The Union commerce and industries ministry has mooted a plan to financially restructure closed tea gardens in a bid to get them reopened.

Jairam Ramesh, the Union minister of state for commerce and industries, told The Telegraph today that “a plan has been devised to enable the owners of closed gardens to get rid of a substantial portion of their liabilities”.

Under the scheme, some of the loans and advances made to these gardens would be waived, while the Centre and financial institutions would bear a part of the accumulated burden.

Of the 33 tea estates that have been put on the priority list, 14 are in Bengal, 17 in Kerala and two in Assam.

“Once the owners reopen their units, they can seek soft loans to finance their units. This assistance is apart from the Special Purpose Tea Fund, for which they are eligible to apply only after they clear their liabilities,” the minister said. The special purpose fund can be used for replantation and rejuvenation.

According to statistics available with the tea board, the total dues of 14 gardens in north Bengal (including the recently-opened Surendranagar) are Rs 129.49 crore. Of this, bank dues are Rs 114.03 crore, provident fund dues Rs 11.65 crore and tea board dues Rs 3.80 crore.

The minister said the next priority would be how to refurbish sick gardens, “but not right now”.

Ramesh travelled 60 km by road from Bagdogra Airport to Chalsa this afternoon, before visiting Samsing tea estate. “I will visit five closed estates during my three-day visit and I am optimistic of reopening at least two,” he said.

The five are Samsing, Bharnobari, Redbank, Chamurchi and Raipur. “We are confident of reopening Bharnobari and Redbank tomorrow, while at Chamurchi, talks will be held to form a cooperative to run the garden. Nothing can be said about Raipur now,” Ramesh said.

At Samsing, a Citu-dominated garden, more than 300 residents welcomed Ramesh with a lal salaam. “The owner met me three days ago and assured me that once the financial package is declared, he would open the garden within 24 hours,” the minister said over phone from Chalsa.

Ramesh asserted that if the Samsing owner did not respond within a month, the Centre would acquire the garden under Section 16 (D) of the Indian Tea Act.

Source: The Telegraph

Darjeeling Hill farmers to extend holdings

Raniban (Darjeeling): The 170-year-old monopoly of tea garden owners could soon change with hill farmers looking to plant tea on small holdings.

Organic Ekta (organic unity) — a cooperative society of small tea growers in the hills — is trying to increase its holdings and sell its product on a commercial scale.

“In 2006 we formed a cooperative and registered ourselves under the name Organic Ekta. At present, over 1,000 hectare of land, covering eight villages from Pokhriabong to Raniban, are under tea cultivation,” said Harish Mukhia, a retired planter, who has helped similar initiatives in Arunachal Pradesh and Nepal.

Though the farmers in the hills have been cultivating tea for the past 50 years, it was essentially produced on hand rolls for consumption at home.

“Last year, we could sell about 40,000 kg of green leaves to other (established) gardens in the hills which was converted to about 8,000 kg of made tea,” said Mukhia.

The move has come as a major boon to farmers from areas like Raniban, 25 km from Darjeeling. Hemmed by the Ghum-Bhanjyan and Senchel wildlife sanctuaries, farmers here could not grow organic fruits and vegetables as marauding animals, especially wild boars, destroyed their crops year after year.

Pannalal Subba, the secretary of the small tea growers’ association, said though the situation seemed promising the new body would need help from the government.

Subba was referring to the recent tea board directive making it mandatory for tea growers to obtain a licence from the board and a Certified Trade Mark.

“This year, we sold tealeaves at Rs 30 per kg through the Darjeeling Earth Group — an NGO working here. We have also obtained licence to plant tea in two villages, Rangbhayan and Risheehat Khasmal. We are now in the process of obtaining the necessary documents and would need government support,” said Mukhia.

Source: The Telegraph

New Owner for Bharnobari Tea Estate

Bharnobari (Alipurduar)/ Siliguri: Bharnobari Tea Estate had an unexpected visitor today.

Om Prakash Agarwal, a tea exporter, accompanied by Philip Khalko, the saha-sabhadhipati of the Jalpaiguri zilla parishad, went around the garden, located 42 km from Alipurduar town, and inspected the factory for an hour from 10 am. He also talked to the office staff about the outstanding dues and later sent two of his employees to check the tea bushes.

Agarwal is being touted as the new owner of the garden that is expected to reopen during Union minister Jairam Ramesh’s visit to the Dooars tea belt on June 29.

“The garden will be officially handed over to Agarwal on June 29. This was decided recently at a Tea Board meeting attended by the Union minister of state for commerce. Agarwal said he would talk to all the trade unions before opening the garden,” Khalko said after the garden tour.

Tea Board officials also confirmed Agarwal’s interest in the garden, though they were not sure about the date of the official handover.

“The present owner of the garden has decided to sell it and Om Prakash Agarwal is the prospective buyer. Agarwal is based in Calcutta and is the second largest Indian exporter of tea,” Tea Board chairman Basudeb Banerjee told The Telegraph over phone from Calcutta. “In case the two sides do not settle the deal by June 29, there are chances that they would sign an agreement on that day. The garden could then be formally opened later.”

Garden workers, who have witnessed at least 88 deaths since the closure two years ago, however, seemed apprehensive about the new development. “We have heard that the new owner has come to the garden and that he will open it on the 29th. But we are not sure whether he will pay our dues that have accumulated over the years,” said Rabi Baraik, a resident of the Kothim line.

Redbank Tea Estate, the other garden looking to reopen during Ramesh’s visit, remained mired in uncertainty. The garden has gone into liquidation. To reopen it formally, owner Rabin Paul needs to get a stay order on the liquidation process from Calcutta High Court.

