Hope kindles at Ramjhora Tea Estate

Alipurduar: The proposed visit of governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi to the Ramjhora tea estate, 75 km from here, on March 1 has triggered a flurry of activity in the region.

No sooner did the governor’s office ask for a report on closed tea gardens of the Dooars, than officials made a beeline for two of them. However, the report compiled for Gandhi’s office covered six closed estates in the Alipurduar subdivision.

R. Ranjit, the district magistrate of Jalpaiguri, Bhushan Chakroborty, the CMOH of the district, and P.D. Pradhan, the subdivisional officer (SDO) of Alipurduar, visited Bharnobari and Ramjhora tea gardens yesterday.

In Ramjhora, the death toll has reached five in the past 10 days. Tikhey Lamijen Sarki, who had been suffering from a fractured spinal cord and had not been able to afford a treatment, died yesterday.

The governor’s visit has spelt some good news for the workers. Special rations have been announced at Ramjhora. An ambulance has been kept as a stand-by to carry the “very sick” to the Birpara hospital.

Pradhan, the SDO of Alipurduar, said: “We will provide special rations to the workers of closed tea gardens. We are conducting health camps too. The 100 days work scheme has already been introduced.”

Ramesh Sharma, a worker and a Congress trade union leader, said: “It is good that the governor will talk to us. We hope that this time he will do something for us, otherwise many more people and children will die. Most of the garden workers are eagerly waiting for Thursday.”

Source: The Telegraph

Darjeeling tea to come in different varieties

Darjeeling Tea is set to spoil you for choices.

Thanks to their innovative ideas and skills, some of the makers (about half a dozen of the 87 registered gardens) of the world’s premium brew are now coming up with super special varieties — white, green and oolong. This trend, it is hoped, will redefine brand Darjeeling.

“We have completely pha-sed out black tea from our Darjeeling gardens,” Hrishikesh Saria of Sona Tea Ltd told The Telegraph. The company has three gardens in Darjeeling. “We are now focused on producing only niche, stand-alone tea — those that do not require milk and sugar,” he added.

White tea, given that it is made from the most tender leaf (only one) and a bud (five-seven days old), can be produced only in very small quantities and are mostly handmade. “We can make only about 350 kg of white tea every year,” Saria said.

It is not only international demand but growing domestic consciousness that is giving the growers a fillip. “Though their numbers (domestic consumers) are still to grow, they are significant enough and our exclusive offerings like Avongrove Silver Blossom, Gopaldhara Red Thunder and Rohini Enigma have got an excellent response,” said Saria.

However, the major buyers of speciality Darjeeling Tea are still the foreigners. “Most of our speciality tea goes to Germany, Japan, Australia and France,” said D.K. Ghosh, manager of Makaibari tea estate. “They are, too, expensive for the domestic buyers.” The super-speciality tea is available at anything between Rs 5,000 and Rs 25,000 a kilogram.

Not limiting itself to catering only to the niche customer, the Saria group is experimenting in drawing the masses into buying the speciality tea. “We are introducing regular variety oolongs at affordable prices (Rs 105 for 100 g),” Saria said.

Other than super-specialisation of produce, the Darjeeling Tea industry is witnessing new trends in packaging.

“It is perhaps the realisation of international marketing standards that has made growers focus not only on product innovation and branding, but packaging as well,” said Ranen Dutta, a tea consultant. “Never before had Darjeeling Tea such beautiful and impressive packages and containers.”

Sanjay Bansal, vice-chairman of Darjeeling Planters’ Association, said: “Not only will this tea be able to fetch more prices in the international market, they will add to the brand image of Darjeeling Tea.”

Source: The Telegraph

Death toll rises in Ramjhora Tea Estate

A 59-year-old woman died in Ramjhora Tea Estate yesterday, taking the toll in the garden to four in the past seven days.

Families of all the four deceased have alleged that death was due to starvation, the symptoms of which were anaemia, nausea and dysentery.

Around 75 km from here, Ramjhora has been closed almost for five years.

