Gandur still guards a closed tea factory

Years ago, the single call from the gora bada sahib (white garden manager) would send 14-year-old Gandur Oraon running to his master.

Seated on a worn-out wooden stool at the entrance of Raipur tea factory, Gandur, now 67 years old, waits in vain to hear the same call again. In times of desperation, he too feels inclined to abandon his post, just like his malik (garden owner) has done (the estate has been closed since October 2003). However, his concern for the worn out machinery — crusher, curler, drier and sundry other equipment — holds him back.

Never mind that over the past three years, he has not got a single penny from the “real owners” of the machinery that he so zealously protects.

Gandur’s predicament represents the dilemma faced by all gatemen, or security guards, of old and abandoned tea gardens in the Dooars belt.

“I don’t even think of leaving the estate, because once I stop keeping a watch on the factory and the plantations, everything — from machinery to tea bushes — would be stolen,” Gandur says.

Migrating from his native village near Ranchi, Gandur had joined Raipur tea estate as a chowkidar in 1953.

“I was appointed as a chowkidar with a monthly salary of Rs 60,” he said. “I could easily manage with the sum as the management allotted quarters, ration and firewood supply was regular and health facilities were good.”

Dukhun Mondal, a junior colleague of Gandur, said the past four-five years have been the worst time of their lives. “But if we leave and things get stolen, the chances of the estate ever reopening will be even less,” he added.

The situation is the same in gardens like Ramjhora, Kanthalguri and Chamurchi. Rafel Lal, a chowkidar who used to serve at Ramjhora tea estate (closed since March 2002), said: “We live on the money earned by our family members.”

Representatives of NGOs working in closed and abandoned estates are well aware of the desperate situation of the chowkidars.

“Though they have not received any tangible return for their duty for years, it is surprising that they still want to guard the estate property,” Anuradha Talwar, adviser to the Supreme Court’s committee on right to food, recently told The Telegraph over phone from Calcutta. “Sometimes, they even go without food, but still remain at the gardens.”

Source: The Telegraph

Good News for Tea workers

After weeks of haggling, trade union leaders of tea gardens across the region have something to smile about.

In a bipartite meeting between labour union leaders and planters today, it was decided that workers in tea estates across the Dooars and Terai would receive their bonus at a rate marginally higher than last year’s. The meeting that was held at the conference hall of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce office in Calcutta comes after a number of similar meetings, since the middle of August, failed to reach a consensus.

“It is good that we have finally decided on the bonus issue. We were insisting on a higher rate this time, especially in the context of the improved scenario in the tea industry and the planters have decided on a hike,” said Samir Roy, the convener of Defence Committee of Plantation Workers’ Rights.

This year the bonus issue had reached a deadlock after the various stakeholders of the sector failed to agree on the condition of the tea industry. While trade union leaders claimed that the gardens had witnessed a revival, the planters felt that the industry had been dealt a hard blow by the near-drought conditions that had gripped the region this time. They also rued the loss incurred from the 15-day strike across the gardens last year and the reduction in tea prices.

“We were desperate to come to an early solution. We had a daylong meeting with the labour leaders yesterday but could not come to a decision. However, today’s meeting concluded fruitfully,” said N.K. Basu, the principal adviser to the Indian Tea Planters’ Association.

The bonus fixed in today’s meeting is 11.25 per cent for A-grade tea estates, 10 per cent for B-grade gardens, 9.15 per cent for C-grade and 8.50 per cent for D-grade gardens. Last year, bonus was paid at the rate of 11 per cent in A-grade, 9.75 per cent in B-grade, 9 per cent in C-grade and 8.33 per cent in D-grade estates, tea industry sources said.

Source: The Telegraph

Tea Official to Deal with Tea matters

North Bengal is famous for its production of tea. Acknowledging the tea industry’s importance, the state government has decided to appoint a tea official at Jalpaiguri who will exclusively deal with tea related matters.

Now that the appointment has been sanctioned by the state cabinet, it is a matter of time before the WBCS rank official is appointed at the Jalpaiguri divisional commissioner’s office. Tea industry officials, attending a review meeting on the recommendations of the tea committee convened by commerce and industry minister Mr Nirupam Sen in Kolkata, were informed of the development yesterday.

“Several other issues related to land, labour, ration, closed and abandoned plantations, modernisation of tea plantations, sale of tea through PDS and small growers, were discussed in the meeting,” principal adviser to Indian Tea Planters’ Association Mr NK Basu said.

According to him, it has been decided that renewal of lease for established plantations would have to be done within 90 days from the expiry of the previous lease. “Any delay in granting the lease would have to be reported to appropriate authorities along with suitable explanation,” he added.

Responding to the small growers’ demand for an immediate survey of the small tea holdings, Mr Sen instructed that a format, prepared by the commerce department, should reach the Tea Board within a fortnight and the survey should begin immediately thereafter.

“The Tea Board would be financing the survey. The survey is extremely important for the small growers since it would bring forth the actual number of small growers, the categories they belong to, the quantity of land being used by the small growers and the tentative quantity of tea produced and manufactured by this section,” the United Forum of Small Tea Growers’ Association secretary, Mr Bijoygopal Chakrabarty, said.

According to him, 5,333 small tea growers have applied for lease and no objection certificates. “Out of those only 2,453 cases have been disposed off so far. The minister has therefore urged the land department to complete the survey and grant NOC within 90 days to plantations under 25 acre on retained land and to regularise those which are beyond 50 acres and above ceiling holdings,” he added.

Source: The Statesman

Electrification of Labor Houses

The much-hyped first meeting between labour minister Mrinal Banerjee and stakeholders of the tea industry held here today failed to yield specific results, save some discussion on electrification of labour lines.

After the meet, at a news conference, Banerjee spoke at length on the electrification issue, but left abruptly when the questions veered towards another important topic, the implementation of the Plantation Labour Act.

“The process of giving individual meters to tea workers had indeed suffered a setback,” admitted Banerjee. “Now we have instructed the planters to ensure that all of them apply for the connections by October.”

Following protests from trade union leaders that workers pay higher tariff for electricity due to bulk connection in estates, the state government had promised individual connections to them.

“Only 76 gardens in north Bengal have applied so far and the system has been implemented in only 16,” said Chitta Dey, convener of the Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers. “We doubt whether the process will be completed by December 31, 2006, the proposed date of completion.”

He added: “Citing specific cases, we also asked the minister to intervene on the improper implementation of the Plantation Labour Act, about 65 per cent of which is not followed by the planters.” Convener of the Defence Committee for Plantation Workers’ Rights Samir Roy said Banerjee promised to revive the non-functional housing advisory and medical committees in the estates.

“He also promised that his department would come up with a new definition of abandoned gardens,” Roy added.

The planters, however, seemed happy and termed the minister “pro-active” in his attempts to solve the problems of the tea industry.

Source: The Telegraph

Hope for less smuggling of tea leaves

The decision of the Nepalese tea industry to increase the wages of its workers has come as a welcome relief to its counterpart in Darjeeling, who hope that it will stop the illegal entry of green tealeaves from the neighbouring country.

Following a two-week agitation, jointly led by the Independent Tea Plantation Workers’ Union of Nepal, Nepal Tea Plantation Workers’ Union and All Nepal Tea Plantation Workers’ Union, the Tea Producer’s Association decided to raise the wages by almost 28.33 per cent. After the rise, a tea worker in Nepal will receive 95 Nepalese Rupees (NR), which will be a huge leap from the earlier 74 NR, while their counterparts here get 81.44 NR.

It has also increased the rate of additional tea plucked (more than 26 kg per day) from 1 NR to 1.15 NR and has also decided to pay Dashain allowance (annual bonus).

According to planters in the hills, the rise in wages of Nepalese workers will result in an increase in the production cost of the tea, which will make smuggling of tealeaves as Darjeeling Tea unviable. “With the cost price going up in Nepal, the profit from the sale of pilfered tealeaves will no longer be as high as before. This will help check the stealing of green leaves to Darjeeling,” said Harish Mukhia, a planter in Darjeeling.

Though workers in Nepal will be paid a higher wage, the cost of production will still remain less than that in Darjeeling. This is largely due to the fact that unlike their counterpart in Nepal, the Indian tea industry has to bear additional social costs, like free ration, housing and provident funds for workers. However, there is a possibility that the Nepal industry might be forced to accept the social responsibilities too, said a source.

