West Bengal Assembly Elections | Amid tall poll promises, distress looms over north Bengal tea gardens

With no ownership of land or houses and denial of minimum wage, lakhs of workers continue to live in a vicious cycle of bondage plucking

Updated - April 16, 2021 09:49 pm IST

Published - April 16, 2021 09:46 pm IST - Kolkata

Labourers pluck tea leaves at a tea plantation in Shipaidura village. File

Labourers pluck tea leaves at a tea plantation in Shipaidura village. File

Over the past few elections, Benam Oraon, a tea garden worker at Nagrakata Tea Estate in West Bengal, attended several election meetings and kept a note of the promises which political parties made. This election, however, he is contesting the polls as a candidate from Nagrakata Assembly seat in Jalpaiguri district representing an unregistered Progressive People’s Party .

“My election symbol is football. This is to give a message that tea garden workers have been treated like a football by the political parties,” the tea garden worker said.

As the districts of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Jalpaiguri go to polls on April 17, more than 10 lakh workers of tea gardens and leaf factories are set to vote in the 13 Assembly constituencies. Behind the picturesque tea gardens in Darjeeling hills and the Dooars, there is a story of distress.

Kiran Kalindi, a trade union leader of the Progressive Planters Workers Union (PPWU), said that the wages of tea garden workers stands at ₹202 per day. “Several tea gardens remain closed in the Dooars. The workers are still demanding that a notification for inclusion of tea garden workers’ wages under the Minimum Wages Act,” said Mr Kalindi.

The issue of a legally binding wage for tea garden employees has been raised for many years but political parties have shied away from addressing it. Though the parties recognise the problem, no concrete measures have been taken so far. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in its election manifesto for the Assembly polls, has promised to increase wages to ₹350 per day.

The Trinamool Congress has promised pucca housing to more than three lakh permanent tea garden workers through the ‘Cha Sundari’ project, along with steps to ease distress faced by tribal communities. The State’s ruling party has also promised that 23 tea gardens will come under a renewal project. The Left parties, in their manifesto, have said that they will place special emphasis on addressing the concerns of workers of closed down tea gardens and take steps on reopening.

Anuradha Talwar, a rights activist who has been working with the tea garden workers for several decades, said that the daily wages were as low as ₹68 during the Left Front regime. After a lot of pressure from tea garden workers, it was increased to ₹202.

“A similar promise of increasing the wages was made by the BJP in Assam but the owners went to court, and the tea garden workers were left in the lurch. Unless there is a legal guarantee of minimum wage, the workers will continue to suffer,” Ms. Talwar said.

It is not only wages but also the denial of any right to land that makes the tea garden workers vulnerable. Though the Cha Sundari project promises houses to tea garden workers, they have to get a ‘no objection’ certificate from the tea garden management which in many cases cannot be easily obtained. In several gardens, young men and women are leaving for other States.

“Along with low wages we have come across incidents where the management of the tea gardens is being passed from one owner to another. The entire process is fraught with irregularities and there is complicity of all major political parties in such developments,” Ms. Talwar said.

What has changed in the past few decades, particularly during the Trinamool Congress regime, is access to subsidised food grains.

Debjit Dutta, another activist, said that as the BJP is keen on the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, a sense of unease is visible among the workers.

“The tea garden workers, who have come from the States of Bihar and Jharkhand before independence have worked in the gardens for generations but cannot prove their citizenship,” Mr. Dutta said. With no ownership of land or houses and denial of minimum wage, lakhs of workers continue to live in a vicious cycle of bondage plucking and processing tea leaves, he added.

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