Jyotirmoy Halder, the block medical officer of health of Madarihat-Birpara, admitted that most of the people are starving. “They need food before being treated for other diseases. We have told the workers to inform us immediately when any of their family members fall ill. We will take them to Birpara State General Hospital at our own expense, but family members have to accompany them.”

Like Fulmani, who died yesterday, her sister Juhungi Dey is also suffering from “stomach ailments” and she has been advised to take admission to the Birpara hospital.

“We wanted to bring her, but nobody from her family was ready to accompany her,” said Halder. “We generally hold camps in the local gram panchayat office twice a week. We have asked workers to attend them.”

Aboni Das, the sabhapati of Madarihat-Birpara panchayat samiti, and Matias Lepcha, the joint block development officer, visited the garden today. Administrative officials distributed 24 kg of rice and Rs 60 to 12 families, whose members are ailing, under the Antyodaya Yojna.

Bhushan Chakroborty, the chief medical officer of health for Jalpaiguri, however, avoided the starvation issue.

Instead, he said: “We are conducting health camps in the local gram panchayat office. The people of the garden should visit the hospital otherwise it is difficult for us to attend to them.”

For the past few weeks, Ramjhora has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Workers claim that 133 people have died of starvation and malnutrition in the garden since its closure on August 11, 2002. Once upon a time there were 1,103 workers here. At least half the number has left for Bhutan, 12 km from here, to work in dolomite factories.

Despite chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s instruction to the district administration to take care of the workers of closed gardens, labourers of this estate have not yet received the Rs 500 FAWLOI (financial assistance for workers of locked out industries) for the last 10 months.

Ramesh Sharma, the secretary of the garden unit of National Union of Plantation Workers, said: “The relief is not sufficient for a family. The only way out is opening the estate.”


Workers of Bharnobari Tea Estate gheraoed the members of the operations and maintenance committee (OMC) to protest against the alleged selling of made tea from the factory secretly.

The garden is lying closed for more than one year. The workers claimed that the OMC was supposed to take their permission before selling 24,000 kg of tea lying in the factory.

Source: The Telegraph

Beautiful Runglee Rungliot Tea Garden

That is how Sarah Srivastava of Leeds, UK, described her stay sometime back in the Runglee Rungliot tea garden, the only one owned by the Duncans in the Darjeeling hills.

It is comments like these on the visitors’ book — Srivastava herself was a private guest at the estate and not a tourist — that prompted the Duncans, one of the country’s leading tea producers, to jump onto the tea tourism bandwagon.

The drive to the garden, especially after one veers off NH 31A at Rambhi, is back-breaking but the pain gives way to pleasure as the blanket of mist lifts from the curvaceous mounds carpeted with lush green bushes and interspersed with lofty, dark pine trees.

“It took a lot of convincing,” acting manager R.B. Singh said, referring to the uphill task of getting group chairman G.P. Goenka to agree to allow tourists to enter his bungalow. Though Goenka seldom comes here, it was with a lot of care that the enthusiast did up his summerhouse — a wooden luxury sprawling over more than 2,500 square feet. “He is very attached to the bungalow and was reluctant to go in for tourism apprehending that the boarders may mar its beauty. Only his son and other private guests came here some times to spend their holidays,” Singh added.

After years of prodding by local and regional executives, the chairman finally relented under the condition that entry would be restricted to bona fide nature tourists who travel and stay responsibly. With the niche Western market as the target, a stay (there are four double-bedded rooms) at the bungalow is steeply priced at Rs 7,500 per couple per day (all meals inclusive) and Rs 6,500 for single occupancy.

The garden will have its first tourists arriving in March.

They will get to lounge in the sun in the company of orchids either peeping in through the windows or lining the walk, while a host of other flowers appear higgledy-piggledy in the open spaces. The visitors can also go on a tea trail, a short trek across the garden to the factory to see the entire process of tea-manufacturing.

“We often have our foreign guests dropping by at workers’ homes for tea,” Singh said. One can also go rafting in the white waters of the Teesta, about 20 km away.

