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Paise?” Raju’s wife asked.

It was the third month since Raju did not bring any money home. Every evening when he came back home, his feet used to fumble. His employer was basically making him work for free. His savings had started to dry up now as his newly married wife was forced to adjust on the feeble supplies she was left with. She had not had a fight over the issue with her husband yet, but things had slowly started to boil up. Raju’s bank account balance was now showing three-digit numbers.

Not just Raju, but several other factory workers were facing the same problem. On asking their bosses, they had heard the same replies each time, that the factory was facing a problem with the payments mechanism they used. When their ears heard it for the first time, the forgiving employees had agreed thinking that they would be paid two months’ salary next month.

But when the number of people who did not get paid next month only grew, they started to see less of the factory manager, who had decided to ignore his staff rather than face them. He had no answers. He was instructed by his superiors to get the factory on track, but the mechanism to cut expenses that was forced on him was just bizarre. None of his superiors had given a thought to try and increase production by cutting some unexpected costs. They had brashly stated that reducing the number of working people was the only way to reduce costs.

Tezgad, with a population of just above ten thousand people, had found itself entering the world of glamour and fast-paced industrialization when the Delight Food Processing Factory was set up two kilometres north of the village. Considering the rich variety of fruits and vegetables the farms around the town offered, this was the most logical place to have a massive food processing factory.

Before this factory happened, the village had poor road connectivity and electricity coverage, which meant that the factories had to struggle to find a clear. But three years earlier, when the government decided to spread electricity poles around the village and build pakka roads, outside investment naturally followed.

With that came the overall development of the village- accessibility to good hospitals, the streamlining of agriculture to optimize output, prosperity to the farmers and, above all, employment to more than two thousand young people in Tezgad and neighbouring villages.

Raju was the third person to submit an employment form for the company. He was left with no choice – his degree certificate from last year was gathering dust and he had not earned a single rupee since. Within a month of submitting the form, all of his complaints were thrown into the sea.

The large food processing factory was one of the cleanest facilities in the country. Though the work was monotonous, it never bothered Raju that he had to peel off too many strawberries or throw too many oranges in the giant squeezers to make juice. He made sure he varied his responsibilities from time to time. The factory manager was flexible in adjusting to some shuffling between responsibilities from workers. He was not in the habit of putting his nose in front of every worker in the factory.

The village had embraced the factory, as the factory put the village on a national map. Whenever an outsider came across the highway, the factory’s name introduced the village. For the lost traveller who was trying to get back to his village, it was enough to just ask someone where the village with the food processing factory was. The factory had brought with it thousands of noisy trucks that gushed out black air, but in the name of development, everything was allowed.

Not just the physical developments, people of the village had slowly developed their daily routines around the factory. The makeshift movie theatre was operational three times a week now instead of once, accounting for the workers who worked in the night shifts. The gram panchayat had decided that each household would get water between seven and eight every morning instead of three in the afternoon. If someone had a work shift in the morning, people left their buckets with their neighbours who were kind enough to fill them to the brim.

The gram panchayat had also started to develop training courses for the youth to be employable at the factory. This meant training them about food processing, packaging, machines, and automation. Though there was no dedicated college in the village, it was soon flooded with hundreds of students from nearby villages wanting to learn about the processes at the big factory.

Added to these educational programmes were the school field trips from the nearby villages and cities. They made sure that all the primary and secondary school children knew where the packaged juices they drank came from. In this modern world, where almost every item used in the world was produced on an assembly line, the kids needed to know how factories worked.

While there were only three houses that had televisions before the factory was here, the number was now into hundreds. People were now willing to also pay more money to the tempos that took them to other villages and cities. As a result, the region was now getting more popular- a high number of tempos connected the village with the nearby towns and cities.

Raju had experienced the change first-hand from within the factory. Every morning as he went to work, he paused for a moment in front of the Goddess Laxmi idol in his kitchen. Thanking the Almighty for the factory was a ritual that he obediently followed. Seeing him settled in life, his father found him a beautiful bride and married them. The not-so-grand marriage managed to attract the attention of people in the neighbouring village, which had developed good relations with Tezgad because of the factory.

Today, as Raju nodded his head sideways in front of his wife, he had no words coming out of his mouth. The roughest patch of their marriage had started two months ago. None of them had any idea how long this dreary phase would last, but none of them blamed the other, yet.