Nepalese planters have also decided to form a task force, which will look into various demands of workers. Moreover the trade unions and management have decided to form a labour relation committee.

“If the Nepalese tea industry also starts bearing social responsibility, the cost of production will no longer remain so low. Then, we can expect a substantial fall in the smuggling of leaves,” said Mukhia.

Source: The Telegraph

Man Kills wife at Raipur Tea Estate

Thirty-six-year-old Bisni Munda of Bhagat Line at the closed Raipur tea estate in Jalpaiguri was killed by her husband yesterday afternoon when she failed to cook a meal for him.

Jistai, the soul bread-earner of the family of four, lost his temper when Bisni told him that she could not cook anything since there was nothing at home. Jistai hit her so hard with a stick that Bisni fell to the ground and died on the spot. He later surrendered to the police. With Jistai taken to police custody, their two children have no one to look after them at the moment.

The Mundas are not the only residents in the garden who fell victim to poverty. With the garden remaining closed since 2003 and the entrepreneur reportedly making no effort to reopen it, most of the labourers have left for other estates or towns in search of job. The few people left behind work under the operating management committee (OMC) for a paltry sum of Rs 40 per day.

With the garden closed for so long, trade union leaders had set up the committee, which allow workers pluck and sell leaves from the estate in exchange of a small amount. For Jistai too, the Rs 40 that he earned every day under the OMC was his only income.

“The situation is turning worse every day. We don’t know how long we will be able to help the workers,” said Sania Bhumij, the unit president of the Citu-affiliated Cha Bagan Mazdoor Union.

Referring to yesterday’s incident, Bhumij said: “The fight that led to the murder has become rather common in the labour lines these days. With hardly any food at home, the women find it difficult to arrange for meals, which often leads to such quarrels.”

Low consumption of food has reduced the immunity of residents, with as many as 50 incidents of death due to malaria and gastro-enteritis reported in Raipur so far. Most of the residents carry malaria parasite in them, a health source said.

“Though OMCs and a few government schemes have been implemented in closed gardens here, they can hardly be a permanent solution to the financial crisis of the labourers,” said Kalyan Roy, the secretary of West Bengal Cha Sramik Union. “The lack of initiative on the part of the government and the planters’ apathy are driving the workers to such acts.”

With the owner staying abroad at present and no managerial staff residing in the garden, no representative of the management could be contacted. Even the Indian Tea Planters’ Association declined to take any responsibility for the incident, stating that with the garden failing to pay its membership fees, they have no connection with them.

According to Abdul Ghani, the subdivisional officer of Jalpaiguri, all food-for-work schemes operational in other closed estates have been implemented at Raipur too. “We are also corresponding with the owners, trying to terminate the deadlock and ensure that the garden reopens as soon as possible,” Ghani said.

Source: The Telepgraph

Badamtam Tea Garden Accident

Two sub-staff of the Badamtam Tea Estate near Lebong in the Darjeeling sub-division died yesterday after the tractor they were traveling on overturned and fell in a ravine. According to tea industry sources, seven others were injured in the incident, of which, two were gravely wounded and were shifted to the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital for treatment today. It was learnt that 14 workers of the tea estate including two sub-staff boarded the tractor, which was hauling plucked tea leaves in its trailer, after working hours and were traveling towards the factory from the plantation’s out division when the tractor fell into the ravine pulling the trailer along with it.

Source: The Statesman, India

Darjeeling 'Clock Tower'

It has remained silent for more than two decades. Ironically, it symbolizes the turmoil that the Darjeeling hills have witnessed post-agitation in the late-80s. This year, thanks to the effort of the Rotary Club members in Darjeeling, the clock tower at the municipality building here will finally start functioning at the stroke of mid-night on the eve of country's Independence Day.
The Darjeeling Rotary Club has been working tirelessly for the last one month to paint, renovate and repair the tower and the historical clock overlooking the town.

According to Dr Deepak Sharma, Rotary Club Darjeeling, a flag hoisting ceremony will be conducted at the venue where the Darjeeling municipality's chairman, Mr B Dewan, will be the chief guest. The Rotary Club has also planned to illuminate the tower to mark the Independence Day celebrations.

Old folks in the town still recall how they used to constantly refer to the clock tower as they went about their daily life. Mr B Sharma, a 50 year-old government employee, fondly recalls: "The clock tower was one of the land marks in the town in its hay days. We always used to refer to the clock for its perfect timing. The revival of the clock is a momentous occasion for the people of Darjeeling.”

Source: The Statesman, India

Tea Worker Food Grains

The Centre is expected to release the July month’s foodgrain quota for the tea industry today. At least that is what the state food minister Mr Paresh Adhikary hopes.

The food minister who spoke to the private secretary of Union agriculture minister Mr Sharad Pawar today told The Statesman: “I was informed that the file has been put up for Mr Pawar’s consideration today. It is likely that he would clear it,” Mr Adhikary, said.

Incidentally, Mr Adhikary met Mr Pawar in Delhi on 27 July and apprised him of the situation arising out of the Centre’s decision to hold back allotment of foodgrain for the tea industry till such time the industry-appointed distributors and dealers to accommodate the targeted public distribution system.

According to Mr Adhikary, parliamentarian Mr Hiten Barman also spoke to Mr Pawar’s private secretary today and learnt that the minister was expected to sign the release of foodgrain for the tea industry today.

The tea industry, which is yet to get any concrete assurance from any corner about the fate of the held up July month’s foodgrain allotment, is in the meantime worried more than ever. Pointing out that the tea associations are yet to receive last month’s allotment, the convener of the West Bengal, Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations Mr NK Basu wrote to Mr Adhikary today expressing apprehension about the foodgrain allotment for the month of August.
“The industry has to feed a large number of workers and their dependents. Non-allotment of foodgrain for the month of July has exhausted all stock and the situation in almost every tea plantation is getting seriously worrisome,” the WBCCPA official wrote to the state food minister.

“The cash-strapped plantations are not in a position to procure foodgrain from the open market and the tea associations are under pressure from the suppliers to increase the rates if the foodgrain has to be procured from the open market. The situation is working like a double edged sword for the industry,” Mr Basu, said. Under the circumstances, and if the Centre does not release the allotted foodgrain, there is every possibility that a number of plantations might falter in distributing ration. The ground reality is that the tea industry is currently in a peak season, which might force the industry to go beyond its means to ensure there was no disruption or worker trouble. But the same effort is not expected once the season peters off.

Source: The Statesman, India

Forest Dept. to Haul up Tea Plantations

The tea industry could be in line for a nasty shock for the forest department has decided to haul up tea plantations that sell off shade tree stumps without the forest department’s transit pass.

According to the conservator of forest, northern circle, Mr MR Balooch, the tea plantations can fell shade trees with prior permission and the forest department issues transit pass for the timber. “But the plantations, by law, are supposed to distribute the stumps of the felled trees to its workers as firewood in keeping with the Plantation Labour Act. But it has come to our notice that almost 90 per cent of the tea plantations engage contractors to uproot the stumps once the trees are felled and sell these off to those contractors,” the CF said.

“It is a serious crime and untold sums get exchanged in the process. What makes it all the more serious is that the forest department does not issue transit pass for transporting shade tree stumps from the plantations, yet it is happening depriving the workers and flouting the forest rules,” he added.

According to the CF, no forest produce can be transported without the transit pass, which makes the buyers, who are the contractors and the sellers, who in this case are plantation management, equally guilty. The forest department, which has already “identified,” some plantations and contractors engaged in the offence had hauled up the Tea Garden Shade Tree Uprooting Association president Mr Saibal Dasgupta at Jalpaiguri today. Facing a tight situation though, Mr Dasgupta defended his association stating that members of his association purchased only legally felled timber from the tea plantations against proper document. “We shall try to find out which contractors are engaged in the crime,” he said. The forest department authorities refused to buy his argument and are planning action of their own.

Tea industry officials are also on the backfoot about the matter. “I would have to look into it before passing any comment on the issue,” Mr NK Basu, convenor of the West Bengal Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations, said. The Dooars Branch Indian Tea Association, which is the largest of the six tea associations in the region, is also cautious about its comments. “To the best of my knowledge almost every tea plantation adheres to the rule of distributing shade tree stumps among workers. But if there are offenders trading in shade tree stumps through contractors, this association would not espouse the case of the contractors,” DBITA secretary Mr Prabir Bhattacharjee, said.