Samrat Sanyal, director of Bon Voyage, a Siliguri-based group which will promote tour packages with Runglee Rungliot at the centre, said the garden’s scenic beauty coupled with its strategic location would make it an ideal choice for tourists. “The project is top-class and we expect it to be a huge draw,” he said.

“Given its proximity to Darjeeling (29 km) and Kalimpong (35 km), tour-packages linking the nearby tourist destinations can easily be worked out with at least two nights’ stay in the garden,” he added.

This is the first tourism project of the Duncans, which runs 16 gardens in the Dooars. “If this experiment succeeds, perhaps our management will think of replicating it in the other gardens as well,” Singh said.

By Anuradha Sharma
Source: The Telegraph

Guest at Makaibari teaching computer to tea kids

The home-stay project at Makaibari Tea Estate is helping the workers’ children with their education in school and outside it.

While workers use the extra money they earn from tourism to send their children to school, one guest has taken the efforts a step further. She is teaching computer application and English to the children outside school hours at her own cost.

Kathleen Linton, who hails from Adelaide, Australia, has been at the estate, located 3 km from here, for the past four weeks. “I was thinking of helping the poor in any part of the world. While surfing the Internet one day, I came across an organisation called i-to-i, which helps people like us do voluntary social work in different countries. From there I got to learn about this tea estate and decided to teach computer application and English to poor children here,” said the woman who works as freelancer on government-funded projects to build education websites in Australia.

For the first three weeks, Linton concentrated on English but last Tuesday she set up two personal computers at a small centre in the estate to teach the children the basics of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel and a few other applications. She added that on an average, about 25 children from seven villages spread across the plantation come to her classes, which are held in the mornings and evenings.

Linton said she is also looking forward to working with the primary school teachers of the area to give them tips on teaching English and computer application.

“From my interaction with the children, I have come to know that they are very talented and able. They are good at reading and writing English but are weak in spoken English. I am working on it,” she added.

Linton’s project at Makaibari is self-funded. She plans to spend around 3,500 Australian dollars (around Rs 1.2 lakh) on it, including paying for her own food and accommodation as well as buying paper, pencils, pens, crayons and some English and computer books for the children.

Sewan Pradhan, a driver at Makaibari, said his son has joined Linton’s course. “He is in Class VI and he had never even seen a computer till he joined the course,” he said. “It is good that such a project is being held at the estate because we cannot afford to send our children to private computer institutes in Kurseong.”

Source: The Telegraph

Home-stay tourism project at Makaibari tea estate

Guests at home means money in the pocket that can be spent to send the children to school.

The success of the home-stay project at Makaibari Tea Estate, 3 km from here, is helping workers there earn that extra little bit that enables them to look after their children’s education. As Robin Khawas, the coordinator of the home-stay project, put it: “The tourist flow has helped residents here both in terms of economy as well as education. There have been months when we have been able to earn around Rs 6,000, which is a lot compared to garden wages. The additional income is used to send the children to school.”

Shila Tamang, a labourer in the garden who is part of the project, concurred: “We earn around Rs 2,000 from the garden, which is just enough to maintain the family. The home-stay project has helped me bear the cost of my children’s education. The highest I have earned in a single month is Rs 5,000 some time last year. Otherwise, we earn anything between Rs 1,500 and Rs 3,500 per month.”

The project started at the garden about two years ago with 15 houses spread over seven villages providing accommodation to tourists. Room tariff is as little as Rs 300 per day, including food. Of it, Rs 50 goes to the emergency fund of the joint body committee set up by the members of the project.

The committee has so far collected Rs 9,000, said Khawas, which means the total revenue has been over Rs 50,000 in two years.

So what can tourists expect when they decide to stay with a worker’s family at Makaibari? “If you get used to the common toilets and lack of running water, then it is wonderful,” said a foreign backpacker who stayed there for a while. “They serve you traditional food and even put up cultural programmes in the evenings for entertainment. And best of all, you are right in the lap of nature.”

