“The garden managements may abandon you but my government won’t.” This was the message that chief minister Mamata Banerjee delivered to the workers of the umpteen number of tea gardens in this area at a public meeting on Wednesday, virtually kicking off her Assembly poll campaign in the tea belt that is living in the shadow of a string of deaths caused by malnutrition.
However, she avoided visiting the Bagrakote tea garden, where 14 labourers have died since September 14, in spite of it being just 20 kms away from the Parimal Mitra Memorial College ground where she addressed the rally.
Her decision to skirt the place left the workers and their families thoroughly disappointed but she did assure them all, including the workers of abandoned tea gardens, that her government will provide them all the relief and succor — in the form of rations, medical facilities and safe drinking water.
Accusing the former UPA and the present NDA government at the Centre of doing nothing for the workers of sick and closed tea gardens, Mamata advised the workers not to believe anyone any more, except her. “Don’t believe anyone when your Didi is there to take care of you,” she said, evoking a wild applause from the crowd.
The significance of the 283 tea gardens of North Bengal is that they employ 3.5 lakh workers, most of them living in abject poverty.
Of these 283, as many as 154 are in the Dooars, out of which eight are closed for years and the 14 owned by the Duncan Industries group — Bagrakote is one of them — are in a serious crisis. The tea belt of the Dooars has 21 Assembly seats.
Asok Bhattacharya, former CPI(M) minister and the present mayor of Siliguri, who led the party to twin victories in the Siliguri corporation election in April and the Siliguri panchayat election in October, said, “The chief minister should not shed crocodile tears when the tea garden workers are dying of malnutrition. She should have visited the closed Bagrakote tea garden, but she was busy hoodwinking the innocent workers with the sole intention of using them for the next state election.” The chief minister, on the other hand, was unsparing in her attack on the opposition, particularly the CPI(M), and blamed them for the present state of affairs in the entire region.
During her trip to North Bengal over the last two days, Mamata also targeted delinquent tea garden owners in the strongest of words: “If you can’t run the gardens, give them to us. We will find people who can run them.”
Bagrakote and the 13 other tea gardens that belong to the Duncan group employed more than 25,000 workers. They are not getting their salary, provident fund and gratuity since April. This has forced almost 70% of the workforce to leave the gardens and look for odd jobs.
The challenge that Mamata’s Trinamool Congress faces in the Dooars tea belt is huge, to put it modestly. The Left parties, particularly the CPI(M), still wield a great deal of influence over the workers and it will be a Herculean task to change that equation.
Mamata also tried to address the sentiments of the adivasis who comprise the majority of the workforce in the Dooars tea gardens. With Birsha Tirki and Tejkumar Toppo, state committee president and general secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikash Parishad (ABAVP), respectively, present on the dais, the chief minister said she would not allow any bloodshed or a division of the state. It was a veiled reference to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) that has renewed its call for a separate state of Gorkhaland, including a large part of the Dooars. The ABAVP is an ally of the Trinamool Congress.