Distribution of Ration Cards to Tea Workers

As part of its efforts to bring the estates under the purview of the public distribution system (PDS), the state food department has started the process of distributing ration cards to tea workers of north Bengal.

The Union food ministry has given the state six months to launch the PDS in the gardens. During this period, Food Corporation of India will continue to provide the estates with foodgrain at subsidised rates for distribution among workers.

“Ration cards will be distributed among the workers and their families in the tea estates,” said state food minister Paresh Adhikary here today.

“There are problems, like identifying casual workers who, unlike permanent workers, do not have any identity proof, or those labourers who used to serve in closed and abandoned estates and are now engaged in odd jobs,” the minister said. “We need to trace them.”
Adhikary said his department will issue BPL ration cards to workers of closed tea estates, though a decision about the permanent and casual workers has not yet been taken.

On a different issue, the minister said subdivisional officers have been entrusted with the task of clearing the more than 4 lakh applications for ration cards submitted by people residing within 15 km of the Indo-Bangla border. The move has been initiated to speed up the process. At the moment, the applications are lying at the offices of the district magistrates of ten north Bengal districts.

Source: The Telegraph, India

Small Tea Sector Strike

For the first time in the history of the small tea sector, over 10,000 workers serving in 75-odd bought-leaf factories (BLFs) across north Bengal, have decided to strike work on August 17.
The strike, called by members of various Citu-affiliated unions, is in support of the demand to immediately change the existing wage structure and introduce ancillary facilities as enjoyed by their colleagues in large tea gardens.

“There is no uniformity in the payment of wages at the BLFs in the districts of Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling and North Dinajpur. While the management of some factories pay Rs 40-45 to a labourer for a day’s work, others give a consolidated sum of Rs 4-5 per hour. In the lean season, they do not have any job,” said Ajit Sarkar, the Darjeeling district secretary of the Citu. “The strike is in protest of such anomalies.”

Tea industry sources said around 60 million kg of tea is produced in the small tea sector at these factories every year, utilising tealeaves bought from 15,000 small tea growers of the region. This is 28 per cent of the total produce of north Bengal, they said.

“The factory owners do not abide by legislations like the Plantation Labour Act. Unlike those working in established tea gardens, workers here cannot avail of benefits like health facilities, ration, provident funds, gratuity,” alleged Ziaur Alam, the state convener of Cha Bagan Mazdoor Union in the Dooars.

The other three Citu affiliated unions — Darjeeling Cha Kaman Mazdoor Union, Cooch Behar district Cha Bagan Sramik Union and North Dinajpur Cha Sramik Union — have also joined the strike, echoing demands of the Citu’s central leadership.

“At a tripartite meeting on January 21, this year, it was decided that the problem would be addressed by March 31, but nothing has improved till date,” said Sarkar, a Citu leader.
The members further said nine meetings had been convened on the issue so far, but a concrete decision is yet to be taken. The Citu leaders have also sought government intervention in the issue.

“We want the BLF owners to sit with us and take a decision regarding this. In case they do not cooperate, we want the state government to issue a notification and fix the wage structure and other benefits for workers,” Sarkar said.

The BLF owners, however, maintained that factory laws should be followed at their units and not plantation laws, as the Citu has been demanding.

“The tea industry is showing signs of revival and it is not wise to declare a strike at this time. Instead, we prefer bipartite discussions at local levels,” said Prabir Seal, an executive committee member of North Bengal Tea Producers’ Association, representing the BLFs.

Source: The Telegraph, India

Provident Fund Default by Dalsingpara Tea Estate

The provident fund office in Jalpaiguri has issued a show-cause notice to the management of the Dalsingpara tea estate for not depositing their and the employees’ portion to the fund.

Sources said till June, the garden has defaulted on an amount of over Rs 1.43 crore.

“Besides issuing the letter, we have also filed an FIR against the manager and the director of the garden,” said V. Kumar, additional provident fund commissioner, Jalpaiguri. “We have even sealed the bank and broker accounts of the estate.”

Stating that the employees’ contribution had been deducted from their wages, K.K. Jha, the manager of the garden, said only the head office knew why the amount has not been deposited to the fund.

“This is a criminal act and many retired employees of the garden are not being able to avail of the provident funds due to the non-payment of the mandatory amount,” said Pravat Mukherjee, the general secretary of National Union of Plantation Workers (NUPW).

The NUPW unit president at the garden, Kalatush Kullu, said there are about 3,000 provident fund account holders in Dalsingpara. “The management has not been depositing the employees’ contribution since August, 2004. It has put the workers — especially those who have retired and the next of kin of those who have passed away — in trouble,” Kullu alleged.

He said in June last year, a tripartite meeting was held in the office of the additional provident fund commissioner in Calcutta. “An agreement was signed, which stated that not only would the management deposit the default account in instalments, but the monthly deposit would also be regularised. The management has not kept its word,” Kullu said.

Mukherjee alleged that the provident fund office was not utilising the six enforcement officers it had in Jalpaiguri. “The tea gardens in the district have a default amount of over Rs 75 crore and the officers should take immediate steps against it,” Mukherjee said.

Source > The Telegraph

Ration for tea Laborers

Tea garden labourers across north Bengal will receive their rations from the respective garden managements for the next six months, as the government uses the time to prepare for the shift to the public distribution system (PDS).

This was decided at a meeting between state food minister Paresh Adhikary and Sharad Pawar, his counterpart at the Centre. The meeting, which was held at Krishi Bhavan in Delhi was also attended by Cooch Behar MP Hiten Barman and senior Forward Bloc leader Debabrata Biswas.

The Union minister has promised the state that the Food Corporation of India (FCI) will restart allotment of foodgrain to the tea industry, at least for the next six months. The minister’s assurance will now hopefully defuse the resentment brewing among the 3 lakh garden workers, who have not received rations since the beginning of this month.

The FCI had halted the allotment of foodgrain in the current month after the Centre made a final decision to bring all tea estates under the purview of the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). Under this system, the labourers will have to buy the cereals from ration shops at PDS rates. At present, the rations are distributed by the garden managements at heavily subsidised rates, as a component of their salary.

“At the meeting, we explained the problem in the estates after distribution of ration was stopped. Sharadji was cooperative and extended the existing system for at least six more months,” Adhikary told.

The decision has brought a reprieve for both trade union leaders and planters of the region, who seemed headed for a showdown if the stalemate continued.

“We were apprehending a major crisis in the gardens as we cannot give rations to the workers this month,” said N.K. Basu, principal adviser to Indian Tea Planters’ Association.

“We have made it clear that the supply of foodgrain is a part of their wages. It is good that the Centre has decided to restart allotment. Otherwise, it would have been a severe blow to the workers,” said Alok Chakraborty, the district secretary of the Intuc-affiliated National Union of Plantation Workers (NUPW).

Source > The Telegraph

Darjeeling Designer Teas

Champagne from the East now comes in different shapes and sizes!

Darjeeling Tea has always been treasured for its unique muscatel flavour. But some gardens have decided to add a little something extra to help sell their produce. Driven by cut-throat competition despite high demand, they have started creating designer tea to woo elite customers.

From the handcrafted Olympic Flame, which resembles a torch, to the pearl-shaped Dragon Pearl, which opens up into two leaves and a bud when dipped in hot water, designer tea is soon becoming the latest fad among connoisseurs across the globe. The latest marketing ploy seems to have far greater potential than earlier innovations like Green and White tea.

“Retailers in Germany have sold Olympic Flame for as much as Rs 25,000 per kg and the market for such tea is huge. We are already looking at producing 8,000-10,000 kg of such tea annually,” said Shiv K. Saria, the managing director of Gopaldhara Tea Estate.

The designer variety is not only eye-catching, but is also made of the finest quality Darjeeling Tea. For example, Dragon Pearl is intricately finger rolled and comes with a tinge of jasmine and mint flavours, which itself is a new experiment to go with the unique flavour of Darjeeling Tea.

