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