Kolkata: After six years of stalemate, the Bagrakote tea garden in Dooars, one of the seven closed tea gardens in West Bengal, has restarted operations, kindling some hope among several thousand workers.
Last Sunday, in Siliguri’s Dagapur, a new company called Sammelan Tea and Beverages, took over ownership of the tea garden and as per its agreement, operations began from July 1, bringing joy and jubilation after years among workers.
The Bagrakote tea garden is situated on the banks of Leesh river in picturesque Dooars in Jalpaiguri district. The tea garden was once operated by the Duncans group and was considered to be ‘A’ grade. After April 2015, trouble started hitting the tea industry with workers not being paid salaries for long. Rations became sporadic and tea garden owners fled. This also resulted in the closure of tea garden health infrastructure, leading to the death of over 45 due to inadequate health facilities and acute financial stress in the past five years.
During this period, continuous agitations were held under the leadership of Cha Majdoor Union, affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), demanding re-opening of the tea garden. Several roadblocks followed and litigations were filed by the union.
On Thursday, Subrata Bakshi, speaking on behalf of the new management, said: “The garden is being reopened today. Outstanding wages of the workers will be cleared in due course. We intend to start operations at the earliest.”
Even the system of provident fund for workers will be started from today, he informed the media, expressing interest in the re-opening of the Nageshwari and Kilkote tea gardens as well if things work out with the government.
After re-opening of the Bagrakote Tea garden, widespread cheer among tea garden workers was visible. They said they had been turned into paupers in the past six years.
The re-opening was also widely welcomed by the Cha Majdoor Union, whose leader Pawan Pradhan said two of their demands had been met by the management – on payment of PF dues and gratuity money, as also re-opening of the botleaf plant factory as early as possible.
After 2015, the tea garden workers’ PF dues stood at Rs 5 crore 65 lakh and gratuity dues at Rs 4 crore. The Trinamool Congress government has been providing monthly relief to tea garden workers. The tea garden hospital is also closed. Pradhan hoped the new tea garden owners and management will run the garden in a way that benefits all stakeholders.
The Closed Units
A study titled, ‘Livelihood Realism: A Review of Closed Tea Gardens of Dooars’, by Uday Das, a PhD scholar and Dr. Rafiqul Islam of Viswabharati University, details the livelihood reality of workers since the closure of the gardens.
“Between 2002 and 2007, planter’s authority had closed 17 gardens, the consequence is 1200 people have died due to hunger (Bhattacharya et al. 2019)”, according to information available to researchers of the study, who found tea garden
labourers living in an acute penury, deprived of basic civic and social amenities. Consumption of impure water, improper toilets and sanitation had worsened their exposure to communicable diseases and aggravated mortality.
The closed tea garden workers get rations (foodgrains) under AAY (Antodaya Anna Yojana) and monthly Rs 500 under the state government’s Financial Assistance to Workers of Locked Out Industries or FAWLOI scheme. Many workers have also migrated as construction labour and some have been working as labour, collecting stones from the river bed.
While the rural job guarantee scheme, MGNREGA, is operational, wage payments are invariably delayed. The IUF and Pashim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (2005) conducted a study on closed and re-opened tea gardens of Dooars and found that through this long period of closure, many labourers lost their family members to disease and malnutrition, with poverty and hunger their grip on these hapless workers. While government intervention is there, it is inadequate to meet livelihood concerns.
Women and children, in particular, have been facing acute hardship, with child labour migration and missing children becoming a serious problem. Every year, eight to 10 out of 100 children have been reported missing from closed and sick tea gardens (B Ghosh 2014). Many studies have also noted a strong link between missing children and child trafficking (S Chakraborty 2013; B Ghosh 2014). In fact, children and women have become easier targets of labour and sex trafficking in the labour colonies of closed tea gardens of Dooars, with the COVID-19-induced lockdown adding to their woes.
Table 1: Closed Tea Gardens of Dooars
Source: PBKMS & IUF Survey, 2005; 65th Annual Report 2018-19, Tea Board India
Table-1 shows the list of some closed/sick tea gardens of Dooars which were badly affected by the 90s’ global economic shock. During the crisis period (2002-2004), these tea estates gave closure notices and the planters disappeared without paying workers’ PF, gratuity and wages. Most of the gardens are more than 100 years old. Among the reasons cited for the crisis in the industry are old tea bushes, high labour costs, declining yield rate and steep global competition. A few gardens had re-opened after efforts made by the district administration and labour unions, but, and six of these tea estates are still closed (Tea Board India).
Some closed tea gardens of Dooars
Bundapani: The garden has a population of 5,390 with almost 50% from the Schedule tribe community. The management failed to operate the garden and declared closure from July 13, 2013, according to the annual report of the Tea Board of India. The garden is still closed. It has 1,215 permanent workers, all of whom are badly affected.
Dharanipur: This garden comes under the Nagrakata Block, Jalpaiguri district. The tea garden was closed on October 19, 2013, due to which 357 permanent and 450 temporary workers lost their jobs. Many starvations and malnutrition deaths have been reported since the closure. Former tea pickers are now collecting stones from Diana and Dhumchi river bed. The garden was maintained by the Redbank group, but now Dharanipur, Bundapani and Redbank tea estates have been acquired by the government.
Redbank: The garden is situated in Dhupguri Block, according to the 2011 Jalpaiguri District Statistical Handbook. It has a total of 907 households and a population of 4,114. Overall, 68% of the population is from the ST community and 2,323 persons are literate. The management closed the garden on October 19, 2013. It had more than 800 permanent and 700 temporary workers, all of whom became jobless. Many of them migrated to neighbouring cities for work.
Surendranagar: The garden authority and management left the garden on October 19, 2013, after which a sea change has taken place in the area. More than 300 permanent and 150 temporary labourers lost their only source of income. The workers’ families now face hunger and malnutrition.
Madhu: This tea estate is situated in Kalchini Block in Alipurduar district. According to the 2011 Census, the garden has 1,000 families with a population of 4,540, of which 63% are from the ST community. The total number of workers is 1,790. The garden management notified garden closure on September 23, 2014, affecting the livelihood of 947 permanent workers.
Table 2: Selected Closed Tea Gardens
Source: 65th Annual Report 2018-19, Tea Board India
Payment dues: Table-3 (below) shows the figure of provident fund, wages, arrears, ration and other benefits that are due. The management abandoned the gardens without paying the labour. The Dharanipur, Redbank, Surendranagar and Madhu tea estates have huge PF dues and every closed garden shows wages and ration due. Dharanipur had the highest due wages and Surendranagar reported Rs. 26,89977 as wage arrears.
Table 3: Liabilities to Tea Workers
Source: TG Survey Final Report, Labour Commissionerate, Govt. of West Bengal
ALTERNATIVE LIVELIHOOD AND INCOME STRATEGY
Alternative livelihood income sources are not adequate outside tea gardens. Migration is one of the key options for workers of closed gardens. Various government schemes and assistance are available, but most of these aim to provide food security whereas livelihood security is more necessary.
Government intervention, therefore, should include sustainable income generation through an alternative employment generation scheme, say experts.
The closed tea garden areas have potential to become eco-tourism attractions, especially since Dooars is a well-known international and domestic tourist destination for nature lovers. There is also need for collaboration to develop garden-stay tourism infrastructure, which will generate alternative sources of income for tea gardens workers. Every tribal community has a rich culture of handicrafts, which are neglected during the crisis. Financial assistance from the government and help from the tourism industry would help to rejuvenate their handicrafts, which will create another source of alternative livelihood, the IUF-PBKMS study noted.