Source: The Telegraph

Lack of disbursement of Education fund to tea workers

The Tea Board of India plans to take action against the owner of the Bharnobari tea garden for not disbursing money it sent in 2005 as education stipend for Madhyamik and higher secondary (HS) candidates from workers’ families.

With the garden being abandoned for more than a year and the operating and maintenance committee (OMC) running out of funds to pay the workers, many families have been forced to take their children out of school. “My daughter Sabitri used to be in Class VII and son Jitram in VI, but now they do not go to school anymore. When we do not have money to feed the family, education becomes a luxury,” said Lakshmimoni Oraon, a worker.

According to the convener of the OMC, Manbahadur Chhetri, the tea board had sent two demand drafts in August 2005, one amounting to Rs 48,935 and the other Rs 32,768. The money was supposed to be distributed among 44 students. This year, there are 37 students taking Madhyamik and seven HS candidates, he said.

“The drafts were deposited in the account of the manager of the Bharnobari Tea and Industries Ltd at the Hashimara branch of the State Bank of India. But the money was never disbursed,” Chhetri said. “We have long been telling the district administration as well as the tea board about it, but to no avail.”

A. Roy Chowdhury, deputy director, tea development and plantation, Tea Board of India, said the board had written to the owner, Arvind Poddar, last March asking him to return the money. “We had given him seven days’ time to reply, but we never heard from him,” Roy Chowdhury said.

Source: The Telegraph

Tea Tourism Grant shrunk by half

The central pie for the development of tea tourism in Bengal has shrunk and the planters have put the blame on the state government’s shoddy handling of the whole project.

In 2005, the Centre had promised Rs 7.6 crore for the promotion of tea tourism in the state (not Rs 7.9 crore as announced, by the chief minister and other state ministers). Now, however, the grant has been slashed to Rs 3.89 crore, about half the amount promised earlier.

That the funds have shrunk came to light at a news meet held today by Gopal Lama, the deputy director, north, of the state tourism department, on a separate issue (regulation of taxis at New Jalpaiguri railway station).

“Of the total amount of Rs 3.89 crore, Rs 3.11 crore has already been sanctioned,” Lama said responding to a question. “Hila and Mohua tea estates in the Dooars, both run by the West Bengal Tea Development Corporation, have been identified as the sites where we will build infrastructure for tourism. Besides, some wayside amenities will be set up at Murti.”

When asked what happened to the earlier Rs 7.6-crore scheme, Lama said: “Not all the schemes were approved by the central government which is why the final package now stands at Rs 3.89 crore only.”

Industry source have blamed the slash on the state government’s insistence on promoting tea tourism on its own, and only in gardens owned by it.

“This just goes on to show the shoddy manner in which the state government has handled the entire tea tourism issue,” said Raj Basu, the working president of Eastern Himalayan Travel and Tour Operators’ Association. “If the government had understood its role as a facilitator and worked towards creating infrastructure (like roads and electricity) and human resource for developing an entire tea-tourism circuit with the participation of the private planters, the money would have benefited the state.”

Basu further added: “If an entire circuit was developed, we could have created infrastructure to entertain 3,000 tourists at a time. But instead, the government chose to do it alone in its own gardens. Now, the benefits will be too insignificant to contribute to the overall growth of north Bengal.”

“About two years ago, I was asked to prepare a project proposal by the district administration for funds,” said Manoj Chamaria, the managing director of Phanskhowa Tea Estate, which was once selected for the tea tourism pilot project before the government did an about-turn. “Later, I got to hear that the government had changed its mind. Nevertheless, I have written to the district administration once again asking for funds, without which no ambitious project can be taken up.”

Source: The Telegraph

Kalchini and Raimatang tea estates run out on patience

Kalchini and Raimatang tea estates (Alipurduar): A British-era club is demolished and the entire structure removed, brick by brick. A district magistrate is forced to cut short his inspection by angry workers venting their anger after 36 people died at a tea garden in one year.

Over the past couple of years, the abandoned estates of Kalchini and Raimatang have witnessed many such scenes. Located less than 40 km from Alipurduar town, in Kalchini block, both are owned by Buxa Dooars Tea Company limited and have been closed since February 2006. Even before that, the gardens had remained shut on and off for four-five years.

