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Workers to owners, a tea belt wilts: ‘50% on sale, no buyers’

The fifth phase of polling will see voting across North Bengal's tea belt — holding 302 big tea gardens, over 60,000 small gardens and 182 ‘Brought Leaf Factories’ (factories not attached to gardens), with around 10 lakh workers.

Ganga Muni, husband, grandson at Totapara home. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

Ganga Muni (45) has been picking tea leaves for over two decades, spending a lifetime in a two-room house with her husband, Somra Munda, 42, and their two children. They are among the 875 families in the Totapara workers’ line (as the tea worker colonies are called) in Dhupguri Assembly constituency of West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district.

Sitting in front of the house with walls blackened by smoke, and no toilet or running water, Muni says it is only free food grains under the PDS that keeps them going. “The house is 30 years old. Since then, there has been no maintenance by the garden authorities. Everything is broken — from the walls to the doors. This is all we have.”

The fifth phase of polling will see voting across North Bengal’s tea belt — holding 302 big tea gardens, over 60,000 small gardens and 182 ‘Brought Leaf Factories’ (factories not attached to gardens), with around 10 lakh workers. Together, they and their families hold sway in about 14 seats.

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Ahead of the elections, the BJP-led government at the Centre announced a Rs 1,000 crore package for the tea gardens. The party has promised a minimum wage of Rs 350 for workers. The Trinamool government in January announced a hike in minimum wage from Rs 176 (set in October 2018) to Rs 202 per day, and has announced free rations, free electricity, health benefits, and a housing scheme for the workers.

Muni says the Rs 202 wage is a joke. “The money comes late. After every 15 days, we receive payment for 12 days of work. We find it difficult to pay even our electricity bill, of about Rs 2,000 every quarter.” Her husband brings in an extra Rs 200 a day, but that is when the daily wager gets work, which is about 10 to 12 days in a month.

Munda adds that the lockdown mounted their problems. “The garden was closed for a month. Neither were we paid wages nor rations by the owners. The garden authorities only gave us Rs 500 in the first month.”

The political parties know all this, Muni says, as they repeat it to them election after election.

On April 14, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee held a public meeting in Dhupguri for Trinamool candidate Mitali Roy. However, Roy, the sitting MLA, hasn’t bothered to visit the workers, say villagers. Among the candidates, only the BJP’s Bihnupada Roy has come calling.

North Bengal Development Minister Rabindranath Ghosh says the TMC government has undertaken a lot of initiatives for the tea workers, including the housing scheme, development of tourism, and free rations during the lockdown.

Also Read |Decade after toppling Left in Bengal: Does Mamata Banerjee still have fight in her to stop another opponent?

It means little for workers at the shut tea garden in Peshok Dakbunglow village, a part of the Kurseong constituency near Darjeeling. Sumitra Tamang, 57, began working in the garden when she was 22. “It was suffering losses a long time and shut permanently four years back. Our salaries are yet to be paid.”

Parina Tamang says even for drinking water they have to trek to the local PWD bungalow. “Villagers queue from 2 to 7 am as, during the day, the water is used by those staying in the bungalow.”

Some tea garden workers have started cultivation in plantations on the sly. Like Lagu Rai (66), Sumitra’s neighbour. “We know it’s wrong but we need the money,” she says. “I manage to pluck 2 kg tea leaves in a week. I get Rs 45 per kg.”

Says Ziaul Alam, convener of the Joint Forum of Tea Workers’ Union (an umbrella organisation of 24 trade unions) and general secretary of the CITU-affiliated All India Plantation Workers Federation, “The announcements made by Central and state governments find no reflection at the ground level. The minimum wage is also not fixed, the government raises it by a few rupees now and then.” About the BJP’s promise of Rs 350 per day wage, Alam points out that the party had assured the same in the 2016 Assam Assembly polls, and was yet to implement it.

“Our main demands are settlement of land rights since the workers, adjacent forest dwellers and even local businessmen have no land records. This is more important in the times of the CAA and NRC. This is followed by proper minimum wages to workers,” adds Alam.

A tea garden owner, who has 18 tea gardens in Darjeeling and Assam, says the government is just passing the buck to them. Refusing to be identified, he adds, “The tea industry used to have an established procedure — a hike was implemented following discussions with workers’ unions. Now, if the government starts deciding the price, the industry is doomed.”

Listing the problems facing the industry, the official adds, “Tea, unlike many other crops, does not have an MSP. Currently, the demand is sluggish… For the last two decades, rainfall has become erratic. Global warming has also hit production.”

A businessman who owns tea gardens across North Bengal and Assam says the government has reduced minimum wages to a vote bank with no consideration for the industry, and that rising prices will hit export competitiveness further. “The 2017 agitation in Darjeeling by GJM leader Bimal Gurung wiped out about 72% of the production. We are still dealing with that. As a businessman, I am ready to face risks that arise due to natural calamities as well as demand and supply, but not risks that are a result of political unrest. More than 50% of Darjeeling tea industry is on sale and there are no buyers.”

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