At one point of time, the sight of tea workers gently plucking tea leaves and humming a tune used to be a common sight in the picturesque tea estates of Darjeeling. Even though wages were low, there was work and about three lakh odd permanent workers were employed in the gardens. But now, that charm has gone with most tea gardens and factories in Darjeeling shutting down.
This has forced the workers to sell tea leaves in packets to the tourists and earn their livelihood. Nanda Tamang and Gore Tamang, who work at Peshak tea garden, said they have lost their faith in both the mainstream political parties as well as Hill leaders.
At present, the condition of tea gardens and its workers present a picture of deprivation and want even though the tea plantations are touted as India’s second largest employer. In Darjeeling district itself, three tea gardens have been closed and workers are still to receive their dues.
Gore Tamang, who worked at the Peshak tea garden for 25 years, said things were running smoothly under Tea Trading Corporation of India (TTCI) and the problem started when the ownership changed hands to Trinamool Congress MP KD Singh. However, soon Singh’s name cropped up in a chit fund scam worth Rs 1,900 crore and the tea garden shut down, throwing the lives of hundreds of workers into darkness.
During a visit to the Peshak tea garden, one will come across several former workers like Chaisang Tamang, Sikma Tamang and Sangeeta Tamang. Their anger against the administration was discernible when asked about the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in Darjeeling.
“Just because the elections are around the corner you have come to inquire about our plight. In the past months, no political party has come to speak to us and know about the difficulties we are facing. We are dying here of hunger and the government is busy with elections,” says Nanda Tamang.
Tea garden workers form a decisive electorate in Darjeeling constituency. Organised tea garden workers and their dependents form about 50 per cent of the electorate in Alipurduar and about 40 per cent in Jalpaiguri. In Darjeeling constituency, they have a share of around 50 per cent.
When asked about which political party they would support in the upcoming elections, both Nanda and Gore Tamang said they would abstain from casting their franchise this time. “When no one cares about us or our employment, then what is the use of casting vote. No one from our family would venture out on April 18. If required, we will press the NOTA button,” Tamang said.
The helplessness in the face of the tea garden workers is visible. They concede that despite the adverse situation, tea gardens remain their best bet to find work as plucking leaves is not just a profession for them but has become a habit too. Even though the tea workers acknowledge that their faith on Hill leaders has eroded, they have taken upon themselves to protect the estates and gardens.
The workers still pluck tea leaves and produce handmade tea, which is then locally marketed and sold to domestic tourists. The little amount of money that is earned by the workers by selling them is used to feed their family.
Dakbangla residents Sikma and Sangeeta Tamang, who have a seven-year-old son, said the government had promised in 2018 a monthly fixed income of Rs 2000 but till now they have not received a single penny. “The government had asked for our account number, Aadhaar card, and voter card copies to transfer an amount of Rs 2000 per month. But, we have received nothing so far,” Sangeeta said.
TMC’s Darjeeling candidate Amar Singh Rai has said that minimum wage is definitely an issue that needs to be resolved and he would look into the matter. Nanda Tamang rues the fact that the workers who have tirelessly worked hard to make Darjeeling tea so famous are now themselves without any employment.
“Tea gardens have become a political issue now but our conditions have not improved. If the political parties don’t do anything quick, the vast tea gardens, for which Darjeeling is famous for, will turn into barren land,” Nanda Tamang says.
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