Many tea gardens in Darjeeling have started producing designer tea, but most are catering only to foreign clients. “We are, however, looking at ways of making it available to domestic consumers and have just started retailing it accordingly,” said Saria, whose two others gardens — Avongrove and Rohini — are also specialising in designer tea.

Of course, such tea does not come cheap and market experts believe that retail prices in India will start from Rs 5,000 per kg onwards.

Saria can now look back with satisfaction at the time when he took the first big risk by buying scrap machines, worth Rs 5 lakh, to produce designer tea. “Now I expect to invest another Rs 15 lakh to increase the variety,” he says.

In fact, the Rohini tea estate, which had closed down earlier, has seen a complete change in fortune thanks to the new product. The three gardens conduct estimated business of around Rs 1 crore annually through designer tea alone.

While the concept is not entirely new — China has been specialising in designer tea for quite some time — it does speak volumes about the changing marketing trends in the Darjeeling tea industry, which, so far, relied solely on its unique flavour.

Vivek Chettri, The Telegraph, India

No Food grains for Tea workers

No tea garden in north Bengal has received its monthly allotment of foodgrain for the month of July.

Now as the deadlock nears a month, the situation is on the verge of turning volatile. So much so that food minister Paresh Adhikary today said he would go to Delhi on Monday to sort out the problem with the Centre.

“We are aware of the problem and have already decided to take it up with food minister Sharad Pawar,” Adhikary told.

The tea industry wants the government to act fast. “We have sought the chief minister’s intervention in this regard as the situation is becoming difficult. We were forced to halt distribution of foodgrain to workers in all the 280 gardens of the region after allotment was stopped this month,” said N.K. Basu, principal adviser to the Indian Tea Planters’ Association.

The stoppage follows the Union food ministry’s decision to launch Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) in the tea estates. This would mean that garden labourers, who used to get their rations from the estate management as a component of their wages, will henceforth have to buy the cereals from ration shops at BPL rates.

The gardens, which were outside the purview of the PDS, used to procure the foodgrain from Food Corporation of India at the PDS rate of Rs 3.26 per kg and distribute it at 40 paisa per kg per worker every week. In addition, another 2.2 kg of foodgrain was distributed for each dependant of the worker.

The central food ministry, however, decided to bring the tea estates under the PDS system and thus stopped allotting foodgrain to planters.

“This sudden stoppage has put us in a spot and if the deadlock continues, it might lead to largescale labour resentment and management representatives will have to face the wrath,” Basu said. “Considering the rise in prices, it is also not possible for us to purchase foodgrain from the open market and distribute it at subsidised prices.”

Trade union leaders, who consider the ration as a component of wages for the tea garden workers, are against the proposed PDS scheme. “Under the system, workers will have to purchase foodgrain from ration shops at BPL rates. This is detrimental to the interest of the workers,” said Chitta Dey, the convener of Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers.

“By launching the scheme, the government is trying to cut down the workers’ wages. This arrangement will only benefit the management, who are trying to shirk their responsibilities,” the leader added.

Source: The Telegraph

Signs of Improvement in Jalpaiguri Tea Auction

Jairam Ramesh’s visit to the district has started taking effect, as indicated by the sales register of the tea auction centre in Jalpaiguri.

After the Union minister of state for commerce and industries returned to Delhi after a two-day visit to Jalpaiguri and Siliguri earlier this month, the volume of sale recorded on two consecutive Tuesdays (the sale day at the centre) has shown signs of improvement, officials at the centre said.

Ramesh, who had a discussion about the problem of poor inflow of tea to the auction centre, had specifically told the stakeholders if the industry especially, planters of the Dooars, that they should route the roasted tea to the centre.

“After the minister’s visit, the inflow of tea to the auction centre warehouse and its sale have increased substantially,” said Kamal Bhattacharya, the chief executive officer of the Jalpaiguri centre. “Instead of the usual 2,000-3,000 kg that finds its way to the centre, we received 14,598 kg of tea last Tuesday, of which 11,004 kg was sold.” The average price recorded on that date was Rs 60.87.

“We have already received 8,500 kg of tea for the next sale,” Bhattacharya added.
Members of the auction committee also said new sellers, mostly from the Dooars-based estates, have started sending their produce to the centre.

“We are thankful to the minister. His visit has proved fruitful for us,” said N.K. Basu, secretary, North Bengal Tea Auction Committee said. “But, at least six months have to pass before we can say the centre is on its revival path.”

The 20-odd buyers registered with the centre are also of the same view. “After the intervention of the minister more tea is coming to the centre. But still, the warehouses remain unutilised,” said Jyoti Prakash Mitra, secretary, North Bengal Tea Buyers’ Association.

D.P. Roy, the Congress MLA of Jalpaiguri, said the Centre has agreed to set up a tea park near Siliguri to deal with the infrastructure problem of the industry.

Source: The Telegraph

Tea Tourism in West Bengal

West Bengal plans to develop tourism centered around tea.
Tea tourism is high on the West Bengal government’s radar. It intends to upgrade accommodation, construct log-cabins, renovate heritage bungalows and undertake landscaping to give a boost to this sector.
While the state is seeking funds from the central government — state tourism minister Manab Mukherjee has asked Ambika Soni for Rs 8 crore for a “tea tourism package” — it has received a host of proposals from the tea-estate owners, says Mukherjee.
Some tea-estate owners have already got tea tourism off ground. Among these are Rajah Banerjee of Makaibari Tea Estate, the Chamarias of Phaskowa and Anshuman Prakash of Glenburn Tea Estate.
Glenburn, which was opened to tourists around three years ago, is a exclusive boutique hotel where guests put up at the Burra Bungalow, or the Glenburn Lodge on the banks of the Rangit.
At Rs 8,000-10,000 per person per night, it is very high-end, and as much as 80 per cent of the clientele comprises foreigners. In Dibrugarh, Assam, the owners of Mancotta Tea Estate have taken a similar initiative to open up the heritage “chang” bungalow to visitors.
Tea-tourism at Makaibari, an initiative that’s about a year old, is of a different kind. Visitors here have the choice to stay at the heritage Stone Lodge where the four suites have separate toilets and running hot-water, or they can stay in any of the 20-25 houses of tea-garden workers where they can be close to nature and the community.
Says Abhra Bhattacharjee of Help Tourism, which has been working with Banerjee to initiate tourism on Makaibari Tea Estate, “The objective is to encourage tourism while also ensuring that the benefits reach the communities directly affected.” In Makaibari, all activities are managed by locals through a group called “Hum Tera”, which stands for both “we are for you” and “we 13”.
Even the revenues from tourists go to the villagers. Besides visiting the tea-factory, horse-riding and bird-watching, guests are encouraged to sample local culture and handicrafts. In addition, they can also get a feel of a restored Darjeeling Himalayan Railway engine.
While tea-tourism is quite a hit with foreigners, local traffic too is opening up, says Bhattacharjee. “Earlier, the mix of foreigners to Indians was 80-20, now it is 60-40.” Help Tourism has bookings for its lodges for the 2007 season too.
But all these tea-estates — Makaibari, Phaskowa, Glenburn, Mancotta — are not too far off motorable roads. Not all gardens have this advantage.
Says Prakash of Glenburn, “The roads are a huge deterrent, especially for the foreigners.” Banerjee had to lay down two-kilometres or so of road to the Stone Lodge.
He has also put in Rs 4 crore to do up the cottage, and accommodate the staff. But looking at the response, the investment has more than paid off.
Banerjee is now looking to develop the lodge into a five-star property, and is in talks with established players like Fortune Hotels, Carlton and Mayfair, as well as banks for the Rs 15-20 crore investment required. There is obviously more to tea than just the usual cuppa.

Source: Business Standard

Nepal Tea in the name of Darjeeling Tea

The brand equity of Darjeeling tea has suffered in the hands of unscrupulous dealers selling Nepal tea in the name of the premium brand.

The concern was voiced by none other than Peter A. Leggatt, the chairman of Goodricke Group, who was here to participate in the inauguration of a new building of Goodricke School of Special Education.

“The tea coming from Nepal, which tastes almost the same as the Darjeeling variety, is being marketed worldwide as Darjeeling tea,” Leggatt told reporters. “Such a practice by a handful of unscrupulous traders is causing considerable damage to the repute of the Darjeeling tea.”

