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