Tihar Jail, Delhi’s famous prison, posted a turnover of Rs 2.36 crore in 2004-2005. In 2012-2013 this turnover was Rs 32.17 crore. Tihar Jail is beginning to mutate into a place prisons have a lot in common with – a factory. This particular jail-factory produces furniture, cloth and apparel, chemicals, paper, snacks and a number of other things. It counts several government bodies, educational institutions, companies and civil society organisations as its clients. All the merchandise produced here is marketed under the brand name TJ's. The idea behind turning parts of the jail into several small factories, according to its website, is to provide the “opportunity of reformation and rehabilitation to the prison inmates” by “channelising [sic] their energy towards a positive direction”.

Tihar Jail is the largest prison complex in Asia. On 31 December, 2012 it held 12,113 inmates, against a declared capacity of 6250. Kiran Bedi, who was once in charge of the prison, and is associated with kicking off a number of these initiatives, recognised the potential of an overcrowded jail. In her 2005 book, Its Always Possible: Transforming One of the Largest Prisons in the World, she wrote, “the jail itself housed the greatest strength – human resource. The human beings confined within the four walls had all the time, energy and the professional skills, which constitute the foundation of any vibrant society".

Manufacturing now

On 5 September, Minda Furukawa Electric Pvt Ltd, a Haryana based automobile parts company, formally inaugurated a manufacturing facility within the jail premises. The facility produces wire harnesses for one of MFE's clients, Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. Speaking to the Press Trust of India at the inauguration, a Deputy Inspector General of Delhi Prisons, Mukesh Prasad, said that “the inmates will profit in both long term and short term working here. They’ll be paid wages and will gain special work experience which will be very useful for them to rehabilitate themselves after completing their terms here”.

According to the MFE press release, this “socio-business initiative” will allow 200-250 inmates to earn the prescribed minimum wage for their labour. NK Taneja, chief marketing officer of the Spark Minda Group, believes their venture “will certainly produce a sustainable collaborative social business model, which will benefit the convicts of Tihar Jail, their families and victims also”. MFE says that a part of the inmates’ wages will go towards welfare funds meant for the families and victims of the working inmates.

Using under-trials

It is important to note that an overwhelming majority – around 75% – of this human resource comprises under-trials. Because of logjams in the Indian penal system, many of these under-trials will be serving more time than the maximum term of imprisonment for the offenses they have been charged with.

Plans for expansion of the MFE facility at Tihar are already afoot. The jail authorities “have agreed to facilitate a bigger area for production inside their premises once the production will reach full capacity”. The same press release mentions that a company belonging to the same business group as MFE has been part of a similar venture in Dresden, Germany since 2005.

Private trouble

In March this year, the MFE plant in Sector-3, Bawal saw a bout of spontaneous labour action. 800 workers of the factory went on strike, occupying the plant to protest the sexual harassment of one of their female co-workers by three managers of the company. Intimidation at the workplace and non-payment of overtime at double rate, they claimed, were common.

They also complained that efforts to form an independent union have been consistently thwarted by the management. The workers at MFE went on strike in 2008 to demand “appointment letters to all employees, introduction of a three-shift system and a hike in their overtime allowance”.

This – so called – Public-Private Partnership raises several questions. How does a company with such a dismal labour relations record run a facility within a jail? What laws will govern the joint venture? Will extant labour laws apply there? Do the inmates have a say in the terms of employment, given they are in the coercive environment of a jail, at which they sell their labour?

Though lauded by a large section of the media, the PPP between MFE and Tihar Jail needs to be studied in the correct context. In recent years in India there have been a number of examples of corporations being aided by the police or the legal apparatus – where the process itself becomes the punishment.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of 147 incarcerated Maruti workers who have been languishing in jail for over two years now. Their long and tenacious struggle revolved around one key demand; that they be allowed to register an independent union.

The story of the incarcerated workers of MSIL is a good example where one can see coming together, in the evocative words of journalist Jonathan Kay, “the very worst qualities of government (its power to coerce) and private enterprise (greed)”. It is not coincidence that Kay made this assertion in the context of the American Prison-Industrial Complex which seem to be the model on which MFE-Tihar Jail and other Prison-Private Partnership initiatives are based.

On the other hand, India’s young and increasingly footloose workforce is expressing its discontent against inhuman working conditions, precariousness, wage-theft and the pervasive denial of civil and political rights in myriad ways. The rejection of inherited divisions, false hierarchies and traditional political strategies have made today’s worker, in the words of a long-time labour activist, “difficult to manage, or rather unmanageable”.

Companies like MFE have begun to realise this. That is perhaps why they seek to extract value from slave labour, rather than those who have a voice.