Though Leggatt said he was unaware of the amount of tea from outside (Nepal and Sri Lanka) being sold in the name of the world-famous brew, he called for immediate steps to be initiated in checking the malpractice.
He welcomed the Tea Board move to accord geographic-indicator status to Darjeeling tea. “It is a very positive step taken by the Tea Board, which has been very active on this issue,” he said.

The Darjeeling tea has been granted the geographic indicator status under the Good Registering and Protection Act. According to the Act, tea coming from only the 87 Darjeeling gardens, of which just 70 are operational, would be able to market their produce as “Darjeeling tea.”

Though no official estimates have been made about how much tea is being sold in the name of Darjeeling tea, it has been reported from several quarters that the volume of “non-Darjeeling tea” is quite high. Unofficial estimates have revealed that though the Darjeeling hills produce only about 9-10 million kg of tea every year, the “Darjeeling” tea sold worldwide is to the tune of 40 million kg annually.

“Some of the producers in the hills need to clean up their acts first,” said S.K. Saria, a planter and the chairman of Siliguri Tea Auction Committee.

“We are aware that a good number of producers are involved in procuring tea from Nepal and selling them off in the name of the Darjeeling brand, but we can do little to check the practice,” he added.

Source > The Telegraph

Leopard strikes a tea worker

Another worker at the Kalchini tea estate in the Alipurduar subdivision was mauled by a leopard today.

This was second such incident to have occurred at the same estate within four days.
Budhu Oraon (45), who was injured critically in the back and chest, was first admitted to the Latabari health centre and later shifted to the Alipurduar hospital.

Following two consecutive attacks in the same area of the estate, workers of the estate no longer feel safe to go out in the garden. They are even annoyed with the forest officials, who, they claim, have failed to ensure their security. “After one of our friends was attacked by a leopard last Saturday, forest staff had promised to set up a cage here because leopards usually come back to the spot of attack,” said Omdas Oraon. “The cage is, however, yet to arrive though four days have passed since then.”

According to the workers, Oraon was busy pruning the bushes, when the leopard, which had entered the garden with its cub, sprang on him from behind. Alarmed by Oraon’s screams, his colleagues rushed to the spot and started bursting crackers, which scared the animal back into the forest. “Nowadays, we carry crackers with us whenever we go to work in the garden,” said Bikash Mahali, a labourer at the estate.

According to the field director of Buxa Tiger Reserve, L.G. Lepcha, the leopard had entered the garden in search of easy preys. “This leopard had a cub with it, which made it obvious why it had entered the estate — it was looking for an easy prey,” he said.

Regarding the delay in setting up of the cage, he promised to start an inquiry about it. “I will see to it that the cage is set up by today,” Lepcha said. “Our staff will also patrol the place round the clock and villagers have also volunteered to help us.”

Source > The Telegraph

Recent Rains brings Hope

After the brief spell of thundershower in Darjeeling town and parts of the Dooars yesterday evening, people across the North Bengal districts, reeling under a dry spell, are looking up to the sky hoping for more such spells but prolonged in the coming days.

Unlike the normal weather conditions, this year, the entire North Bengal region is witnessing an absence of seasonal rainfall since winter. The prolonged absence of rainfall has made life all the more difficult with acute water scarcity especially in the Hills.

In Kalimpong and Kurseong, the exhausted public even resorted to road blockade demanding early solution to the scarcity of drinking water there. But the authorities, as of now, ended up looking up to the heaven as the people continue to suffer.

Tea gardens and agricultural lands in the region have also been severely affected due to the absence of rainfall. The tea industry has already reported a sharp fall in productivity as compared to the same time last year. As per the industry experts, if the weather remains static, there is every possibility of the tea plants getting parched up. Amid all this, yesterday evening’s brief spell has brought an indication that a downpour might not be too far. Scientists of the Weather Observation Centre (WOC) at the North Bengal University also raised hopes in this regard.

“The Western disturbances currently visible have created a conducive atmosphere for a downpour throughout the eastern region. In all probability, North Bengal districts would experience heavy rainfall within a week,” said Mr S Sarkar of the WOC.

However, Mr Sarkar added that like the one in Darjeeling and Dooars yesterday, there would also be some scattered thundershower in different parts of the region in the next 24 to 36 hours. The maximum temperature in Siliguri was today recorded at 29.2 degree Celsius as compared to 32.9 degree Celsius yesterday. The humidity conditions also improved from 96.5 per cent yesterday to 71.5 per cent today.

Source > The Statesman

German Consul General visits Darjeeling Tea Gardens

After a two-week stay, during which he interacted with the local tea industry officials, the German Consul General for Eastern India, Mr Gunter Whermann, would leave for his Kolkata office tomorrow.

He visited at least three major Darjeeling tea gardens, while holding discussions with Darjeeling Tea Association members here. Germany being one of the biggest buyers of Darjeeling tea, the industry accorded a special welcome to him.

“Germany has a large tea market and I was interested to see for myself the production of Darjeeling tea at factory level,” Mr Whermann said. He noted that an average German tea drinker was familiar only with Indian and Ceylonese tea; major competitors like Kenya and China remained unfamiliar in the German tea market.

He said he had suggested DTA members to participate in the Frankfurt Book Fair, one of world’s largest fair of its kind, which is held in October. “The idea is that book and tea share a very close relation. I am sure the organisers of the fair would be interested in such an idea. I have asked the members to get in touch with the organisers.”

Notably, India happens to be the theme country for this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. Similarly, an Industrial Fair at Hanover which will be held next month, and which is expected to be attended by Prime Minister Mr Manmohan Singh, also has India as its theme, Mr Whermann disclosed.

The Consul General also said that organic tea, particularly green tea, were gaining popularity in Germany. Asked about his impressions on tourism in Darjeeling, Mr Whermann said: “Darjeeling could make a terrific package, with its four Ts – tea, train (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway), Tibetan temples and Tenzing. It is also a matter of how the package will be marketed, which is extremely important. “Having done that quality accommodation will have to be provided to tourists who will come from abroad.”

Source > The Statesman

Uncertainty looms over two Tea Gardens

Uncertainty looms large over the Raipur and Shikarpur tea gardens in Jalpaiguri district. The two gardens had long been abandoned. Sporadic attempts to run the two estates that employ about 2,230 workers have so far failed. And now, the operating workers’ unions want the lease of both plantations cancelled.

Abandoned since October 2003, the Raipur Tea Estate reopened in April 2005 but was abandoned again before the pujas. The tea estate has suffered cases at the Debt Recovery Tribunal and the Calcutta High Court. There is confusion over ownership and the management of the plantation and currently the plantation is functioning under an operational management committee under the auspices of the Jalpaiguri district administration.

“There are four claimants to Raipur tea garden’s ownership. Moreover, we are uncertain if the pending litigations against the plantation are all settled or not. Under the given circumstances if the district administration does not succeed in restoring the plantation to functional stage we want the plantation’s lease scrapped,” said Mr Kalyan Roy of the West Bengal Cha Sramik Union.

It was learnt that the Jalpaiguri district administration has convened a meeting on 24 March over Raipur Tea Estate. “If the confusion over the plantation’s ownership persists even after that and the workers’ fate continue to remain uncertain, we shall have no alternative but to launch an agitation against the state government,” the union leader threatened.

According to him, the state government’s “lenient attitude towards errant plantation owners and management,” has allowed a section to take advantage of the situation at the cost of the workers’ future. The situation is even worse at the adjacent Shikarpur Tea Estate. The plantation, which has about 1,600 workers has changed hands a number of times including a short stint of two months when a Kolkata-based firm took over the reins of the plantation’s management (not ownership) in the fag end of last year.

The move to restore the deadlock however failed. Industry officials are aware of the conditions but expressed helplessness. “The Raipur and Shikarpur tea estates are suffering from ownership and management problems. Although both plantations are our members, we are in no position to help since our organisation does not have any say about ownership or management of individual plantations,” said Mr NK Basu, principal adviser to the Indian Tea Planters’ Association.

Source > The Statesman

New Chairman for Siliguri Tea Auction Center

The Siliguri Tea Auction Centre has a new chairman in Mr SK Saria. He was elected the organisation’s top official in the STAC’s 28th and 29th annual general meeting today. Mr Anand Bansal is the STAC’s new vice- chairman.

