THE MANAGEMENT of a tea garden in Terai region of north Bengal suspended operations on Friday citing non-availability of cash to pay wages “due to demonetisation effects”, affecting the livelihood of nearly 2,500 workers. Senior officers of Tirrihannah Tea Estate, located approximately 35 km from Siliguri, are reported to have left the garden around Thursday midnight after sending a general notice to the Indian Tea Association and the Darjeeling administration.
The garden employs 1,200 permanent and 1,300 casual workers. The notice states, “It is to be noted that their wages were delayed due to the demonetisation effects announced by the Government of India, and for
which the banks could not arrange funds in time.”
While the banks were not identified in the notice, sources in the government maintained that the cash situation is serious in north Bengal, and that banks are on the brink of liquidity crisis.
Officials of the tea company, headquartered on Kiran Shankar Roy Road in Kolkata, could not be contacted despite repeated attempts.
The Chai Kaman Mazdoor Union, affiliated to CITU, meanwhile, alleged that the Tirrihannah management was using the cash crisis as an “excuse to shut down the garden”, as the company had paid wages until November 8, when Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currencies were demonetised. “Tirrihannah has not made a single payment since the note ban announcement on November 8,” Gautam Ghosh, general secretary of the union, said. “There was no agitation and workers did not prevent the dispatch of tea (produced in the gardens). The management has used the cash crisis as an excuse to shut down the garden.”
Ghosh said he fears that many other gardens would follow suit.
The Terai and the Dooars have 276 gardens, and the Darjeeling hills another 87. More than 4.25 lakh workers are employed in these gardens.
The local administration said that labourers began expressing dissatisfaction after they failed to receive wages for nearly four weeks. According to local administration officials, the workers held a demonstration on December 7 and allegedly threatened to lock up officers of the tea estate and stop sending tea from the garden’s factory.
While salaries have always been paid in cash at tea gardens, the Reserve Bank of India had asked plantation managements to open bank accounts for
workers following the demonetisation of high-value currencies. Last month, banks set up camps at several tea gardens and had hundreds of workers opening accounts in the first few days. The numbers are growing at a considerably slower pace since. According to locals, several hurdles have emerged in the process — from workers demanding wages in cash to inadequate banking infrastructure.
Meanwhile, trade unions have for the first time openly opposed the RBI directive on transferring wages to bank accounts. The joint forum of unions are scheduled to hold demonstrations from next week with two demands.
They are asking tea garden managements to continue paying wages in cash, and are also seeking banking infrastructure to be set up in tea gardens. On
December 12, workers are scheduled to organise meetings at the entrance of each garden.