Cup Of Woes

Small Gardens, Big Business

Partha Sen

The Bloody history of Tea industry in Terai and Duars is not new. During the colonial regime the European planters with the help and active support of the colonial state began to establish tea gardens. The state provided land and labour at cheap rate to set up tea gardens. Tea planters were merchant capitalists. Naturally the plantation economy in Terai and Duars never operated as per the norms of the general capitalist system. The colonial state also provided the legislation, administration and force to ensure their maximum profit. Even the colonial state in Western Duars had not taken any initiative to improve the existing primitive method of agriculture in order to help the planters to keep the low wages for workers!

After the annexation of western Duars in 1865 Tea planters found that western Duars’ climate and soil were suitable for Tea cultivation. First Tea garden was opened at Gazoledoba in 1874. Afterwards one after another tea garden began to grow throughout western Duars. Upto 1976 there were about 151 tea gardens in western Duars. Tea industry used to support two and half Lakhs of labour, five lakhs of people and used to earn about thirty crore rupees of foreign exchange. Tea industry was not unmixed blessing for the garden labourers. There were instances of strikes and lockouts in gardens. In 1972 there were instances of 54 strikes and lockouts and 23,049 workers were affected. Yet like present days the number of strikes and lockouts were meagre and were not permanent features. All problems relating to workers were sorted out by negotiations. After independence all these gardens were regulated by the Tea Board and Government Minimum Wages Act. At the same time there was huge change in the management of Tea gardens. European planters began to sell their gardens to Indians. Marwari and Gujarati communities and other non-planters began to purchase tea gardens from the Europeans. They had no previous experience in plantation. So to earn maximum profit within a short time was their only motto. The change of ownership created another type of crisis. Most of the tea gardens are now owned by crony finance.

Tea industry witnessed a sea change since 1990. Economic liberalism policy was adopted by the government of India. Due to the adoption of new economic policy Indian tea had to face stiff competition both in external and internal market. Indian tea market was lost to countries like Sri Lanka, China, Kenya, Indonesia, Vietnam etc. Traditionally Russia was the biggest consumer of Indian Tea. Even India began to loss her tea market in Middle East countries that were unwilling to accept Indian tea for unhygienic contents. Being deprived of foreign market Indian tea had to depend on internal market. In 2000-2001 658 million KG tea out of total of 848 million KG was consumed by the domestic market. Even in domestic market Indian tea manufacturers have to face stiff competition from Sri Lankan tea because imported tea from Sri Lanka is cheaper than Indian tea.

Under the above circumstances Indian planters finding no other alternative way indirectly began to encourage small tea planters to establish tea gardens. Consequently from 1980 a large number of small tea gardens began to grow throughout North Bengal. Unlike set tea gardens recently launched small tea gardens are not guided by the government rules and regulations. So in comparison to set tea gardens they can produce green tea leaf at very low price. Set tea gardens used to purchase these leaves at very low price. These small tea gardens had no factory of their own. So they had to depend on set tea gardens to sell green leaves. As the green leaves decay within short time, the set tea gardens used to compel them to sell green leaves at a very low price. At present more than 80,000 acres of land is under new tea plantation. Among all districts of North Bengal Uttar Dinajpur district has highest acres of land under new small tea plantation. Among the small planters 84% are agriculturalist, rest 16% planters are local thikadars and contractors. Thirty thousand labourers are working in these newly grown tea plantation farms. Tea workers are none other than land losers. In the survey report of Tea Board published on 31st  March 2011  it appears that there were more than twenty-four thousand small tea gardens in North Bengal but all India small tea gardens owner samity claimed that there are more small tea gardens in North Bengal. But only 7,431 tea gardens had applied for no objection certificate within in 30th June in 2001. Due to unplanned growth of small tea garden agriculture will face great crisis in future.

Most of the tea gardens owners have illegally grabbed agricultural land, vested land, tribal and scheduled-caste land without taking prior permission of government. Even Teesta command area was not spared by these tea planters. The West Bengal Legislative committee after examining various petitions opined that vest areas of land has been encroached upon by the tea planters violating the guidelines of West Bengal Land Reforms Act of 1955. As a result a large number of tribal and scheduled caste people were alienated from their land. But the government remained a mute spectator.

A few examples are sufficient to understand how the S/C tribal, patta and vested lands were illegally occupied by the planters. Mohor Gaon Gulma Tea estate is very close to Siliguri. During the British regime the garden was established on 1300 acres of lease land. A few thika labourers and families of tea garden workers used to cultivate 160.51 acres of land. Most of them belong to Oraon community, few Lepchas and Nepali. In the 90s the above mentioned land was shown as vested in the records of Matigara BLRO office. Surprisingly during the time of LR survey in 2002 that very land was recorded in favour of Mohor Gaon Gulma Tea Estate. In order to restore the land in favour of the tribal labourers a convention was held at the Mitra Institution on 19th May 2012. The convention was organised by Adivasi Bikash Parishad and TASSO. Why the BLRO office under Matigara PS did not distribute the vested land before 2002? It is assumed that the intention of Mohor Gaon Gulma Tea Estate owner was to hand over the tea land to promoters for real estate business. It is known to everybody how Chandmoni Tea Estate was sold to a promoter for developing a small township.

