Workers in Bengal’s defunct tea estates fight hunger as govt dole dries up

Officials said on condition of anonymity that dues piled up since the labour department did not get the money to be disbursed.
Many tea gardens in North Bengal have declared lockouts pushing unemployed workers into penury.(MINT)
Many tea gardens in North Bengal have declared lockouts pushing unemployed workers into penury.(MINT)
Published on Sep 15, 2019 10:25 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, Siliguri | By

For more than 4,500 workers of tea gardens in Bengal which have declared lockouts, it is a hand-to-mouth existence in a grim battle against grinding poverty.

Families of each of these workers are entitled to a financial assistance of 1,500 under the Financial Assistance for the Workers of Locked Out Industries (FAWLOI) scheme of the Mamata Banerjee government. But the dole has dried up.

The gardens where the dues are piling up since April are Madhu, Dheklapara and Bandapani in Alipurduar district, Red Bank and Surendranagar in Jalpaiguri district and Panighata in Darjeeling district.

These tea gardens have been lying abandoned for years. Under the FAWLOI scheme, a worker gets a monthly assistance of 1,500 from the state labour department once the lock out continues beyond three months.

“For the past five months my three children and I have been surviving on whatever food comes our way. Often it is rice, water and salt,” said Subanti Oaraon, a worker of Madhu tea estate. Her husband died more than a month ago. She cannot go out to do odd jobs since she has to take care of the children.

At Panighata tea garden in Darjeeling, 491 workers have not received the assistance since April. Uden Lepcha, assistant labour commissioner in Kurseong said they would be paid next week.

A total of 12 gardens in north Bengal are lying closed.

But there could be some relief for some of these workers. Partha Biswas, deputy labour commissioner of Jalpaiguri district who also holds charge of Alipurduar district, said that payment to the workers of Madhu, Dheklapara and Bandapani estates would be made by Sunday.

Officials said on condition of anonymity that dues piled up since the labour department did not get the money to be disbursed.

During the closing years of the Left Front government, NGOs used to allege that deaths in tea gardens of north Bengal under lockout north Bengal had symptoms associated with malnutrition. Following these hardships, the state government had brought closed tea gardens under the FAWLOI scheme.

Earlier, a garden had to be closed for a year before becoming eligible for the benefits before the current government reduced the period to three months.

While thousands of workers covered under the FAWLOI remain unpaid, the screening committee in a meeting on August 26, brought four more tea gardens under the scheme. Three of these are in Darjeeling and one in Jalpaiguri district.

Those in Darjeeling are Dooteriah with 1,354 workers, Kalej Valley with 642 and Peshok with 570. The garden in Jalpaiguri district is Raipur Tea estate that has 617 workers.

While the 2,566 workers of Dooteriah, Kalej Valley and Peshok would get paid with effect from May 1, 2018, those of Raipur estate would be paid from January 1, 2019.

Saman Pathak, former Rajya Sabha MP from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and leader of its labour wing CITU said, “The four estates of Dooteriah, Kalej Valley, Peshok and Raipur were brought under the scheme following our sustained pressure.”

The families of tea garden workers in the state each get 35 kg rice at 2 per kg, or wheat, per month.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    I am working with Hindustan Times since 2001 and am posted in Siliguri, West Bengal, as Principal Correspondent. I have been regularly covering vast area of northern parts of West Bengal, Sikkim and parts of Nepal and Bhutan.

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