Kolkata: The fourth and fifth phases of the West Bengal Assembly elections will present a politically crucial section of the electorate the opportunity to exercise their franchise - around 4.5 lakh tea garden workers - who are harbouring hopes of a better minimum daily wage and rights to their land.
The tea belt of Dooars and Terai region in North
Bengal, comprising 12 constituencies, will go to polls on Saturday and April 17, respectively, amid spirited calls by trade unions to lay emphasis on the welfare of the workers, irrespective of the party voted to power.
Ziaul Alam, convenor of the Joint Forum of Trade Union Plantations, said finalisation of the minimum daily wage by the state government has been pending since 2014.
He said the advisory panel formed by the Trinamool Congress government to look into the issue had submitted a report in 2018, but it was kept on hold.
"What the present dispensation has done is to provide an interim hike to Rs 202 per day from the earlier Rs 176 per day," Alam added.
"We demand that the minimum daily wage be fixed at Rs 442 after taking everything into consideration," he said.
Alam said another major concern is granting of land rights to the workers, who are mostly women.
"In Bengal, no tea garden worker has a land deed. This is something that requires urgent attention," he added.
However, Nakur Samanta, president of INTTUC-affiliated Terai-Dooars Plantation Workers Union, said the issue could be resolved soon, if promises made are kept.
"The Mamata Banerjee government has decided to build three lakh houses for the tea garden workers under the 'Chaa Sundari' scheme. With this, the demand of granting land rights may be met," Samanta said.
He said the closure of several tea gardens in the region is also a cause for worry.
"Around 20 closed tea gardens have been reopened after the TMC came to power. But, there are some other gardens that were closed or abandoned, and facing litigation," Samanta said.
Vice-President of RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, Kusum Lama, said the tea garden workers are bereft of medical facilities and clean drinking water.
"We want the minimum daily wage to be raised to Rs 350. If the BJP comes to power in West Bengal, we hope it will be fixed at that rate," Lama said.
The Indian Tea Association, the apex body of tea planters, however, is of the view that daily wages have gradually increased in the last few years and will rise further.
"The minimum daily wage is not a big issue. It is part of the political game in the election season," said Arijit Raha, secretary-general of ITA.
The Dooars-Terai region with over 300 gardens, comprises key tea-growing areas like Kumargram, Kalchini, Madarihat, Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri and Dabgram Fulbari.
During the nationwide coronavirus-induced lockdown in 2020, production in the belt reportedly fell by around 36 million kg to 380 million kg.