The 2,001 labourers of Kalchini tea estate and their dependants are unrepentant about the day-light looting of European Club in September 2005. They say they have also cut down trees in the garden and sold them for money. Electric poles have had the same fate. Political leaders say things will only get worse if the estate is not opened soon.

“How long can they keep their cool under such trying conditions,” said Prem Lama, the pradhan of Kalchini gram panchayat. “The company is neither selling the garden to a new owner, nor coming back to restart production. And all the while people are dying of various diseases, children are dropping out of school and nobody has enough to eat.”

A visit to the Goodam labour line of Kalchini showed the desperation to which the labourers are driven. Bisram Oraon, a worker, has been suffering from tuberculosis for more than a year and is now completely bed-ridden. “I visited the government hospitals a number of times, but got no help. Now I have to depend on medicines from a local ayurvedic practitioner,” he said. While Bisram’s daughter has to juggle between her studies (she will sit for her Madhyamik this year) and work at the garden (arranged by the operating and maintenance committee), his son sells firewood collected from the forest for a living.

Observers fear that the garden’s factory and other establishments, spared till now, may be the next target of the labourers. Patience is indeed running thin in Kalchini as the garden hospital remains closed and parts of the estate are hit by water scarcity. In fact, workers of Kalchini out division have to travel to Mechpara Tea Estate, 3 km away, for drinking water.

The 1,258 labourers of Raimatang Tea Estate have to walk even further in search for water, all the way to Bhatpara Tea Estate, 6 km away. Repeated appeals to the administration for deep tube wells have fallen on deaf ears. After his unpleasant experience at Raimatang in January this year, Jalpaiguri district magistrate R. Ranjit had met the Kalchini block development officer and sanctioned five tube wells for the garden, but none has been installed so far.

Records at the Raimatang garden hospital show 36 deaths in the last one year.

As the workers are forced to live in rickety huts that threaten to buckle in during heavy rains or violent storms, law and order threatens to become a major problem. Already a group of boys has destroyed a few staff quarters and taken away the material.

The garden staff are in the same boat. “The workers shout at us without realising that our condition is the same as theirs,” said Bashu Ghatak, a clerk at the garden. “We do not even have any alternative source of income, which the workers have.”

Ghatak, however, does not have many sympathisers among the workers.

Source: The Telegraph

Darjeeling gets Japanese help for Drinking water

Villagers of Sallaghari, Uttishbari and Harkaman Gaon in the Sukhiapokhari block of Darjeeling district will have better access to drinking water, thanks to grants from the Japanese.

The Japanese government has provided more than Rs 40 lakh for development projects in Darjeeling and Calcutta. The funds, which have been provided under Grant Assistance for Grassroots Project (GGP), will be used to complete sanctioned projects within a one-year time frame.

“On behalf of the Government of Japan, Mr Yoshikazu Takeuchi, Consul General of Japan at Calcutta signed two Grant Contracts — one with Mr B.P. Rai, Secretary, Federation of Societies for Environmental Protection (FOSEP), Darjeeling and the other with the Venerable Dr Buddha Priya Mahathera, General Secretary, Siddharth United Social Welfare Mission (SUSWM) of Calcutta for grant amount of US $ 24,390 (approximately Rs10.95 lakh) and US $ 68,180 (approximately Rs 30.6 lakh) respectively” reads the e-mail that confirmed the news. The mail was sent by the GGP project coordinator from the Japanese consul general’s office in Calcutta after the agreements were signed last evening.

“This is a one-time grant and we will start work from March. Water will have to be brought from a distance of about 2 km and then will have to be connected to these villages,” Rai told The Telegraph over phone from Calcutta.

The GGP supports 100 percent of the project cost, though this does not cover recurring expenses such as salaries, honorarium, rent for rooms and electricity.

Since 1989, the Japanese government has awarded around US $ 1.8 million through its GGP schemes for projects in Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa. This is, however, the first time that grants are being provided under this scheme for projects in the Darjeeling hills.

