Darjeeling tea gardens reel under bandh effect, workers migrate in search of livelihood
The famous Darjeeling brew is turning bitter as the record 104-day shutdown in the north Bengal hills have dealt a blow to the tea gardens where a number of its workers have migrated to other regions in search of livelihood.
At least 40% of the workers are not reporting for work after the bandh was withdrawn. As a result, planters have not been able to carry out maintenance work like cleaning the weeds and pruning of tea bushes some of which have grown 6 feet tall.
The indefinite shutdown that was called by Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) on June 15 after a police raid on its office in Patlaybas near Darjeeling was called off from September 27.
There are 87 gardens in the hills and they produce the world famous aromatic Darjeeling tea. The Darjeeling tea industry employs about 55,000 workers, and five lakh people are directly or indirectly dependent on the industry.
The gardens in the hills have reported a cumulative revenue loss of about Rs 350 crores.
“In 2016, about 8.5 million tea was produced in the Darjeeling hills. This year we expect to get hardly 30% of that quantity,” said Binod Mohan, chairman of Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA).
Incidentally, Darjeeling tea is the first GI product from India and is the flag-bearer of the Indian tea industry.
The bandh has affected fully affected the second flush and monsoon flush tea production. The autumn flush that begins from mid-October till mid-November has also been largely affected as the tea bushes have been covered by weeds.
The damage will have a cascading effect and will take more than a year to reverse,” said Mohan.
S K Saria, managing director of Songachi Tea Company that owns two tea gardens in Darjeeling hills said “The future of Darjeeling tea industry is bleak, and it’s time to think of alternatives. Some of the tea bushes have become 6 ft tall while a large section of workers are not joining the duty.”
In Rohini tea estate near Kurseong out of about 400 workers only 60%, or 240, are reporting for work. At Gopaldhara tea estate near Mirik out of 428 workers fewer than 60% have joined duty.
“Many workers left in search of jobs during the prolonged strike. Most of them have not come back. We are short of workers even to maintain the gardens. Unless the bushes are pruned and cleaned, it would directly affect the first flush production that fetches highest prices,” said a planter. The first flush production begins from end of February.
“We had 1,561 workers. Now only 40% of them are attending work as about 60% have left,” said Tilan Rai, worker of Rungmook-Cedar tea garden near Sonada.
“We don’t expect to produce anything more than 26,000 kg tea this year out of an annual production of 1.3 lakh kg,” said Saria of Rohini tea estate.
The management of Gopaldhara tea estate near Mirik expects to manage just about 30,000 kg out of a capacity of over 90,000 kg.
A manager of a garden near Sonada said, while some of the workers have left in search of greener pastures, some are absconding since police are looking for them for participating in the movement for Gorkhaland.
Some planters are worried that many tea estates would be forced to down their shutters during lean season which begins from end November. During the lean season there would be no production while the management will have to pay the workers and meet their other statutory rights and maintain the gardens.
The trouble of the planters was compounded after the Mamata Banerjee government directed them to pay puja bonus. Though majority of the 87 tea garden management representatives signed the agreement to pay the bonus, many of them have not yet paid even the first installment. “Many tea gardens would be locked out if they are forced to pay bonus,” said a former planter who requested anonymity.
“Non-payment of bonus and curtailment of benefits are the main reasons for workers leaving the gardens in search of jobs,” said Saman Pathak, former Rajya Sabha MP and working president of Citu-affiliated Cha Bagan Mazdoor Union.
A tea garden worker gets a daily wage of Rs 132.50 in addition to fringe benefits such as subsidised ration, free quarter and basic medical facilities.