Jorhat (Assam): The Tocklai Tea Research Institute here has been facing severe financial crisis which has affected work at the oldest and largest tea research facility in the world, but authorities assert steps are being taken to tide over the tough phase.
Employees allege that they have not received several salary components like insurance and provident fund for years. They have been on strike off and on demanding release of assured funds, recruitment of scientists, smooth conduct of research work and other measures. The employees are again on strike which entered the second day on Tuesday.
Retired employees are also yet to get their full dues, they say.
The institute's director A K Barooah says that financial trouble for the institute began during the period 2012-2017.
"Since then there has been a backlog. We have not been able to pay dues to even retired employees," Barooah told PTI.
He says some externally-funded projects are going on currently but main research work is affected.
Organised research on tea in India began in 1911, with the establishment of Tocklai Experimental Station in the loop of the rivulet Tocklai at Jorhat. In 2014, it was renamed as Tocklai Tea Research Institute (TTRI).
According to Tea Board India data, the total tea production in the country is around 1,370 million kg. Assam alone accounts for over 50% of this tea.
The tea industry currently funds 64% of Tocklai TRI's budget. With 10 branches, it looks after research and advisory services in Assam, West Bengal, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya.
The Department of Commerce through the Tea Board of India has approved funding 49% on five heads -- salaries, provident fund, gratuity, medical expenses and training expenses of the institute.
In 1964, the Tea Research Association (TRA) was formed which took over the management of Tocklai TRI although it was guided and funded by Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). With the change of government policy and directives, CSIR withdrew its technical and financial support to Tocklai in 1996.
The central government started providing financial aid to Tocklai TRI through the Ministry of Commerce and Industry and Tea Board was engaged as the monitoring agency for utilisation of funds and research progress but the overall control of Tocklai lies with the TRA.
The ministry does not directly grant fund to Tocklai TRI or TRA. Fund is released to Tea Board which in turn releases fund to TRA as per the approved guidelines.
According to the Department of Commerce in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, during the Medium Term Framework (MTF) Scheme 2017-2020, 80% funding (49% grants-in-aid for five identified heads -- salary, wages and bonuses, PF, gratuity, medical and training and 31% for research projects have been approved to TRA.
Authorities say the financial crunch faced by the institute is due to lower allocation of funds on the R&D head of Tea Board of India.
The department has asked Tocklai TRI to become financially self-sufficient.
Barooah says focus is now on generation of funds.
"The institute has been providing its services to its members and few projects have been initiated in the past few years. The institute has released new clones as well as tea seed stock for the use of the tea industry," he says.
Recently, Barooah says, the stakeholders approached the Centre for sustainable funding of the institute so that research work is not hampered.
“We have not been able to recruit scientists in the way we want though a few have been appointed in a phase-by-phase manner," he says.
Authorities, however, denied any mismanagement of affairs by the Tea Board with regards to the institute.
The Tea Board of India has always provided its helping hand to TRA and has taken up all issues of the institute with the ministry favourably, they said.
Devajit Baruah, secretary of Tocklai Employees' Union, says that the tea industry cannot survive leaving out Tocklai TRI. He alleges that the tea industry lobby is posing a hindrance to direct control of TTRI by the central government.
"We want full government funding and also declaring TRI as an institute of national importance so that work is not hampered. The R&D section has been hit the most. We want government control, we are even open for restructuring of the organisation," he says.
"There should be a proper funding pattern and government should become a proper guardian,” Baruah adds.
Last month, the pending insurance amount of employees was deposited by the management after much delay.
Baruah says the employees are demanding nothing more than what fellow central government staff is getting. "We just want our dues which have been pending for long.”