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Labor dispute threatens future of icon of Indian roads, the Ambassador

Labor dispute threatens future of icon of Indian roads, the Ambassador

Striking workers have forced India's Hindustan Motors to temporarily shutter the factory that makes an icon of the Indian roads, the Ambassador.
The closure of the plant is another blow to the Ambassador, a Spartan, boxy sedan that for decades was ubiquitous on Indian roads but in recent years has come under threat from the influx of foreign cars and newer domestic models.
Labor leaders at the plant in Uttarpara, an industrial town about 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Calcutta, said they were stepping up protests and that four people have gone on a hunger strike starting Tuesday in an effort to force Hindustan Motor's management to accept their demands, including pay hikes.
"We are ready to make sacrifices," top union leader Amitabha Bhattacharya, one of those on hunger strike, said Wednesday.
Management at Hindustan Motors said they would negotiate to end the strike that began March 13, but not under coercion by strikers.
"Of course we want to see the factory running again," said Moloy Chowdhury, the executive vice president of the company. "But there has to be sanity."
The factory, the only one that makes the Ambassador, has been totally shut since April 11 after protests turned violent. Chowdhury said that as many as 15 managers were targeted with physical and verbal abuse. One senior manager was hit in the head and needed hospitalization.
"We had to take the decision as so many lives were in danger," Chowdhury told The Associated Press Wednesday.
The strike raises some questions about the future of the 50-year-old car, which was introduced in 1957 as an Indian-made version of the British Morris Oxford.
Successive governments believed that the country's impoverished masses needed many other things more urgently than cars, so there was little effort to create a broad-based auto industry. The Ambassador met the needs of a small elite, and the government protected its market with steep import tariffs, which have since come down. In some cases, the government has allowed foreign car manufacturers to set up their own plants in India.
With little incentive for change, the car came to represent inefficient, inward-looking Indian industrial policies. But its ubiquitous presence on Indian roads _ remaining the official vehicle of Indian prime ministers and government officials and the car of choice of taxi companies _ made it a symbol of India.
Its relative simplicity, despite a recent revamp, also won it many fans.
"I still think about the Ambassador, which was such a sturdy car," said Apurbo Guhathakurta, 73, a retired marine engineer, who sold his faithful Ambassador seven years ago for a smaller Japanese model.
"People told me I did not need a big car like Ambassador, so I opted for smaller car, but even today it is the best car for Indian road conditions," said Guhathakurta.
Chowdhury vowed the production stoppage would not be the death knell of the Ambassador, but he called it "a serious setback."


Updated : 2021-06-19 09:35 GMT+08:00