Despite lockdown, about 200 tea gardens open in north Bengal
Thousands of workers in about 200 tea gardens in northern West Bengal continued to work on Tuesday, despite a complete lockdown announced by Mamata Banerjee from Monday evening, triggering a huge controversy.
The Darjeeling hills and Dooars region of West Bengal have 283 tea gardens, employing 350,000 permanent and casual workers, who earn Rs 176 per day besides the weekly ration.
Sprawling across the districts of Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Alipurduars, the belt has another 40,000 small growers who employ one lakh labourers. Most of these gardens operated on Tuesday.
While no worker turned up on Wednesday, the gardens have not yet issued any notification stating closure of operations. It remained uncertain whether the gardens would function on Wednesday, as a section of workers were confused and panicked over the prospect of a loss of pay.
Ram Avtar Sharma, secretary of the Dooars branch of Tea Association of India, said that they did not receive “any specific instruction” from the administration to keep the gardens closed.
“Most of the gardens in Dooars were open on Tuesday but none functioned on Wednesday because workers did not turn up,” Sharma said.
Prabir Kumar Bhattacharya, the secretary-general of Tea Association of India, said that the government order issued announcing lockdown from March 23 did not mention the areas where the gardens are located.
“In view of the revised order issued by the chief secretary on March 24 when the entire state of West Bengal has been advised to be locked out, the industry shall be taking a decision on this matter soon,” Bhattacharya said.
The March 22 order enforcing the Complete Safety Regulations had mentioned the towns of Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Kurseung, Kalimpong, Alipurduar and Jaigaon in the three districts.
It had instructed a five-day closure of all public transport facilities, shops, commercial establishments, factories workshops and godowns and prohibited the gathering of more than seven persons from Monday evening.
The order issued by the state government on March 24, extending the lockdown till March 31, mentioned ‘whole of West Bengal’.
“This is the time for the first flush, which fetches the highest price, and helps us survive throughout the year. Closing gardens would amount to huge losses. Besides, workers would demand wages and ration if we close the gardens on our own. Let the administration close them down if they want,” a manager of a tea garden, who did not want to be identified, said.
Saman Pathak, a leader of the Joint Forum of Trade Unions in the Tea Industry who belongs to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), wrote a letter to the district magistrate on Tuesday, appealing to implement Complete Safety Regulations in the gardens.
Local human rights activist Rupan Deb said that the administration needed to send teams in the gardens to inquire about people’s travel history.
“Many family members of garden workers migrate to other states, including Kerala and Maharashtra, for work in different industries. Many of them have returned recently but have not reported them to the administration. If the administration does not take precautionary steps immediately and fails to ensure wages and rations, there could be trouble,” Deb said.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Alipurduars MP John Barla alleged that tea gardens’ management forced and threatened workers to join plucking tea leaves.
“They forced workers to gather at the gardens. The tea gardens owners are risking the lives of thousands of workers for their monetary benefits,” Barla alleged.
Sonia Jabbar, the owner of Nuxalbari Tea Estate, rubbished Barla’s allegations.
“We come under the organised sector and we act only on the basis of written communication from our association or the administration. There was no such communication. We only take orders. Everything is decided by three parties - government, unions and owners through the ITA and other associations. So there’s no question of forcing workers,” Jabbar said.
“The allegation of forcing workers to work is absolutely baseless. On the other hand, we at our garden ensured that every worked maintained the distance of six feet and washed their hands every two hours. Now that the prime minister has announced a country-wide total lockdown for 21 days, we will not function from Wednesday,” she added.
However, BJP’s Madarihat MLA Manoj Tigga alleged that most of the gardens in Alipurduars did not follow safety measures, including maintaining the minimum distance between workers.
There are nine Covid-19 patients in the state, which has also reported one death, so far.