers pointed out that there had been many false starts; they hoped that this time around the there would be a real possibility of the plant re-starting operations. "We knew about this visit only last evening and that is why only a few of us have come," said a worker, referring to the small group at the plant.

After a brief puja, Mr Ruia, Chairman of the Kolkata-based Ruia group, told presspersons at the plant that the Ambattur facility of Dunlop India Ltd could be reopened in six months. "I don't foresee any demand problem or labour issues at Ambattur," Mr Ruia said.

Three days ago, the Ruia group announced the takeover of Dunlop India and Falcon Tyres from the Dubai-based M.R. Chabbria group for around Rs 200 crore.

Mr Ruia said that if the workers agreed to continue with the terms of the wage agreement that expired in December last year, it would help in reopening the plant soon. He said the Ambattur unit could make 46,000 tyres a month and observed that the automobile sector was booming. There is no problem with the demand, he said.

Answering a question, he said he was given to understand that it would take about Rs 15 crore to restart the plant.

Addressing the workers in Mr Ruia's presence, the General Secretary of Dunlop Factory Employees Union, Mr D. Devanathan, said the workers would have to respond early to an issue raised by the new management as to whether maintenance work could be started alongside wage talks or would have to wait until the talks were over. A decision on this will be taken after the union leaders consulted the workers. The union was expected to have a meeting with the management in a few days.

Mr Ruia assured the workers that he would not do anything to harm their interests and sought their cooperation in successfully re-starting and running the plant. The Dunlop plant was known for its cordial management-labour relation and this was something he was keen on reviving, he said.

The workers also said there were legal issues to be overcome. The company's sickness is now before the appellate authority and the change in ownership and how it would impact the case was something the union would have to examine, in consultation with its advocate. The workers also are not sure if the old wage agreement, which has now lapsed, can be revived as a lot of things have changed since then. These are the issues they have to discuss among themselves before meeting the management, probably on Sunday (December 11).

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 8, 2005)
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