Urging the state government and the Centre for a concerted effort to bail the tea industry out of the ongoing crisis, STAC outgoing chairman Mr Ravi Agarwal said: “Export facility needs to be revamped, tea producers would have to exercise quality control measures and the Union commerce ministry should institute workable and viable rules to boost tea trade.”

Pointing out that Kenya, which has been giving Indian teas a run for money, is suffering a drought, Mr Agarwal said: “This can lead to a massive price correction for Indian teas. Though it is an opportunity to set prices for Indian teas right, the gain is a short term one. The Indian tea industry will never fair well as long as the Centre allows import of tea,” he added.

According to the STAC outgoing chairman, the STAC has been nudging the 100 milion Kg sales mark for the past three years. “While 93 million Kgs were sold through the STAC in the year 2003, 102 million Kgs were sold in 2004. The figure came down to 95 million Kgs in 2005 and needs to be taken care of.”

Attributing the drop in the sales figure of 2005 to the closure of several tea plantations and the 15-day strike in the industry in the month of August, Mr Agarwal said: “I urge the producer members to offer maximum tea through auction in future.”

Ruing the continuing pilferage of teas during its movement from the warehouses, Mr Agarwal said: “Despite several representations to the authroities, coverage in the media and several other efforts, the crime continues unabated in broad daylight. It has to stop.” Advising the STAc authorities against engaging in administrtaive and other embroglio that in the past hurt sales at the STAC, the state urban development minister Mr Asok Bhattacharya urged the tea community to concentrate on quality production.”

Source > The Statesman

Siliguri Tea Trader - Tax Defaulter

The Bureau of Investigation, the investigation wing of the sales tax directorate, today picked up a tea trader on charges of defaulting on sales tax.

Armed with an arrest warrant, sleuths of the bureau raided the Khalpara residence of Kamal Jain, who is also the vice-president of Siliguri Tea Traders’ Association (STTA), and detained him for interrogation.

Though police said an FIR had been lodged by the bureau with the Siliguri police station, Jain has not yet been arrested.

According to sources, C Forms submitted by Jain while filing the tax for inter-state sale of tea for the past three years were found to be false. This is the most recent case in which a businessman has been detained by the sales directorate ever since its officers detected massive tax evasions (amounting to several crores) last year. In December, Shyamlal Agarwal, another tea trader, was arrested on similar charges.

Tea traders are required to pay one per cent tax for auction purchase and seven per cent if the tea is sold within the state. The tax is two per cent for inter-state purchase. The sales tax directorate had discovered that a large number of traders had produced fake papers showing inter-state sale of tea, when the brew was actually sold within the state.

“It is nothing but harassment,” the secretary of STTA, said: “It is they who approved of the form three years ago and allowed the proceedings to take place. Now all of a sudden they come up, armed with an arrest warrant, saying that the forms produced are fake. They have even threatened to arrest him if he does not pay up the amount of over Rs 11 lakh. This is nothing short of extortion.”

Source > The Telegraph

Bhanjang Lake Revived at Margaret's Hope Tea Garden

Everything is possible, you only need to want it badly enough. No one knows this better than the Gorabari-Margaret’s Hope gram panchayat members who proved themselves by breathing life into a lake that was lying dead in the vicinity for a long time.

Nearly 15 km from Kurseong town lies Bhanjyang Lake, at about three kilometres down NH 55, in Margaret’s Hope gram panchayat area.

The lake was constructed in 1947-48 by one Mr L Helogon, the then manager of Margaret’s Hope tea estate. In 1955, an accident occurred in which a boy was drowned while boating on the lake. Panic spread among the villagers and they gradually stopped venturing near it. The lake thus lay unattended and before long, got converted into a swamp.

People gathered around Bhanjyang Lake once again in 1968, but only to deal with the disastrous landslide that occurred in the area. The boat that drowned in 1955 was also found.
Efforts to revive the lake were launched in 2003 by the Gorabari-Margaret’s Hope gram panchayat pradhan, Jagat Sangbo. In 2005, Mr Sango was able to accomplish the uphill task, thanks to the hard work of the 23 gram panchayat members and other residents of the area. Bhanjyang Lake now looks clean and attractive, and is also situated in a picturesque location.
Such an enormous job would naturally require a lot of money. But according to the pradhan, it cost about Rs 60,000-Rs 70,000 only. This is because the panchayat members and others gave the project the gift of their labour.

Mr Sangbo informed that around 15,000 fish have been placed in the lake for breeding purposes. Bhanjyang Lake has also been home to several species of salamanders for a long time, he said. And to preserve these animals, a separate lake is being constructed beside this one.
In India, salamanders are found only in Manipur and Darjeeling. Elsewhere they are found in America and China. Salamanders are a rare species and are said to have originated from dinosaurs that existed on earth nearly 500 crore years ago. Students of science and forest officers frequent the lake as part of their research on these water creatures.

In the meanwhile, beautification of Bhanjyang Lake continues. Efforts are also on to see to it that it gets its rightful place in the tourist map of the region. We are trying our best to attract more and more tourists, said Mr Sangbo.

Garden Management responsible for another Death

All that 23-year-old Joyma Teli ever wanted was to give her family two square meals a day. But as a labourer in the tea industry, even that was denied to her.

Joyma, who worked at Dalsinghpara tea garden, 7 km from here, died at North Bengal Medical College and Hospital (NBMCH) at dawn today after battling 70 per cent burns for 26 days. She had set herself on fire on February 9, when the management of the garden failed to distribute wages among the workers, leaving the young mother of two with no money to feed her children.

“The garden management should take full responsibility for her death. Not only did they fail to distribute wages, they also abandoned the garden on February 11, lying to the workers that they were going away to get the cash,” said Prabhat Mukherjee, the general secretary of the Intuc-affiliated National Union of Plantation Workers.

Joyma was initially admitted to the subdivisional hospital at Alipurduar. Doctors there had referred her to NBMCH. Her husband, Jitbahan, had sold his poultry, goats and even his bicycle to pay for her treatment.

“I did not have the money to admit her to the medical college till the Family Planning Association of India’s branch office at Kalchini came forward. What will I do now with my six-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter,” Jitbahan asked.

S. Sarkar, one of the doctors attending to Joyma, said the young woman could not be saved despite their best efforts.

Source > The Telegraph

Oppressed Feelings to be Published and Distributed

Baburam Dewan, a former worker of the Chungthung tea estate, had committed suicide to protest against the plight of the workers of the garden. Now, it’s the residents’ turn to show their respect for him.

They are all set to turn Dewan’s last dream into reality by publishing his literary works. Dewan (62), a social activist and a writer, had always been inspired by Nepali literary stalwarts and his love for literature could be gauged from the appeal he had made in his suicide note, asking that some of his works be published.

Baburam Dewan ko Antim Echa Patra Haru (Baburam Dewan’s Last Writings) will be launched tomorrow and 1,000 copies will be distributed among the people of the hills.

“His works dealt with the oppressed class. We decided to honour Dewan by publishing his works,” said D.S. Bomzom, spokesperson, CPRM.

Though the CPRM decided to compile his works and pooled in their resources to come up with the publication, the “small token of love” is expected to cut across party lines. “The book is for the people of the area,” Bomzom added.

The 60-page book also calls upon the society to be responsible citizens. “The book will be released during a condolence meeting organised by the villagers at Chungthung,” said Bomzom.

Source > The Telegraph

Middle-men weed out from the small tea sector

The creation of several self-help groups comprising of numerous small and marginal tea growers and tea leaf factories has ushered a silent revolution in the region. “The movement is helping weed out middle-men from the small tea sector,” small tea growers claim.

This is where tea has won over jute - the other important cash crop of North Bengal. For lack of marketing scope, the middlemen lap up the cream as far as jute is concerned. As a result, despite the global demand for jute, its cultivation is on the wane. The idea to bring in the small tea growers with the tea leaf factories was provided by Mr Sabyasachi Sen who was entrusted by the state government with the responsibility to review the tea industry’s condition in 2003.

Following the recommendation, the Tea Board with cooperation from the United Forum of Small Tea Growers’ Association created several self-help groups and brought them together with the tea leaf factories, which are tea-manufacturing units without plantations. The exercise is bearing fruit now, the beneficiaries claim.

