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Bengal's cuppa lives on dole

State's cuppa is brewed by workers, managements, unions, politicians and rebels, writes Sutirtho Patranobis.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2006 15:25 IST

The lie of this land fringed by the snow-capped Himalayas is gentle. Acres after acres of tea estates punctuated by cluster settlements, dense forests and silence — broken only by elections and labour uprisings.

Bengal's flavoured cuppa is brewed by a quintet: Workers, garden managements, unions, politicians and the rebels.

Each one has its own agenda. The LF government says it is taking care of the labourers and the gardens as well, some of which are more than 100 years old. And the Opposition promises the moon provided it wins.

The labourers — at the mercy of the trade unions — are hemmed in. Nearly five lakhs of them will vote this time. But they are far from happy. Trappings of health are deceptive.

The 350-odd gardens in Dooars, Terai and Derajeeling are beset with problems. More than a dozen units with crews of 1,5002,000 are shut.

The "jobless" live on a government dole of Rs 500. But there's a catch. Only those swearing allegiance to the "hammer and the sickle" get it. The rest are orphans.

The number of downed shutters keeps adding up. Last week, sprawling Panighata, a stone's throw from Siliguri, shut shop.

"The owners owe us 44 weeks of ration. But the managers have fled," says AK Singh, a migrant from Bihar, working for 15 years. Penury has driven the workers to the edge.

The Bengal gardens are a classic study in Red ideological war. The managements over the years have used "repression" as a tool to intimidate workers. Taking advantage of this imbalance, trade unions struck roots to "mobilize" the ignorant workers, mostly from Bihar, Chhotonagpur and Orissa.

Two years ago, labourers were killed in police firing when they protested the takeover of an estate by real estate developers.

Add to this ethnic politics and insurgency. When the Subash Ghising-led GNLF was trying to cash in on tea, the Rajbonshis (a dominant tribe in the region) raked up the statehood bogey under the banner of Kamtapuri Liberaton Organisation. But time seems to have mellowed them.

"The Left is still strong. But the Congress and GNLF-led unions might corner some votes," says Probir Sel, member of the zonal council of CII.