Water from India is a poll issue in these tea gardens along the Bhutan border
For most parts of the last century these gardens paid Bhutanese authorities for their water.
When, in February 2018, a letter from Samtse district authorities in Bhutan reached the office of Bandapani tea garden in Alipurduar district of West Bengal, the residents of tea estate sensed trouble. Addressed to the manager of the estate, the letter demanded water rent for 2016-17.
“The Dzongkhag administration of Samtse district would like to inform that your Company has not paid the water bund rate amounting to Nu 8,000 for the fiscal year 2016-17,” said the letter dated February 8, signed by Sonam Wangyel, the dzongda (administrator) of Samtse district.
For most parts of the past century Bandapani garden, along with some neighbouring ones, has been getting water supply from Bhutan because there was no facility for drinking water in India. Since 2006, rent has been Nu 8,000 (the current exchange rate is 1 INR = 0.9999 Nu).
The garden is closed since 2013 and managers and other senior officials left the estate. Workers raised a fund and paid for water till 2015-16. This time, they are no longer in a position to raise this money.
Bandapani is not the only garden that is dependent on water from the neighbouring country. Lankapara (about 7,000 voters), Makrapara (2,000) and Carron (3,500) along the border of India and Bhutan suffer the same fate. While Bandapani, Lankapara and Carron gardens are closed, Makrapara is running but with irregular salaries.
Despite the picturesque environs of the foothills of the Himalayas all around, life in these estates is tough. Women of these estates have to trudge six to eight km every day through undulating landscape to fetch water. There are no guards along the international border that is marked by cement posts.
“We have not responded to the letter, as the workers cannot pay the rent. We hope Bhutan will not disconnect the line out of sympathy,” said Surajman Tamang, who worked as an accountant and has not left the garden.
“Down the years we have highlighted the problem, but to no avail. The Left Front government did not address and the Trinamool Congress administration dug a few handpumps that are only 30-75 feet deep. We need deep tubewells that are 250-300 feet deep,” alleged Gopal Pradhan, leader of Dooars Cha Bagan Workers Union that is affiliated to United Trade Union Congress, the labour arm of RSP, a Left Front constituent.
“Even the water from Bhutan is not safe. It has a lot of iron and dolomite leading to frequent stomach ailments among the residents of the gardens,” said Pradhan.
In Bandapani, the pipeline that brings water from Bhutan is attached with a cement tank on a hill at Tindharey village near Gomtu town on the other side of the border. The tank is fed by spring water from the hills of Bhutan. The mouth of the pipeline is covered with a net to work as filter.
“The water from the handpumps that the local panchayat authorities have dug is red. It has excessive iron. It’s difficult to drink and even to use for cooking,” said Ashok Toppo, vice-president of a workers’ cooperative that is trying to run the garden in the absence of an owner.
Water connection to Carron was snapped by the authorities in Bhutan a few years ago following a dispute with the owners. Lankapara and Makrapara estates suffered the same fate.
“In Carron, some time ago public health and engineering department has installed taps to supply water. But the pipes did not reach all parts of the garden and the supply, 30-60 mins every day, was not only insufficient, but also erratic with no supply on some days,” said Jagannath Singh, a resident of Karri-Lines village in the northern-most part of the garden.
Amid the ironies, promises flow freely.
“The Left regime did nothing but we have expedited the process of installing pipelines. Supply will be regular soon,” said Mohan Sharma, the sabhadhipati (chairperson) of the Trinamool Congress-run Alipurduar zilla parishad.
“Fresh drinking water from India is the key demand of the residents in the coming rural elections,” said Biswanath Oraon, a Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) candidate for one of the two seats from Bandapani garden at the Bandapani gram panchayat.
Munsi Munda, the Trinamool Congress candidate and Ramesh Minz, the BJP candidate, for the same seat, echoed Oraon.
“We will solve the water supply problem in these areas on a priority basis,” said Pushma Mangar, a tea garden worker contesting on a BJP ticket for a panchayat samiti seat.
“All candidates have promised that they will ensure supply of drinking water from India,” said Aruna, Singh’s wife.
Till the promises don’t materialise, women of Carron must keep travelling to a stone-built well, fed by a spring, in Nainital gewog (block) of Samtse district, about 1.5 km away, twice a day.