Source: The Telegraph

Tea Workers demand dignity treatment

Jaigoan: Workers of the Bharnobari tea estate, 16 km from here, today demanded that they be treated with dignity even as NGOs lined up to distribute relief.

Members of Alipurduar Welfare Society today gave away clothes, blankets and rice to the workers of the garden, abandoned since December 2005. They also distributed vitamin tablets, anti-malarial drugs and medicines to check gastrointestinal problems worth Rs 15,000.

“We do not want relief. We want to be treated with dignity befitting Indian citizens and earn by ourselves,” said Manbahadur Chhetri, the convener of the operating and maintenance committee.

However, he said, after The Telegraph reported the plight of the garden — 28 people have died there during the 13-month closure — the administration seems to have woken up from its stupor. “We have been sanctioned six days of work under the 100-day employment guarantee scheme. Of the six days, we have already completed four days of pruning,” Chhetri said.

Madhav Pal, one of the doctors at the medical camp set up at the garden today, said he had examined nearly 200 people, “most suffering from anaemia and gastric disorders”. Alipurduar Nagarik Mancha and Ganatantra Adhikar Raksha Sanstha also distributed relief among the workers.

Source: The Telegraph

Tea Garden Abandoned

Alipurduar: Dekhlapara Tea Estate located in the Madarihat-Birpara block has been officially declared abandoned.

Alipurduar subdivisional officer (SDO) P.D. Pradhan today sent a faxed message to Jalpaiguri district magistrate R. Ranjit to inform him of the decision. The development came a day after The Telegraph published a report on how the 600 workers at the estate were losing out on aid because government records did not show Dekhlapara as abandoned (though the management fled in March 2006).

“I have received a report from the assistant labour commissioner of Birpara and today I sent a message to the district magistrate stating that Dekhlapara Tea Estate has been officially declared abandoned,” said Pradhan. “A block-level medical team will visit the garden and the workers will be given foodgrain.”

The SDO added that as in all other abandoned gardens, workers at Dekhlapara would be allowed to prune the tea bushes for 14 days under the food-for-work scheme. “I will talk to the Jalpaiguri deputy labour commissioner about FAWLOI — financial assistance to workers of locked-out industries — for Dekhlapara and I will personally visit the garden very soon to find out the situation there,” Pradhan said.

Source: The Telegraph

Tea Estate Girl gets leave with pay for studies

Jaigaon: Lakshmi Oraon of Carron tea garden near here can drop the pruning knife and concentrate on her books.

The owner of the garden, P.K. Basu, called her yesterday and told her that she can take a paid holiday before the Madhyamik examinations, which will start from February 21.

“He called me to his office, told me to sit on the chair in front of his desk and asked me how I was preparing for the exam. He shot off questions on several subjects and even showed me how to solve an algebra equation when I stumbled on it,” Lakshmi said. “I could not believe my ears when he asked me to take paid leave.”

“I learnt about the girl from The Telegraph last Monday,” Basu said. “I did not know that someone was sitting for the Madhyamik from my estate. I thank the newspaper for reporting it.”

He said if he had known about Lakshmi earlier he would have granted her a leave with wages for three months. “Now, I have asked the manager to pay wages to Lakshmi from February 13 to March 7 — the period when she will be on leave. If she passes the exam, I will give her Rs 5,000 for further studies,” Basu said.

Basu’s action overwhelmed Lakshmi’s father, Shankar Oraon, also a worker there. “Even the manager does not dare to sit in front of the owner and he asked my daughter to take the seat,” he said.

The unit secretary of the National Union of Plantation Workers, Shankar Baraik, said: “We have never seen an owner do this before.”

Source: The Telegraph

Rupees 4 Lakh for closed Bharnobari Tea Estate

The jalpaiguri district administration has granted Rs 4 lakh to workers of the closed Bharnobari tea estate, located around 45 km from here in the Kalchini block.

“I have instructed the block development officer of Kalchini to provide immediate relief of Rs 4 lakh to Bharnobari Tea Estate. It is up to him to decide whether he will send the workers foodgrain or something else,” said Jalpaiguri district magistrate R. Ranjit.

