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Storm in Dooars cup

Closed tea gardens with a long history of government neglect spell trouble for Left. Surbek Biswas reports.

kolkata Updated: Apr 01, 2011 17:54 IST
Surbek Biswas

Poulush Bedia, 55, hates collecting wood for cooking dinner but it’s a daily chore for him at Dheklapara tea garden. Recently, Bedia visited his relative 10km away. One should never ask guests to fetch wood but things work differently at Dheklapara. The garden closed down nine years ago and food is as scarce as firewood and everybody has to forage.

Dheklapara is about 90km to the northeast of Jalpaiguri town and spread over an area of 1,400 acres. There are 603 workers and the total population stands at 3,500. In nine years, more than 50 people have died of malnutrition and lack of medical treatment. The magnitude of human suffering has twisted life into a four-letter word — food.

Akla Malpaharia is suffering from tuberculosis. After his son Rajeev, dropped out of school, Malpaharia started crushing stones on the banks of Rethi river; a dangerous profession for a tuberculosis patient but R250 a week is too alluring to ignore.

Homemakers go through their own ordeal. After crushing stones, Monika and Bobita Oraon go to the forest to hunt for roots and leaves. “We are often chased by elephants but hunger takes away any fear for life,” said Monika.

Located in a state that is being ruled by nine parties who swear to protect the proletariat, Dheklapara, is not an island in isolation. As politicians make a beeline for votes, the administration’s failure to address poverty and unemployment, becomes the talking point in the gardens.

In 1980, tea garden workers used to get a daily wage of Rs 10.70. Now, they get Rs 67. In 31 years, the average worker’s income has gone up by Rs 56.30, a clear case of under-performance by a government fighting for the proletariat. According to the International Union of Food workers, the low wage is the main reason for tea garden deaths. The Marxists are aware that around six lakh voters in the tea garden areas will decide the fate of four constituencies in the Dooars and they are worried.

While it is a fact that garden owners were hit by the fall in tea prices between 1999 and 2007 in international and local markets, thanks to new players such as Rwanda, Indonesia and Vietnam, few can deny that the government and political parties failed to ensure minimum social security for thousands of jobless.

Since 2002, as many as 23 tea gardens have closed down in the Doors. Last year, 18 resumed business but Dheklapara remains in the list of five gardens declared “closed.” The number of registered gardens in the region stands at 153 and 216 million kg of tea is produced here annually — roughly one-fourth of India’s total produce. The figures, quite ironically, do not project the stark reality. Kathalguri garden resumed operation in 2010, after eight years, thanks to new stakeholders. According to unofficial figures, nearly 400 people died of malnourishment, anaemia and lack of healthcare during this period.

The new stakeholders have slashed the labour force from 1,479 to 1,112. They are paid R67 a day, but for only 13 days a month, to keep down costs. There is no factory since all the machines and the building was sold off in 2007.

Rajat Kanti Roy, a staff said, “Old tea plants have to give way to the new. The process takes five to seven years.” Till then, workers and families will not enjoy benefits such as provident fund, gratuity, subsidised food grain, medical facility and electricity, not to mention full wages according to Plantations Labour Act of 1951.

The Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), one of the allies of the CPI(M)- led Left Front, has the strongest presence in the Dooars. Offices of the RSP’s Dooars Chaa Bagan Workers’ Union can be seen in 153 tea gardens.

“Gardens that have reopened are struggling to survive. There is no change in the grim ground reality,” said Sunil Banik, RSP district secretary.

Amitangshu Chakraborty, secretary, Indian Tea Planters’ Association, said fear of huge investments running into bad debt is keeping many potential investors away from taking over gardens such as Dheklapara.

Prabir Bhattacharya, secretary, Dooars Branch of Indian Tea Association, said, “Between 1999 and 2007, there was a huge mismatch between demand and supply because of foreign players. The price of CTC tea came down to R55 per kg while cost of production per kg stood at R75. The fall was arrested around 2008 and the price went up to R98. Since then demand for Indian tea in the international market has also gone up. Last year, the price touched R120.”

The process of reopening 18 tea gardens in 2010, a year before the Assembly polls, was greatly influenced by Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikash Parishad (ABAVP) and Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), forces that emerged three years ago as determining factors in local politics. In the region, 65% of voters belong to tribal communities while more than 25% are of Nepali origin. With these outfits pressing for creation of Independent autonomous regions for Gorkhas and tribals, the government had to be seen addressing the crisis in the Dooars tea industry. The government lobbied with entrepreneurs such as Narendra Berlia and Rajah Banerjee to take over Kathalguri garden.

The coming election will be an acid test for all parties. Most tribal voters support the CPI(M) and RSP. But after ABAVP was born, the support base of the Marxists started eroding. In 2007, the CITU-affiliated Cha-Mazdoor Union boasted 78,410 members. ABAVP surfaced the next year and CITU-affiliated members were reduced to 56,408. In 2010, the number came down to less than 20,000.

ABAVP’s trade union front, Progressive Tea Workers’ Union has spread across 200 gardens. “Eighteen tea gardens have been reopened only because of our pressure,” said John Barla, regional president, ABAVP.

Manik Sanyal, CPI(M) district secretary, admitted that ABAVP has become a problem. “Creating jobs for all educated tribal youths is not possible. By raising this issue it has been able to segregate tribals.”

CITU’s Chaa Mazdoor Union call for strikes no longer evoke response in the gardens because ABAVP has convinced people that loss in production can only lead to loss of wages. To put further pressure on the Left, the tribal body has raised demands for patta (rights) on land where tea garden workers have houses and also rights to graze cattle and farm. ABAVP also wants 100 per cent hike in wages.

The GJM, though at loggerheads with the tribal body because of its demand for inclusion of the Dooars in the proposed Gorkhaland, supports the tribal body on certain issues. The GJM too has a trade union front, which is active in 130 gardens. Madhukar Thapa, the local GJM convener, said, “ABAVP, like us, is fighting for the development of tea garden workers.”

It is natural that the common enemy of GJM and ABAVP will be the ruling Left Front. “The Front only taught people to stay away from work, affecting production and income of the workers,” said Thapa.