WB: Tea Workers Struggling as Crony Capitalists Take Over Tea Gardens
Tea workers in Bengal are fighting a losing battle against hunger as, one after another, Tea gardens are being overtaken by crony capitalists and microfinance institutions raking the moolah from Kolkata; these new managements often falter in paying the minimum wages to the tea workers of the Dooars region.
At present, such management has taken charge of 22 tea gardens, informed Ziaul Alam, convenor of the Joint Action Forum of Tea Workers.
Tea plantations in the region are spread over 97,280 hectares (240,400 acres). The region produces 226 million kg of tea, accounting for about a quarter of India's total tea crop. There are 154 gardens in the Dooars out of 283 tea gardens in north Bengal that employ 3.5 lakh workers.
Cultivation of tea in the Dooars was primarily pioneered and promoted by the British, but there was a significant contribution of Indian entrepreneurs. While Goodricke owns and operates 12 tea gardens in Dooars, Duncan company operates about tea gardens.
Prafulla Lakra, from the Jalpaiguri Sadar Tea Workers Union, is also the regional secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). Speaking to NewsClick, Lakra said that the region's tea workers are being exploited.
"The tea industry is suffering from absenteeism. In the Darjeeling district, where there is scope for 11 million kg of tea production, there is now production of 6.5 million kg of tea because most male workers have gone out of the state to work as migrant workers in other states. Women now comprise over 80% of the tea workers."
Lakra works as a voucher worker and a night guard in the Denguajhar tea estate. His wife, Silvasa Lakra, works full-time in the same tea estate. He highlighted that the tea garden management gives difficult tasks to the workers during the plucking season, adding that penalties are applied if workers miss the task.
"There are two types of leaves- Fut Patti (seasoned leaves) and Jangli Patti (unseasoned leaves). For Fut Patti, a worker needs to pluck about 26 kg; for Jangli Patti, one needs to pluck around 24 kg to complete the task. About 30% of the leaf pluckers miss the tasks, and a penalty in the form of a wage cut is thrust on them. Everywhere the new generation of tea workers is now disinterested in the profession and are now moving to other states to work as migrant labourers. However, the estate laws state that only those who work in the tea garden can stay in the tea garden area, but seldom are any family ousted from the tea garden area for not working in the tea gardens. Earlier, tea unions used to stand beside the tea workers in case of quarrels with the tea garden management, but in the last 11 years, things have changed with the weakening of tea unions. The ruling party's tea union colludes with the tea garden owners and does not support the tea garden employees in times of their need."
Lakra also alleged that the ownership change of tea gardens is happening in Kolkata, leaving the tea garden employees out of the process. Their dues are overlooked when new management takes charge of the tea gardens. When the Left Front government was in power, tea garden workers were consulted before any ownership change.
Alam said the region faced its worst crisis when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the country's prime minister.
"About 135 tea gardens were closed at that time due to lack of international demand for tea and dumping of Kenyan and East African tea in the country. It was during the time of the 1st UPA government that the tea industry policy was last formulated. In these last 18 years, not one core sector has received its deserving attention from the Central government."
He also alleged that 22 gardens where shady ownership patterns are being observed are enthused by the present Trinamool government. The tea garden workers are in constant uncertainty over the continuance of the tea gardens. Crony capital and the latest state government notification of allowing 15% of garden land for non-agricultural use is enthusing the shady property dealers to come and invest in the real estate of the garden, Alam said.
"According to the Tea Act 1953, a tea garden must remain open for the public interest, and a tea garden's closure is not allowed. But bypassing this clause, about five tea gardens in the Darjeeling terai and Dooars regions are now closed, including Roypur of Jalpaiguri, Panighata of Darjeeling district, Goalguch of north Dinajpur district and Dheklapara of Alipurduar district. In the last five months, workers have thwarted the attempt to grab the tea estate's land by crony capitals in various places of Darjeeling and Dooars. Tea society is in a very vulnerable position."
Alam pointed out that more than 225 bottle leaf factories have come up in the Doaars region, which source tea from the tea gardens and process tea fit for human consumption but now are suffering due to a lack of demand in the tea market.
NewsClick spoke with Jayram Toppo, a member of the ruling party's tea union in the Hunterwala tea garden, about 10 kilometres from Madarihaat town, who complained that the tea garden remained closed for years, and upon its opening last year, no dues of the workers have been paid by the tea garden management.
"The management had done a three-year agreement but is defaulting on it; it is not providing the employees with firewood, medical facilities, drinking water facilities or ration components apart from what is obtained under the National Food Security programme. No new labour intake has been made in place of retirees."
He complained that his union leaders are also keeping stoic silence on these demands of the tea workers. The tea garden has two trade unions- one is associated with Trinamool Congress (TMC), and the other is with Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP). Still, no one is looking after average tea workers.
Another problem in the garden is that there are no individual electric meters. As a result, even using one electric bulb, one has to pay Rs 300. Though the woman of the area receives the monthly money allotted to women under the Laxmi Bhunder scheme, the rate of workers' wage at Rs 232/day is too low for the tea workers community in the state.
"There are about 1800 permanent workers in the Hunterwala tea estate; 70-80 voucher workers are there as contractual workers. About 150 to 200 workers have already retired from their jobs, but the practice of replacement workers known as Badli (replacement) is not being followed," Toppo said.
CITU leader Pawan Pradhan of Mal area Tea Workers Union alleged that the tea workers movement is facing government and police wrath. There have been cases of arrest when CITU had forged a movement regarding the demand of getting land patta for the tea workers of the region.
"We have been residing here for ages on the tea estate lands, but we still do not have land pattas. The way the chief minister intervened amidst a fruitful wage bargaining process and forced the workers to accept a 15% interim wage increment is also unconstitutional. While Kerala, Karnataka and Tamilnadu get upwardly of Rs 400/day, why are the tea workers paid at the rate of Rs 232/day in West Bengal? With that, they have to maintain their household daily, which is very difficult. The argument that increasing the wage makes the gardens unviable does not hold as gardens in Kerala, Tamilnadu, and Karnataka have shown."
He also alleged that tea garden owners of several tea gardens had not paid the PF dues to the PF commissioner.
Raja Dutta, Area secretary of the Malbazaar area committee of CPI(M), said that before 2011 during the time of the Durga puja and Diwali, there were regular bonuses to tea garden workers. The business houses of these land ports bore a festive look as there was a large-scale sale of items from these land ports. But now, this festivity is absent, and there is a minimum bonus. As a result, the scope of work in these land ports is also decreasing, and trade and commerce from these areas are shifting their base.
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