His wife brought him food, the standard dal-chawal and two rotis. The meal had remained the same for the past two weeks. Most of the households in the village had to suffice with dal-roti every day, people not even having the money to buy fresh vegetables.

Raju had intermittently thought of quitting and finding another job, just as many of his friends and colleagues had. Several of them had decided to go to the city to find employment, while others had set up small shops around the village. The shops were not experiencing any footfall, as the pockets were dry and minds were focussing on the bare essentials of life.

Raju, however, had a different mentality from others. He did not openly discuss it with anyone. His thinking was always positive, as he still looked forward to the day when his employer would announce that they were clearing all pay-checks. All those who had left already would not be paid, of course, but the others would be given bonuses for sticking with the company.

But his wife was desperate to know when the pay-checks would start arriving.

Since the workers union was not yet able to connect to the factory owner, Raju decided to present himself in front of the Factory Manager the next morning. As a result, he woke up earlier than usual, pressed his shirt clean of any crests and linings, tucked it in and left his house to go to the factory. His usual shift hours for the day were from noon, but he was standing in front of the huge façade of the factory at nine-thirty am. Raju was able to get in easily because of his good reputation with the security guards.

The loud buzzing of giant machines made it impossible for people to hear anything around them, but Raju was not interested in having a conversation here. He went to the stairs on his left, which took him up to the second level of rooms. The rooms were in the centre of the factory, from where every corner of the factory was visible. As he walked up the stairs, the concocted smell of several kinds of fruits became vigorous, almost pungent. He noticed there was no one standing outside the room on the second level, so entered the room.

The silence in the room deafened his ears for a moment. He heard a high-pitched sound in them for an elongated moment. He realized he was standing in the most silent place in the factory, in front of the manager who had not paid him for the past two months.

Sahab,” he was barely able to open his mouth. Even though such discussions were awkward for factory workers like Raju, he still had braved himself to get here. “When do you intend to pay us? I don’t have any food left at the house.”

“I’ll pay you soon. What is your name?” The factory manager asked.

“Rajesh, sir.” Raju paused while the manager wrote down his name on a piece of paper with several other names. “Will it be possible for you to at least pay me for this month? I want to feed my family, sir.”

“I am looking into it, Rajesh. I am going to see what I can do.” Raju was not convinced by the answer.

“Sir, is there any way I could help? I bypassed the union people to have a frank chat with you. What exactly is the problem? I guess clear communication with the workers would help all the people in the long run. If you are no longer going to pay people, they will at least start looking for other opportunities.”

The Factory Manager was facing pressure from his superiors, who did not want any of the workers to know what the real problem was. On the other hand, he was also facing the labour union which were a bunch of political goons who would do anything for political gains. As long as they were getting paid with their bonuses, they would not care about the employees. He had deliberately avoided facing many employees to avoid answering them, but here he was, standing in front of one of his trusted employees.

“Well, as I have mentioned earlier, it is a problem with the bank…”

“I very well know that the bank is not the reason. No bank in the world would stop people from paying their employees. What is it, sir? You can trust me with information. None of this leaves this room.”

“Well, whatever…” he paused as Raju raised his eyebrows. “I believe my employees should know the exact problem.”

“We are no longer getting the profits from this factory as we used to earlier. The state government is levying on us a lot of taxes which is not letting us make any profits. In fact, the losses have piled up so much that there is no way we could think about bouncing back. Frankly, the factory could be shut down in anywhere from next week to next month.”

“That sounds bad. How did the problem grow to this extent?”

“Well, serious ignorance from the owners. I have been complaining about this for a long time now. I am not allowed to talk to employees. The employees are free to leave the company if they want to, but there will be no official notice from me to any of the employees.”

“Okay, that sounds harsh. What are the options in that case?”

“I would suggest starting to search for something else while working here. My advice would be to start something apart from working here while I try to clear your paycheques. I am hopeful that I might be able to strike a deal with the owners to pay the workers of their existing dues before the layoff, if that happens. They are just waiting for enough people to leave on their own.”

“You could have told us about this earlier, sir. Anyways…” Raju’s face looked as passive as ever.

“Sorry about that.” The factory manager unlocked his phone and looked at it.

As Raju walked out of the office, he realized one thing. He could not be dependent on only one job in his life. He needed a fall-back option, something that he could turn to if necessary.

THE END.

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