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Storm in a tea cup

Minister of State for Commerce Jairam Ramesh has responded to an HT report on sick tea gardens by detailing the steps the government is taking to reopen the gardens.

india Updated: Sep 08, 2007 02:41 IST

Minister of State for Commerce Jairam Ramesh has responded to an HT report (Only suffering blooms in tea gardens, Sept 4) on sick tea gardens by detailing the steps the government is taking to reopen the gardens. The HT report had mentioned the financial package proposed by the government. But what seems to have got Ramesh upset is the observation that the package is skewed as it concentrates on reopening the tea gardens without the welfare component in the compensation.

Ramesh pointed out that the government has put in place a Special Purpose Tea Fund (SPTF) that will rejuvenate about 2 lakh hectares of tea plantations (about 40 per cent of the total area under tea) over the next 15 years at an approximate investment of around Rs 4,760 crore. “This replantation programme will boost productivity by at least 20-25 per cent. Since our plantations are very old, productivity has declined significantly and this single factor has impacted workers’ welfare most of all,” he said.

There are about 154 tea gardens in Kerala of which 17 are closed. There are around 302 tea gardens in North Bengal of which 14 are closed. The government has announced a financial relief package so as to restructure the loans owed by these closed gardens mainly to banks without in any way jeopardising the payment of all statutory dues to workers. The best way, according to Ramesh, to help workers in closed tea gardens is to get the gardens to resume full operations quickly. Unfortunately, this premise has had few takers.

The government has announced its intention to invoke Section 16(E) of the Tea Act, 1953, that empowers it to take over any tea garden lying closed for more than three months for the purposes of finding a new owner. A joint committee of the central and state governments has already been constituted for this purpose. But the minister was told by an all-women’s delegation he had met at Chalsa, near Jalpaiguri in North Bengal a few weeks ago that such a proposal was miscalculated. The delegation demanded a shift of focus from tea garden owners to tea garden workers, which the government has yet to respond to.

In the Tenth Plan, the allocation for social welfare in the Tea Board was Rs 5 crore. In the Eleventh Plan, this allocation has been increased to Rs 50 crore. This is for direct interventions by the Tea Board. Simultaneously, efforts are on to see how social welfare and rural development schemes implemented through panchayat institutions can benefit tea garden workers as well, since they are covered under the Plantation Labour Act and because the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution does not apply in these plantation areas.

"I have personally visited eight of the 14 closed tea gardens in North Bengal and nine of the 17 closed tea gardens in Kerala. I continue to give reopening my close personal attention,” said Ramesh. “The state governments have put in place a number of welfare measures for the affected workers and their families, since the primary responsibility in this area is theirs,” he added. This looks like quarrel that will continue to brew.