Bharnobari, closed since December 2005, has witnessed 28 deaths in the past 13 months. The Telegraph had recently carried two reports (“Death throws up more murky details”, February 9, 2007 and “Bitter lives under brew shadow”, February 10, 2007) on the plight of the workers, many of whom are on the brink of starvation.

There is more good news for the industry. From Wednesday, pruning of tea bushes, needed for better productivity, will start in the 15 closed gardens of Jalpaiguri district. The workers involved in the task will be paid Rs 68 per day for two weeks from the Centre’s 100-days’ work scheme.

On February 1, the Jalpaiguri district committee of the Congress, led by its president Biswaranjan Sarkar, had met chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee demanding that pruning be included in the 100-day’ work scheme in the brew belt.

Source: The Telegraph

Tea Workers claim 133 starvation deaths

They claim 133 people have died of starvation and malnutrition in the garden since its closure on August 11, 2002.

Health officials, however, rubbish the workers’ claim. “If the number was correct, we would have had records since we always keep track of deaths from communicable diseases and starvation. In other cases, it is the family of the deceased that gets the death registered,” said Sudeep Mandal, the block medical officer of health (BMOH) of Madarihat-Birpara in which the garden falls.

Countering the BMOH assertion, a worker of the estate, said: “What do they know about death? We don’t need a certificate to light up pyres on the riverside. Certificates are for people who go to crematoriums. We need a certificate only when the person is a worker (and not a dependant) and dues have to be claimed.”

Once upon a time there were 1,103 workers here. At least half the number has left for Bhutan, 12 km from here, to work in the dolomite factories.

When The Telegraph visited the garden, the few remaining ones crowded around the correspondent in the hope that he was a health official. Sankar Gosai, 18, was one of them. A resident of Jogi Line here, Sankar is suffering from severe anaemia and doctors of Birpara State General Hospital had advised five bottles of blood for him. Since Sankar could not afford it, he had to remain satisfied with only one bottle.

Chandu Munda, whose body has swelled up, feels she has nothing to live for. She cannot get over the deaths of her husband Ghasia Munda and son Khudiram, who died of blood dysentery.

During his recent visit to the region, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had instructed the Jalpaiguri district administration to take care of the workers of closed gardens. But labourers of this estate, 74 km from Alipurduar town, know better for none of them has received the Rs 500 FAWLOI (financial assistance for workers of locked out industries) for the last 10 months.

Assistant labour commissioner of Birpara Arthur Hore dismissed the FAWLOI issue with: “There has been a problem in the official document. We hope it will be settled soon.”

On the other hand, of the 34 chowkidars, who have been going without salary from October, 11 have left the garden to collect minerals from the riverbed for Rs 50 per day. Ganpat Oraon, a member of the operating maintenance committee, fears that “if the chowkidars leave at this rate, the factories will be broken into and the machines stolen”.

The workers, however, are defensive. “What would you have done if your three-year-old cried from hunger?” asked one of them.

Source: The Telegraph

Re-Opening Kanthalguri Tea Estate

The bipartite meeting between trade union leaders and representatives of Jadabpur Tea Company for the reopening of the Kanthalguri tea estate remained inconclusive today.

However, the stakeholders felt that the meeting threw up enough suggestions that might ultimately pave the way to the reopening of the garden. Kanthalguri is the worst affected of the 14 closed estates in the Dooars and has been locked out since July 2002.

The meeting, which was held at the Indian Tea Planters’ Association (ITPA) office in Jalpaiguri, was convened after Jadabpur Tea expressed interest in acquiring Kanthalguri, earlier owned by Pink City Tea Company. “Those present at the meeting discussed the workforce of the garden and issues related to them,” said N.K. Basu, the principal adviser to ITPA.

“Some of the problems have been sorted out and to redress the remaining ones, we have decided to hold another meeting on February 15. It was a successful meeting and we look forward to further negotiations,” Basu added.