According to the UFSTGA secretary Mr Bijoygopal Chakrabarty, self-help groups such as the Panbari Small Tea Growers’ Society with 183 small growers and the Jai Jalpesh Small Tea Growers’ Society with 107 members have benefited much out of this system. “Earlier, these small growers were forced to depend on middlemen for the sale of their produce and the middlemen used to take a big commission for arranging the sale of green leaves produced by these small growers. Now, after tagging these self-help groups with two BLFs nearby, the small growers can make their own sales and name their own prices. This has allowed them to reap the profits of their toil,” Mr Chakrabarty said.

“Similarly, self-help groups created out of the Premchandgach Small Tea Growers’ Society and Bidhannagar Saptiguri STGS of North Dinajpur are collectively selling their produce to an adjacent BLF leaving out middlemen. The small tea growers are fetching proper price at last,” he added. According to him, efforts are on to create more such self-help growers and bring them together with the BLFs so that the small growers can go for collective bargaining.

Source > The Statesman

American President, Mr. Bush and Darjeeling Tea

No visit to India is complete unless one gets to see Taj Mahal in all its splendour — and sips a cup of fine Darjeeling tea!

The same goes for the President of the United States of America and his delegation as well.
In their first ever trip to India, Mr Bush and the US First Lady may have missed the Taj (Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh assured Mrs Bush a trip to the Taj in her next visit) but Darjeeling tea was never far from them.

At the lunch he hosted for the couple yesterday, the Prime Minister made sure that both Mr Bush and his wife got a chance to savour at least one of the country’s bests tea flavours. And it indeed was invigorating — the taste of the Darjeeling tea that rounded off the lunch.

Whether Mr Bush, who is reputed to be a teetotaller, sipped the brew remains unknown, but it once again proved that Darjeeling tea surely represents one of the proud facets of India in the eyes of America.

The news made tea officials in Darjeeling happy. “It is nice to know that President Bush was served Darjeeling tea. The reputation of the fine tea produced in these hills allowed it to be a part of the menu. We are happy,” said Darjeeling Tea Association secretary Mr Sandeep Mukherjee.

Despite all these developments, there is serious apprehension that Darjeeling tea may lose its reputation in spite of the Hills producing around nine million kg tea every year. Over 40 million kg tea is sold in the market as Darjeeling tea. The mathematical mismatch between production and sales remains a mystery, concedes industry experts.

Source > The Statesman

Chunthung Tea workers skip Meeting

The labour commission’s efforts to broker peace between the management and workers of Chungthung (Chongtong) tea estate in Darjeeling fell through with labour unions choosing to give the tripartite meeting a slip.

Though the district administration has decided to take its own course of action to look after the welfare of the workers, joint labour commissioner Rabi Rasailey today convened the meeting here, in keeping with Industrial Disputes’ Act, to come to a solution.

Workers refused to come to the meeting citing two previous instances when the Siliguri-based owners did not attend the tripartite meetings called by the Darjeeling assistant labour commissioner in the hill town because of “threat to their security from workers”.

The estate, which has been locked since January 13, was in news recently after Baburam Dewan, its former employee and a social worker, committed suicide to highlight the plight of the labourers.

The management, represented by officials of Terai Group of Companies and its subsidiary East India Produce Ltd and Terai Indian Planters’ Association, submitted several proposals to Rasailey. The company agreed to increase the workers’ wages to what was fixed upon at the July 25 meeting in Calcutta. “We are willing to increase the wages and provide all statutory benefits to workers,” said V.D. Dua, group superintendent, Terai Group.

The management, however, has laid down some conditions. “The benefits will be offered only if the workers agree to work for eight hours a day instead of five, as it is now. They will have to stop stealing green leaves and selling hand-rolled made tea in local markets, which has brought down the estate’s tea production from 4 lakh kg five years ago to 2 lakh now,” Dua said. The officials also talked about laying off regular absentees and unproductive workers.

Raseily said a tripartite meeting will be held soon after he has a discussion with the workers.

The district administration, as a first-of-its kind measure, has decided to hand over the functioning of the garden to a managing committee comprising representatives of all hill parties.

Source > The Telegraph

Chungthung Tea Estate to Reopen with a Managing Committee

The district administration has decided to take a firm stand in ending the impasse at the Chungthung tea garden.

The decision to convene a meeting — minus the management of East India Produce — at Bijanbari on March 1 is indicative of the administration’s determination to take a stern step to break the deadlock. “The meeting will be held between the labourers and the administration to look into the demands of the workers,” said J. Chattopadhaya, subdivisional officer, Darjeeling.

Earlier, representatives of the Chungthung management had attended only one of the four reconciliatory meetings that were held following the closure of the garden on January 13.

The suicide committed on Saturday by Baburam Dewan, a social activist, to press for strong action against Ajit Agarawal, the proprietor of the Chungthung tea estate, also seems to have unnerved the district administration. Sources maintain that the administration has decided to re-open the garden immediately through a managing committee, comprising the workers and government officials.

“The present scenario is such that we don’t believe in the proprietor coming back to re-open the garden. At the same time, we cannot let things go on as they are and this is the reason why the administration is keen about finding a solution,” said an administrative source. Representatives of Joint Action Committee of Chungthung — an umbrella organisation of all operative trade unions in the garden — also met the district administration today and demanded that a managing committee be formed at the earliest to sell the tea leaves of the garden.

“We have also demanded that Ajit Agarawal be arrested and the government initiate steps to cancel the lease of the garden,” said L.M. Lama, the pradhan of Chungthung gram panchayat and adviser to the joint action committee.

But after the estate’s closure, the DGHC has been providing work to at least one family member of the garden’s workers under the Gram Swarak Yojna. “The district administration too has been distributing foodgrain,” said Sonam Bhutia, BDO, Bijanbari.

Aariz Aftab, the Darjeeling district magistrate, said the administration was trying to mobilise funds to ensure that workers are not inconvenienced till the garden re-opens. The estate employs 1,252 workers while the total garden population is pegged at around 6,500.

Source > The Telegraph

Darjeeling shut down after tea garden worker commits suicide

A day's strike was observed in the Darjeeling hills yesterday following the suicide committed by one of the tea garden workers in Chongtong Tea Estate. Baluram Dewan (62, belonging to the Nepalese community) was found hanging from the tea shed with a suicidal note. The note had blamed the tea garden owner, Mr. Ajit Agrawal for abandoning the tea garden and bring misfortunes to the poor tea garden workers. It has become a trend for the tea garden owners to abandon tea gardens without proper and legitimate papers if they face some difficulty dealing in managing the tea workers. Most of the tea workers frown for their low paid wages while the owners are generating huge revenues. None of the tea garden owners are from the Darjeeling hills and are controlled from Calcutta (Kolkata), some 700 km away from Darjeeling. They rarely visit the tea gardens and the whole management is handed over to the manager's shoulder. Its really sad that such a sad and biased management trend is reveberating in the Darjeeling tea gardens.

Leaving aside the Goodricke Group Ltd., Jayshree and some authentic companies, most of the tea gardens are owned by a single individual who are just there to make profits and does not believe in the welfare of the tea garden workers.

Tea Garden Owners avoid executive magistrates

Owners of closed tea estates here — showcaused by the administration for keeping their gardens shut for months — today failed to appear before the executive magistrates of their respective areas.

The management of the Kanthalguri, Ramjhora, Raipur, Chamurchi, Samsing and Bamandanga-Tondu, have, however, sent replies to the notices.

A. Subbiah, the district magistrate of Jalpaiguri, had said last week that the owners must appear before the executive magistrates of the subdivisions where their estates are located by January 12 and clarify why the gardens have remained shut for so long.

Instead of giving a concrete reason for keeping the estates closed, the owners started sending in their excuses, an official said. “The management of Raipur tea estate wrote to us stating that they have handed over the garden to a new director, but did not give his address. We are now looking for his address to send the notice to him,” said P.D. Pradhan, the Jalpaiguri subdivisional officer. “The Kanthalguri management said a new company was supposed to take over the estate after its lease was cancelled, but the deal is yet to be finalised.” The Chamurchi garden, too, is yet to find a new owner, he added.

The owners of the Samsing and the Bamandanga-Tondu estates have taken a legal step after Alokesh Prasad Roy, the Malbazar SDO, served them the notice. They obtained a stay order against the administrative proceedings from the district court, a source said. “Lawyers representing the management of these estates have told me that they have obtained stay order against the proceedings,” Roy said.

