The 7.30 am siren echoes across the length and breadth of Samsing tea estate in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal on the foothill of Himalayas every day. But the chirpy leaf-pickers have turned a deaf ear, as they jostle for their turn outside banks.
The cash flow in the tea-producing belt of the Dooars-Terai region in north Bengal, post demonetisation, resembles the dried-up rivers and rivulets it is surrounded by.
A new RBI directive that mandates owners to pay workers through their Jan Dhan account is brewing fresh trouble in Jalpaiguri-Alipurduar-Cooch Behar districts. A circular to this effect was recently sent by Tea Board to the garden managers.
Giving a thrust to government’s push for cashless economy, the circular says: “....you are requested to impress upon your member gardens to take necessary action towards opening of new accounts under the Prime Minister Jan Dhan Yojna (PMJDY) for all individual workers/employees engaged in tea plantation for remitting their wages and salary in their individual accounts with immediate effect. This will enable them to mitigate towards digital payment system, cashless economy...”
Angry workers in Dooars and Terai are boycotting work to hit the streets. They are demanding resumption of the fortnightly talab (wages) system prevalent in the region for more than a century.
“Why did the RBI pick tea industry to implement this cashless system? What is their right to intrude in our professional domain?” asks Nitish Mandal, a tea union leader.
The move will spell doom for the gardens which are completely dependent on cash, as a recent Indian Tea Association (ITA) survey revealed that 96,000 workers of the more than two lakh employed with 276 gardens in Terai, Alipurduar and Darjeeling districts, don’t have bank accounts.
At a bank near Bagrakote tea estate, two clerks and a manager serve more than 25,000 people.
“We are simply helpless. You can see the rush outside my branch every day. We have to maintain accounts of as many as five tea gardens,” says M R Mitra, the branch manager, adding how they organised four camps and opened over 300 Jan Dhan accounts in the last two weeks.
Outside Mitra’s branch, people are cursing their garden manager or the government.
“I had to skip a day’s work to stand here at the queue. To top that, one-fourth of the amount that I withdraw is spent on conveyance as the branch is 20km from my home,” said Siddha Tirkey, a daily wage earner at the Sonali tea estate.
Sanjay Bagchi of Indian Tea Association (Terai branch) thinks the situation might soon lead to unrest as most workers did not receive their last ‘talab’.
Moreover, being illiterate, they are not equipped to operate bank accounts.
“If banks do not arrange for a customer service point at the gardens, the workers might end up starving,” he said.
J Parekh, a manager at Duncans-owned Bagrakote tea garden, called for more bank branches and ATMs in the region. “You can’t always expect people to travel miles each week after a hard day’s work.”
On Friday, the Tea Board requested the RBI to issue suitable directives to banks to smoothen payment of wages.
Sanjay Ghai, general manager of Gendrapara tea estate, owned by Goodricke, feels the RBI decision was arbitrary.
“The government should have assessed the situation here before passing this order,” he said, adding that banks refuse to pay salaries—which are less than Rs 2,000 for many—citing shortage of lower denomination notes.
President of a small tea growers’ body, Bijoy Gopal Chakrabarti, said, “Cash wage system is tea industry’s 150-year-old legacy. One order cannot abolish the system immediately.”
According to an industry expert, opening Jan Dhan accounts won’t be a problem in the long run, but regular maintenance will be cumbersome.