‘Two Leaves And A Bud’

Plight of Bengal Plantation Workers

Nityananda Ghosh

The deepening crisis in the tea gardens of Darjeeling, Terai and Dooars of North Bengal has created a survival question for thousands of workers. While visiting some of the gardens in November, 2022 this correspondent and his colleague Ashwini Pramanik have gathered horrible experiences. The plight of tea garden workers cannot be gauged from outside unless someone goes there and take stock of the situation. Happy Valley, a 150-year- old tea garden situated in the very heart of the Darjeeling hills has lost its past glory as the productivity has been significantly diminished over the years. The old plants are unable to produce reasonable yield. The management did not adopt new policies to reinvigorate the garden e.g. Re-plantation has slowly progressed either or it has not been done at all. The workers of Happy Valley who resorted to cease work in the fourth week of November 2022, for not getting even their paltry salary since September, 2022 are literally starving. The unions finally gave a strike call in all tea gardens belonging to the Ambutia group. The strike covered the Happy Valley tea garden as well. However the strike was withdrawn following some assurances from the management.

Meanwhile, the ownership of the Happy Valley garden has been changed. The previous owner reportedly took Rs 900 crore loan from a Nationalised Bank for revival of the garden but nothing had been done. Workers further alleged that the old owner had virtually misappropriated the entire amount instead of investing it for the revival of the garden. Right now there are 300-350 workers engaged in the Happy Valley garden but they did not face such a precarious situation earlier. Processed tea leaves of this garden i.e.namely flavoured tea leaves have tremendous demand and those are being exported. There is no such traditional union in this garden except the nominal presence of Gorkha Janamukti Parishad's trade union wing. So there is no official platform to raise the justified demands of the workers to the management. As a result workers are in a weak position to bargain with the owner despite increased repressive measures.

There are 276 set tea gardens in the Dooars-Terai-Hill region of North Bengal spreading over 1,62,979.12 hectares of land, having 2.6 lakh permanent workers according to a survey done by the office of Joint Labour Commissioner of North Bengal (located at Siliguri). The survey entitled—‘Survey of tea gardens conducted by Regional Labour offices under jurisdiction of Joint Labour Commissioner’, was done in the year 2013. Besides set gardens there are about 50,000 small tea gardens which produce maximum tea leaves and employ lakhs workers in production. The workers of these small tea gardens are the worst sufferers as they do not get statutory ration facilities; also they can't avail Prime Minister's Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY). The workers holding the BPL card only get free ration otherwise they have to purchase rice or wheat from open market. Most of the workers of small tea gardens as they are unorganised,have been deprived of BPL cards. Naturally the workers who do not hold BPL cards have no access to food security i.e. they are not under AAY although they can avail food guarantee yojana of the state government (RKSY1&2). They can purchase ration (rice or wheat) at the rate of Rs 2-3 per kilogram. Ironically, they fall under APL (Above Poverty Line) category, not under BPL. The living conditions of tea workers of Terai are very much deplorable according to Abhijit Majumdar, president of Terai Sangrami Cha Shramik Union affiliated to AICCTU.

There is Plantation Act to regulate the employment of tea garden workers (Plantation Labour Act 1951 i.e. Tea Labour Act 1951). But most garden workers do not get benefits under this act. Besides, Provident Fund Act 1952, Payment of Gratuity Act 1972, Equal Pay for Equal Work Act 1976 and anti- Child Labour Act 1986 etc. are in vogue for the employees and workers but tea garden labourers of small gardens are denied rights guaranteed under these acts. Permanent workers apart, a large number of contractual workers are employed in those set gardens as well as in small gardens. Temporary Workers engaged in the tea gardens are known as bigha workers. These workers do not get provident fund, gratuity facilities and even the negotiated daily wages determined by the Planters Association, Government representatives and Tea Board members through the mechanism of tripartite agreement.

At present each worker gets Rs 232 per day which is far below minimum wages settled by the labour department, Government of India. Tea garden workers get salary after every 14 days i.e. in each week’s payment there is a gap of one day (which is counted as leave). In truth each worker gets 12 or 13 days’ salary after two weeks’ work whereas each permanent worker gets about Rs 5000 per month.

For one thing tea garden workers used to get Rs 90 as daily wages during the left front rule (i.e.upto 2011).Then the Trinamool Congress government increased the daily wages step by step which was ultimately fixed at Rs 232/- per day following a negotiated agreement between trade unions (there are 36 registered trade unions in tea industry in this region), planters' associations and labour department, Government of West Bengal. But there is a tripartite committee to address the minimum wages dispute. R A Sharma, a member of the planters’ association of Birpara (Jalpaiguri district) openly confessed that the committee was yet to settle the minimum wages of the tea garden workers. So the tea garden workers of Darjeeling and Dooars still do not get minimum wages although their counterparts of South India (Tamilnadu and Kerala) and even in Assam get wages more than what Bengal tea garden workers get.

Temporary workers of the set tea gardens lost their jobs during December to February as plucking of leaves was stopped. No compensation was offered. Tea Garden Owners, big or small, do not bear social responsibility. Permanent workers’quarters are not maintained; they are just apologies of houses .School buses for the children are not provided, there are dispensaries but nurses, doctors and support staff are not adequate. The corporate social responsibility is a buzz word in tea gardens. In short, workers, both permanent and temporary, are being continually haunted by insecurity, anxiety and threat of closure. Reports of starvation death are not uncommon but they hardly get currency. Tea Gardens in this part of the globe symbolise mediaeval industrial culture.

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Vol 55, No. 31, Jan 29 - Feb 4, 2023