With none of the owners appearing before the executive magistrates, the administrative officials have declared the legal process pending. “Another showcause notice will be served on them. If they fail to turn up even on the second date, non-bailable warrants may be issued against them,” an official said.

Source > The Telegraph

Chongtong Tea Estate worker commits suicide

A retired garden worker committed suicide in the wee hours today at this closed tea estate, accusing the garden owner, in the suicide note, for his death.

Baburam Dewan (62) was found hanging from the tea shed early this morning, the suicide note clipped to his coat. Workers did not allow the body to be removed until Press reporters from Darjeeling, around 25 km from here, reached the spot around 11 a.m. Angry workers shouted slogans against the “owner”, Mr Ajit Agrawal (Most of the tea garden owners are based in Kolkata - about 700 km away from Darjeeling).

The district administration, which had allegedly failed to bring the former to reconciliation meetings, was also the target of workers’ ire. Relief distribution in form of two kilogram of rice and Rs 50 per family each day was started three days ago by the authorities at the garden. The management had to virtually abandon the garden when the workers refused to accept a reduction in wages last month. Demanding the “immediate arrest” of the owner, trade unions and Opposition political parties have called for a bandh in the Hills tomorrow. Dewan in his suicide note also “warned” that if the administration failed to take any action some more of his friends would be “ready to follow his example”. The possibility of more suicides caused police to scamper about the garden today to find others who may have entered into a suspected suicide pact. While the district magistrate Mr Aariz Aftab said he had taken up the demand for the owner’s arrest with police, Mr Agrawal said he had already resigned from the directorship of the East India Produce Pvt Ltd a month back. “I have nothing to do with the tea garden anymore.”

Source > The Statesman

Revision of Wage for Tea Garden Grade III staff

An agreement has been reached regarding the basic salary of the sub-staff of the tea industry, but a decision regarding the wages of garden staff is yet to be taken.

The final deal was struck in Calcutta yesterday after 11 rounds of meeting between the trade unions and the management.

According to the agreement, the Grade III Other Monthly Rated Workers (sub-staff) will now receive a basic salary of Rs 1,150 per month. They will be entitled to an annual increment of Rs 17 over their basic salary until the amount reaches 1,320 following which they will get an annual increment of Rs 21 till their basic salary reaches Rs 1,530.

The starting basic salary of this group was previously fixed at Rs 930.

For Grade II sub-staff, the basic salary will start at Rs 1,190 with an annul increment of Rs 18 until the basic salary reaches Rs 1,370. Afterwards, the workers will receive an annual increment of Rs 22 till the basic salary touches Rs 1,590.

The previous starting salary of the Grade II employees was Rs 960.

The Grade I sub-staff will get a basic salary of Rs 1,220 over which they will get an annual increment of Rs 19 until the amount reaches Rs 1,410. The annual increment after that will be Rs 25 till the basic salary reaches Rs 1,660.

The wages of the sub-staff also includes dearness allowance, which will be 50 per cent of their basic salary. “They will also get a variable dearness allowance at the rate of 8 per cent with effect from April 1, 2006 and at 16 percent from April 1, 2007,” said Kumai.

The revised salary will come into effect from April 1, 2005. “The industry principals have agreed to clear the arrears by June end this year,” said Sandeep Mukherjee, secretary, Darjeeling Tea Association. This means that the sub-staff will also receive the revised salary for February 2006.

It was learnt that another meeting will be held in March to arrive at a negotiable wage revision for the staff. The meeting is expected to take place in Siliguri.

Source > The Telegraph

New Chumta Tea Estate To Reopen

A month and 24 days after its management declared a lockout, the New Chumta Tea Estate on the outskirts of Siliguri is likely to reopen tomorrow.

The reopening proposal was finalised today following bipartite and tripartite agreements struck in the presence of the state Urban development minister Mr Asok Bhattacharya, senior CITU, INTUC and HMS leaders, the plantation’s management and the deputy labour commissioner.
If New Chumta reopens tomorrow according to the agreement, the state government will have succeeded in reopening both the closed tea estates in the Terai. The other locked out plantation Phargoomiah, reopened last week.

Incidentally, New Chumta closed down on 29 December. Chief minister Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who was visiting Siliguri the next day had publicly stated that he would arrange for the plantation’s management to hold a meeting in Kolkata and ensure the plantation’s reopening.

Although matters did not progress the way the chief minister had stated, it could be more than coincidental that the reopening agreement came today at a time when the chief minister is once again on a visit to Siliguri.

The New Chumta’s closure and reopening can be singled out as more than a case of settled industrial dispute. The plantation being in the middle of the urban development minister’s home constituency Siliguri, occupies a special spot, which may have prompted the Siliguri mahakuma parishad to implement a relief scheme for the workers during the closure period.

The move had provided the Opposition a handle to wield against the minister and the CPI-M. According to them, it was preferential treatment as the same was not forthcoming at Pahargoomiah, which was locked out prior to New Chumta. Pahargoomiah too is located in the Siliguri sub-division but falls in the jurisdiction of the adjacent Phansidewa Assembly constituency.

As far as today’s agreements are concerned, the functioning workers’ unions are satisfied that they succeeded in avoiding a retrenchment proposal put forth by the New Chumta management.

Source > The Statesman

Starvations and deaths due to tea garden lockouts

Assam and Darjeeling tea estate lockouts have led to malnutrition and starvation deaths in India this month.

Roopacherra tea estate in South Assam has been under lockout for nearly month after the executives abandoned it. Leading to the death of a three-year-old girl, Shivani Kalindi and two workers, Yogendra Kalindi, 22, and Manorama Dev, 60, according the workers' panchayat (council). Shivani had been taken to the garden hospital on Tuesday evening, but no doctor was available. “Even electricity to the healthcare centre had been cut off,” a union member said.

After the death of the girl, workers defied the lockout and began picking and selling leaf to other factories for their survival. The Katlicherra police have registered a case against the "absconding" tea executives and a fact-finding team has been set up to look into the deaths by the Hailakandi administration. Some food was given by the local administration after a hunger strike by a large group of women workers.

Dilip Singh, president of the garden panchayat, claimed that the out-of-work labour force was scavenging for roots and tubers of plants in the absence of food as most women and children in the labour colony were suffering from malnutrition related ailments. “We are afraid workers may consume something poisonous without knowing it”. Singh said the workers’ patience was wearing thin and warned of a bigger crisis if the estate management did not change its attitude.

Roopacherra tea estate has a 1,400-strong workforce, who have been paid no wages since a lockout was declared on January 19.The reason cited by the management for the lockout was “flagrant violation of instructions relating to attendance”.

Also this week, a bandh (24-hour general strike) was called by workers in Calcutta over more closed tea gardens in the Dooars and Darjeeling.

A spokesman from the Intuc union told a press conference: “Enough is enough. We as trade union leaders cannot be silent spectators when the ruling Marxists are giving false promises of reopening the closed tea gardens in north Bengal. So, a bandh is the last resort,"

He said families of over 30,000 permanent workers of 17 closed tea gardens are “almost starving”.

In addition to the starvation deaths in Assam, Joyma Teli, 23, a mother of two young children, and employee of the Dalsinghpara tea garden attempted suicide this week. She set herself on fire and had to be admitted to hospital with severe burn injuries. Joyma has a son, Ajoy, aged six and a daughter, Rinku, aged 18 months, and was unable to feed them properly having not received her wages. The 2,295 workers of Dalsinghpara tea estate were left in the lurch when the management fled the garden on February 9th, the third garden to be abandoned that day.

Entrepreneur Gopi Nath Das ordered his managerial staff to leave the Dalsignhpara estate. It was pay-day and Rs 8.56 lakh was required to clear the wages. Workers alleged that eight managerial staff members, who told them that they were short by Rs 90,000, left the garden one by one on the pretext of getting the deficit amount from the bank.

Manohar Tirkey, the secretary of the Dooars Cha Bagan Mazdoor Union, said the garden was taken over by the Calcutta-based LMJ International Ltd in June 2004. “They had promised to clear the dues, but did not. As a result, more dues have accrued since then. The workers have not been paid four months’ wages, provident fund and gratuity worth more than a crore,” Tirkey said.

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