Will MoS, Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry Jairam Ramesh's visit to the closed and sick tea gardens of Terai – where starvation deaths have been reported – to look into the ground realities turn around the tea gardens?
Jairam Ramesh's decision to visit the 31 worst affected tea gardens in the Dooars region of the Jalpaiguri district where more than 3,100 workers have been left jobless comes following the meeting with a RSP delegation in Delhi led by the Alipur Duar MP Joachim Buxla.
"Jairam Ramesh said that he is trying to work out a compensation package of which 50 per cent would go to closed and sick tea gardens of Assam, 30 per cent to Bengal tea gardens and 20 per cent to the tea gardens of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. This package is to ensure that the tea garden workers do not die of want of food, medicines, hospital facilities and vector-borne diseases," said RSP central committee member Manoj Bhattacharya.
Interestingly, the central government law of Plantation Labours Act 1928 guides all the tea gardens situated in Bengal. Therefore, it is not entirely in the hands of the state government to give reprieve to the workers of the sick and closed tea gardens of Terai region who have mainly come from Chhota Nagpur.
"On Tuesday, Finance Minister Asim Dasgupta announced a Rs 16 crore package for the poor labourers of the tea gardens. But that is not enough. The CM is also sympathetic but what is required is a major pumping of money into these gardens by the government for at least three years to make them operational," said RSP Kalchini MLA Manohar Tirkey.
"Since most of the closed and sick tea gardens of the Jalpaiguri district has RSP MLAs like Manohar Tirkey, Kumari Kujur of Madarihat and Dasrath Tirkey of Kumargram Assembly segments, the RSP is playing a crucial role in highlighting the pitiable condition of the tea gardens and its workers and the resultant starvation deaths due to malnutrition in the Assembly and outside," added RSP State Secretary Debabrata Bandopadhyay.
The tea gardens in the Terai region began to reel under losses ever since the traditional tea planters left the gardens and the ownership got transferred in the hands of "fly-by-night promoters" who were out to make fast money at the cost of the garden and the workers.
These "neo planters" allege the RSP leaders, have no technical understanding of how to run a tea garden; they take no initiative to plant new tea plants in the gardens; and they are least bothered about the condition of the tea gardens. Result: 10 per cent of the tea gardens in Jalpaiguri district are closed and many more tea garden workers would perish in the coming days.
"The Plantation Act says that the tea garden owners should ensure water, electricity and health of the tea garden workers. But all that has gone for a toss now. And since panchayats are not functional in the tea gardens, unless the Centre comes in soon, there will many more deaths in these tea gardens," said Manoj Bhattacharya.