On August 23, Indians celebrated as the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft landed on the south pole of the moon, making India the fourth country to achieve this feat.

A month later, workers of the government-owned Heavy Engineering Corporation Limited, who say they manufactured parts that were used by the Indian Space Research Organisation to launch satellites, including Chandrayaan-3, allege that they have not been paid salaries for the last one-and-a-half years.

“We have been protesting for weeks in Ranchi,” said Bhawan Singh, the 76-year-old president of the workers’ union at Heavy Engineering Corporation Ltd.

Established in 1958, the Heavy Engineering Corporation Ltd is based in Ranchi and is one of the largest integrated engineering establishments in the country. The public sector undertaking provides equipment for crucial sectors such as defence, railways, mining and space research.

On September 20 and 21, a group of employees, including Singh, gathered at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to protest.

On Thursday, with a 10-foot-high cardboard cutout of a satellite launch vehicle behind him at the Jantar Mantar protest, Singh spoke into the mic. “We have come here to tell [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi that workers have woken up,” he said. “Our children do not have milk. We are unable to pay their school fees. We want justice.”

Singh added: “Our labourers and technicians worked to manufacture parts for the platform.” He was referring to the platform used by the Indian Space Research Organisation to launch satellites.

Singh showed a brochure listing out the contributions of the public corporation towards crucial sectors over the years. He alleged that the government was instead intent on destroying the corporation.

Since 2014, the funds allocated to the Heavy Engineering Corporation have dried up, he said. Contracts, which the government would earlier give to the Heavy Engineering Corporation, were instead being given to private companies, Singh claimed.

The corporation has also not had a separate chief managing director since 2017, he said.

On Thursday, the workers submitted a letter to the Prime Minister’s Office seeking the release of pending salaries and the regularisation of 1,623 temporary workers. The corporation has 2,800 employees, including managers.

The letter also urged the prime minister to help modernise the corporation. It says that several parliamentary committees have recommended the revival and modernisation of the corporation.

Bhawan Singh at the protest. Credit: Zafar Aafaq.

Matter raised in Parliament

Though the matter was brought to the notice of Parliament, the government dismissed the allegations. On Wednesday, Mahua Maji, a member of Parliament from the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, brought up the concerns of the workers in Rajya Sabha.

“Launch pad and many equipment for Chandrayaan-1, 2 and 3 were made at the HEC,” Maji told Rajya Sabha, according to PTI. “Its condition before 2014 was fine but it has been deteriorating since then. Staff, workers and officers have not got a salary since the last 18 months,” said Maji. “They sell tea in the morning and then go to the office.”

However, Piyush Goyal, the leader of the house, objected to her claims. “I understand if someone tables such allegations with facts,” he said. “You should substantiate the subject that you are talking about.”

Maji responded saying that the protest by workers was proof in itself. On Thursday, Maji, along with a group of party workers, went to Jantar Mantar to show solidarity with the protesting employees.

On September 17, BBC Hindi had reported that some employees of the Heavy Engineering Corporation who contributed in building a launchpad for the Indian Space Research Organisation had taken up odd jobs, including selling idlis, tea and momos, by the roadside in Ranchi.

According to the BBC report, the Centre said that between 2003 and 2010, the corporation supplied the Indian Space Research Organisation a mobile launching pedestal, a hammer head tower crane, a folding-cum-vertical repositionable platform and horizontal sliding doors.

The Centre, however, says that the Heavy Engineering Corporation did not supply equipment specifically for Chandrayaan-3, says the report. Purendu Dutt Mishra, a manager at the corporation, said that the government may be technically right but apart from the Heavy Engineering Corporation, no other company in India manufactures launchpads.

A day later, the Fact Check Unit of the Press Information Bureau of India said the report was “misleading”. In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, the Press Information Bureau of India said that the Heavy Engineering Corporation had supplied some infrastructure to the Indian Space Research Organisation between 2003 and 2010.

But the post neither explained if and why the salaries of employees had been withheld nor which agency or company had helped build the launch platform.

Workers of the Heavy Engineering Corporation, however, told Scroll that they had a role in building the parts that they supplied to a private company, which was hired by the Indian Space Research Organisation to prepare the launch pad.

Scroll emailed questions to Kamran Rizvi, secretary in the Heavy Industries Ministry, seeking comments on the allegations made by the Heavy Engineering Corporation employees. The story will be updated if the ministry responds.

Credit: Zafar Aafaq

A long struggle

For now, the workers continue their struggle to make ends meet. M P Ramachandra, a 34-year-old technician who hails from Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu, is a lathe operator – someone who works on a fabrication machine – at the plant in Ranchi. Ramachandra said he contributed to manufacturing parts that were used in the launch platform, a tower crane and a sliding door of the launch vehicle. He said that the manufacturing of the parts took place between 2018 and 2020.

The father of two children, Ramachandra said he had not paid his son’s school fees for two months, has exhausted his savings and has unpaid credit card bills. “I am a bank defaulter right now,” he said.

Mohinder Kumar, 37, said he had to withdraw half of his savings from his provident fund account to meet essential expenses. Kumar, who hails from Bihar’s Khagaria district, joined the Heavy Engineering Corporation in 2012 and works at a plant where gears and levers are manufactured.

“My daughter is in Class 6,” he said. “I am struggling to pay her fees every month. I want to give her a good education and make her an engineer.”