A Surprise Move

Sitharaman : Awarded for ill Performance?

Charubrata Ray

Sitharaman's apparently unexpected promotion to defence minister strongly suggests that she was kicked upstairs. If anyone thinks, this is recognition for performance, it will be a sheer travesty of truth. Her role as the minister of state for commerce has been one of ill-performance, to call it under performance is an overstatement. However, if she has to be a 'puppet defence' minister with the Prime Minister pulling strings behind the wings, it is a different matter.

She deserves special mention for destructive restructuring five major commodity boards covering tea, coffee, rubber, tobacco and spices These are statutory set-ups. The Coffee Board is constituted under the Coffee Act, 1942, the Rubber Board under the Rubber Act, 1947 and Tea Board under Tea Act, 1953., Tobacco Board was constituted in 1976, and Spices Board 1987. Of these, Tea Board and Tobacco Board have been playing a dual role as monitoring bodies in consistent export earnings. In 2015-16, tea exports fetched hard currency worth Rs 4493 crore rising from Rs 3823 crore in 2014-15. Sitharaman systematically and vindictively cut the Tea Board of lndia to size, without caring to note that it will tell on the functioning of its key role as the crucial regulatory body of tea industry, trade and last, but not least labour. Tea plantations provide means of livelihood to about two million workers. Pressing into service, her old acquaintance from the days at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Santiago Sarengi, an Orissa cadre IAS and joint secretary in the ministry of commerce as stop-gap chairman first and acting deputy chairman later (following a drastic change in the hierarchical order pursuant to massive amendment to Tea Act, 1953 over 70 staff from the headquarters had been transferred at random (rather at fits and starts) to distant places. Some one and a half dozen of menials with monthly emoluments averaging Rs 12,000 were transferred to New Delhi. Their duty is to make teas for the Parliament and Commerce & Industry Ministries. The minister and her sidekick Sarengi (very recently replaced by another joint secretary, Shvamal Mishra) were not bothered about the economic crisis due to the Tughlaqi transfer. They had to leave their family in Kolkata as with such low income it is impossible to set up separate filial establishment. Over a dozen of those 70 staff crossed 50. If a work study team is sent to offices (Guwahati, Jorhat, Conoor, Palanpur etc) where they were transferred, half of them would be found to have no work. As a result, crucial functions like licensing, loan schemes and tea promotion suffered in the name of decentralisation.

The minister miserably failed to be pro active in reopening about 20 tea estates in North Bengal in striking contrast to her predecessor Jairarm Ramesh who often rushed to Dooars and Terai regions to reopen them. The main reason for his failure was non-cooperation from the then West Bengal minister of industry and commerce Nirupam Sen, then a polit bureau member of CPI(M) who never touched erring owners who are pseudo-entrepreneurs.

The role of central trade unions in tea estates of north Bengal in this respect was questionable… In January this year, they gave a deputation to the Tea Board chairman (stopgap and hence) on the first day of two-day strike (12 and 13 January). But they did not bother to know that the powers of Tea Board chairman have been drastically scuttled through a detrimental amendment of the Tea Rules, 1954. As a result, the deputy chairman is all-powerful, but there was yet to be a full-time DC, thanks to whims of West Bengal's chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

Six-decade tradition of choosing chairman from senior IAS officers alternatively from Assam and West Bengal has been scrapped. Now the chairman, Prabhat Jamal Bezboruah, is a tea planter and presently chairman, Tea Research Association, and based in Jorhat.

The Centre appointed Arnab Roy 1991 cadre IAS as the Dy chairman in December last year, following notification on upgradation of dy chairman to the level of the Joint Secretary of the Union Government, but the WB CM did not release him as he was not made the chairman. She has to be squarely blamed for this as when draft amendment to Tea Rules was sent, she sent no reply, nor objection.

But CPI(M) Rajya Sabha member, Tapan Sen, a member of Tea Board, TMC MPs Saugata Roy, Sudip Bandyopadhyay and Vivek Gupta questioned the arbitrary transfers. Sitharaman said this was a part of decentralisation, but insiders say, this is vindictive as over 20 are class IV staff and over half a dozen are 50-plus. However, tea estate unionists fail to realise that with Tea Board, turned into haunted house, deputation to a titular chairman is like knocking the door where hobgoblins dwell.

Vol. 50, No.17, Oct 29 - Nov 4, 2017