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