Even tribal patta land was not spared by the planters. In the year 1973 the patta land was allotted to tribals and few forest villagers in Lataguri, Odlabari, Danguajhor etc of Jalpaiguri District. Surprisingly the allotted patta land was not demarcated. In this way some patta land was again allotted for the tribals in 1994-95. Taking advantage of this loophole non-tribal planters grabbed those patta land for tea plantation in the name of another tribal. They have also taken bank loan against those pattas. Adibasi Bikash Parishad is collecting the details of Patta land. Tez Kumar Toppo stated that Adivasi Bikas Parishad is trying to recover those land in favour of original patta holders. 'There are lots of such examples of illegal land grabbing by the planters. Naturally this sort of alienation of land gradually created commotion among the tribals. Adivasi Bikas Parishad, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Adivasi Krishi Jami Raksha Committee began to organise the tribals for restoring their land. While growth of small tea gardens creating a tense situation in North Bengal, traditional Bengali dominated political parties were gradually losing their foothold among the tea garden workers.

Taking opportunity of the growth of small tea gardens some financiers began to start bought-leaf-factories. They have no garden. They began to purchase green leaves and processed them in their factories. At present there are about one hundred bought-leaf-factories throughout North Bengal. These factories do not purchase green leaves directly from garden owners. They appoint their agents (Dalal) for collecting green leaves from the producers. As tea leaf early decays, so the tea growers have to depend on agents. They are compelled to sell the green tea leaves at the prices what agents fix. The bought-leaf-factories can produce processed tea at a very low rate than set tea gardens. Under such circumstances the set tea gardens are in deep crisis. Closures, lockouts and suspension of work have become regular features in set tea garden these days. Growth of small tea gardens and bought-leaf factories has totally changed the pattern of tea industry in North Bengal. Moreover the quality of small tea gardens leaf is low. Leaf is plucked by unskilled workers. Small tea producers generally use high pesticide and chemical fertiliser for rapid growth of tea leaf. Even there are many complaints of mixing adulterated tea against the bought-leaf-factories. Bhaskar Nandy, President of Paschim Banga Cha Sramik Karmachari Union told that new generation of tea garden owners usually send their low quality tea sample to licensed broker for fixing the price. So, low price is shown in their record. But actually the new owners sell it at higher prices in the market. Tea Garden owners show loses, workers payment is delayed and provident fund money of the worker is not deposited. Even ponji finance like Sarada Pleasure and Adventure Limited began to invest in tea gardens obviously for quick profit. Sarada people who have no previous experience in tea business, purchased Bundapani Tea Estate from Mohta enterprise at 2.5 crore through an illegal deed. Ultimately Sarada left the garden on 13 July 2013 without paying workers’ provident fund and bank loan. Not only Bundapani, workers of Dheklapara, another closed tea garden meted the same fate. Real estate owner, hotelier began to invest in tea gardens for quick profit. They have no previous experience in tea management. At present there are nine closed small tea gardens. These are Dheklapara, Dharanipur, Red Bank, Surendranagar, Patkapara, Rahimabad, Madhu, Bandapani and Sonali Tea Estate. All these gardens are situated in Jalpalguri district.

Out of this doldrum scenario a section of corrupt  trade union leaders, Babus and some workers came forward and formed OMC (Operating Managing Committee) to run closed tea gardens. Under Operating Managing Committee the workers pluck green tea leaf and the OMC collect leaves and sell them to nearby tea gardens or to bought-leaf-factories. The corrupt leaders of the OMC pay meagre sum to the workers. The OMC never declares before workers in which price they sell the green tea leaf. No doubt the recent depression throughout the world has added salt to the wounds of the small tea growers in Duars and also in Kerala.

On the other hand a new type of movement is spearheading in North Bengal. The tribal and Scheduled-caste Land Losers are demanding for restoration of their land which is now under possession of small tea gardens. Adivashi Bikash Parishad, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and UTJAS, all regional organisations formed on the basis of ethnicity are leading the movement. Tribal and SC land losers are even forcefully restoring their land from tea garden owners. Recently Adivasi Krishi Jami Raksha Committee is clamouring for restoration of those tribal lands which have been illegally occupied by the tea planters. About 739 tribals under the leadership of Adivasi Krishi Jami Raksha Committee had appealed to the Jalpaiguri Divisional Commissioner for restoration of their land. Divisional commissioner personally enquired about the claims of the tribals. After commissioner's enquiry North Dinajpur district administration decided to restore the land of 423 tribals out of 739 petitioners. There are lots of instances of restoration of the land by the land loser tribals. Tribals of Birsa Munda colony took possession of about 200/300 bighas of land which were under the possession Maingram Tea Estate. Few years ago tribals of Birsa Munda colony left the land due to continuous disturbances of elephant. When the tribals left the land, forest department leased out the land to Maingrain tea garden. Thereafter the forest department cancelled the lease and began to use the land for social forestry purpose. In the meantime the tribals of above mentioned colony reoccupied the land under the leadership of Adivasi Bikas Parishad. From Uttar Dinajpur to Terai-Duars everywhere the Adivasis and sons of the soil are demanding restoration of illegally transferred land to the tea planters. Thus North Bengal is facing a new kind of social tension. At the same time Bengali dominated traditional trade unions are gradually losing their hold on tea garden workers to the ethnicity based regional parties. It is to be mentioned here that although the land losers are restoring their land from the planters but after restoration what will be the future of these tea gardens. They may run the gardens by forming self help group. But the example of twenty five self help groups of North Dinajpur is not bright. The bought leaf-tea factories are not willing to purchase green leaf from them. Even tea plantation area cannot be converted into agricultural land due to continuous use of pesticide and chemical fertiliser by the planters.

Due to world wide depression and low demand of Indian tea in external market plantation economy in North Bengal is in total anarchy. Not only the small tea garden owners but also the workers of set gardens are facing troubles. Dismal business scenario coupled with regular stervation deaths seem to have gripped these small tea gardens which were set up in an unplanned manner in the first place.

Vol. 47, No. 47, May 31 - June 6, 2015