A source in the tea industry said the company representatives had proposed to engage 600 permanent workers in case they reopen Kanthalguri. The last payroll had 1,449 permanent workers on it.

“The trade union leaders said at least 800 workers should be recruited so that members from every family get work. The company is likely to state its decision in the next meeting,” the source said.

Basu said the company’s officials have already gone through the accounts of past liabilities of Kanthalguri. They have even had a discussion with the administrative officials over land lease. “Ever since the lease has been cancelled, the state has become the owner of the land,” he said. “As a result, in case the company acquires the estate, they should be granted fresh lease. The administration has promised to do so, provided related issues are cleared.”

Even the trade union leaders seemed hopeful. “Considering Jadabpur Tea’s proposals, the prospects of Kanthalguri are looking up,” said Mani Kumar Darnal, district secretary, National Union of Plantation Workers.

Source: The Telegraph

Darjeeling Residents help fire victims

Residents of the hill town have decided to come forward to help victims of the fire that gutted the houses of 11 families in the Ava Art Gallery area last Thursday.

Four houses were completely destroyed in the blaze as fire engines failed to reach the site owing to illegal structures blocking the road leading to the buildings.

The effort of the local people seems to be particularly helpful, as administrative and political relief is yet to come in, a source said.

To start with, residents of Barakakjhora have already given shelter to nine of the families at Annupurna Guest House, where they can stay till they find a proper place. “We will have to pay a nominal amount to the guest house authorities. We are glad that these people, who have lost everything to the fire, now have a place to stay,” said Seshmani Gurung, the secretary of Koseli Sangh, a social organisation in Barakakjhora.

While aid is pouring in both in kind and cash, Koseli Sangh has opened a relief fund at the UTI Bank in Darjeeling. “We are focusing on collecting money as the families need it the most. We have opened an account at the UTI Bank and anyone willing to contribute can deposit the amount there,” said Gurung. The account number of the Barakakjhora Fire Victims’ Relief Fund is 346010100015747. Rotary Club of Kalimpong and the local Nava Yuva Sangh have already paid Rs 5,000 and Rs 1,201.

The residents are also trying to address the problem of the lack of enough fire hydrants in town. “A meeting with different government departments is slated for tomorrow. We want rehabilitation of the victims, pulling down of illegal structures and installation of fire hydrants,” said Gurung.

Source: The Telepgraph

No cheers over tea meet

A huge turnout of labourers at the State Tea Garden and Forest Village Folk Cultural Festival yesterday must have pleased chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, but it could barely paper over the crisis in the brew industry.

“We came here yesterday hoping that the chief minister would declare some schemes for our benefit,” said a worker of Ramjhora tea estate. “But there was nothing new in his speech.”

Then there was the thronging crowd at the Tea Board’s stall offering free cups of tea. Board officials put it down to the success of their campaign to encourage tea consumption, but the truth was completely different. “The factory is closed and we cannot afford to buy tea for daily consumption,” said Budhuram Baraik, a worker of Kanthalguri estate, sipping a hot cuppa.

The food stalls opened by local self-helps groups (SHGs), on the other hand, were deserted. “Sales were abysmal,” said Kalpana Sarkar of Kusum, an SHG. She said the garden labourers did not have enough money to buy boiled egg, ghugni and payesh.

There were other indications of the workers’ plight. The only shadow of hope came from the district magistrate, R. Ranjit. “The chief minister has instructed us to take up the problems faced by the labourers and solve them,” he said.

Buddha pledge
The chief minister announced in Holong, Jaldapara, this morning that the first ever wildlife hospital and research centre in the state would be set up at Madarihat, 54 km from Alipurduar. Later, at a rally organised by Brahmaputra Jalpath Dabi Samiti at Baxirhat, Cooch Behar, he said he has talked to the Prime Minister about reviving the waterway between Bengal and Assam via Bangladesh and Myanmar. Bhattacharjee also inaugurated the Teesta Ganga festival at Dewanhaat and, at a programme at Uttar Banga Krishi Vishwavidyalaya, termed the Seed Corporation “useless”.

Source: The Telegraph