“We are in touch with Paul who is trying to get the order. If it doesn’t come through, the minister will visit the garden but it cannot start functioning,” Banerjee said.

The chairman, who met state ministers and officials about the reopening yesterday, felt that a concerted Centre-state effort could do the trick.

Source: The Telegraph

Mamata Banerjee’s visit to the Dooars has not gone unnoticed, but neither has it been able to trigger any enthusiasm.

A day after her tour of two closed estates, tea workers feel that the Trinamul Congress chief has to deliver first, in the manner of some major breakthroughs, to win their confidence.

“We have become accustomed to false promises from leaders. Unless her party succeeds in establishing an efficient platform that would work towards reopening the gardens, it will be tough for it to garner support here,” said Phanindranath Das, a worker of Sikarpur-Bhandapur, 30 km from here. Mamata had visited the garden yesterday.

He added that in no way would workers of his garden follow the lines of Singur and Nandigram. The reference was to Mamata’s announcement that her party would launch a movement similar to the ones in south Bengal against land acquisition.

Das agreed with Sania Bhumij, a worker and unit secretary of the Citu-affiliated Cha Bagan Mazdoor Union of Raipur, that actor turned Trinamul MLA Tapas Pal had been the real crowd puller.

“It is true that hundreds of residents, especially women, had rushed to the dais. But their intention was to see Tapas Pal. He is well-known here,” said Bhumij, one of those who had elaborated their problems before Mamata yesterday. Bhumij, however, said she and many other workers would not mind joining any movement that might benefit them. “In case a central agitation is organised and it is useful to us, we would definitely participate,” she said.

Others like Biplab Sarkar of Bharnobari, which is likely to open on June 29, said the Trinamul leader’s visit has been a “little too late”.

“She has taken up the issue five years after the crisis started, at a time when the Centre and state are seriously working to end the impasse,” said Sarkar.

He said another factor that would make the party’s task harder was the absence of any Trinamul trade union in the tea belt. Trinamul leaders of the region admitted that they had a number of hurdles ahead.

“It is true that we need to take up concrete activities in the closed gardens to bring people under the banner of the Save Tea Garden Committee,” said Gautam Deb, the Darjeeling district president of the party. Deb has been made chairman of a 15-member core group that will give regular reports to Mamata on the tea gardens.

“We will meet in Cooch Behar on June 24 to chalk out our strategy,” he added.

Source: The Telegraph

Tea planters dissatisfied with the Centre

Union minister of state for commerce and industry Jairam Ramesh might just have to face some unsavoury questions when he comes to north Bengal on June 29.

Tea planters across the region have expressed dissatisfaction at the Centre’s preoccupation with closed estates alone.

Ramesh is expected to attend a meeting on the disbursement of the Special Purpose Tea Fund at Jalpaiguri on the day. According to Tea Board chairman Basudeb Banerjee, Ramesh will also attempt to open two of the 13 closed estates in the Dooars.

“Will the tea gardens have to close down in order to get the government’s attention?” asked K.K. Mintri, advisory member of the Tea Association of India, Terai Indian Planters’ Association and the Siliguri Tea Auction Committee. “There are a large number of gardens on the verge of closure. Does the government have any plan to help these gardens?”

Planter and chairman of the Siliguri Tea Auction Committee S.K. Saria feared that this approach of the government might even be counterproductive. “If the government restricts financial help to only closed gardens, it may result in other estates closing down one by one. Some of them are barely surviving,” he said.

U.B. Das, the secretary of the Terai Branch of the Indian Tea Association, seemed to agree.

“Barring four of the 47 gardens in the Terai region, all have some problem or the other and are failing in their commitment to the workers, be it provident fund, gratuity or fringe benefits,” he said.

It is almost the same picture in the Dooars.

“Of the 153 gardens in the Dooars, 50-60 are in dire straits and can close down any moment,” said P.K. Bhattacharya, secretary of the Dooars Branch of Indian Tea Association. “They just about manage because of their understanding with the workers. Nothing short of government help can bail these gardens out.”

Bhattacharya said planters would take up the issue with Ramesh on June 29.

“We plan to put forth a set of proposals outlining measures that the government can take,” Bhattacharya said. “If not direct financial help, it could announce some relaxation to the tottering gardens by waiving the penalty interest on accumulated provident fund not paid by planters and extending moratoriums in banks.”

Tripartite meet
A tripartite meeting on Surendranagar tea estate was held in Jalpaiguri today. Conducted by the district magistrate, the meeting was attended by owner Rabin Paul and trade union representatives. It was decided that the few workers, who had stayed away from work since the garden’s reopening on May 17, would join their duties from tomorrow. It was also announced that Ramesh would go to the garden during his visit to the area at the end of the month.

Source: The Telegraph

Solar Light for Closed tea gardens

For the thousands of residents living in darkness in the 13 closed tea gardens of Jalpaiguri, their light appears to be at the end of the tunnel.

With electricity supplies cut off in their quarters for years by the state electricity board for non-payment of dues, candles and lanterns provide the only illumination.

But a scheme by the West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency may put an end to this.

Acting on a proposal from the state backward classes’ welfare department, the agency officials have mooted a plan to install at least two solar lights in each labour quarters of the estates where BPL members reside.

“We have worked on the proposal and decided to extend solar energy lighting to the garden quarters,” S.P. Ganachoudhury, the director of the agency, told The Telegraph over phone from Calcutta today.

“Necessary gadgets to store solar energy and convert it to electrical energy will be fitted in the quarters, enabling residents to have two lights in each house.”

The cost for fixing these solar lights has been estimated at Rs 8,000 for each household. This will be borne equally by the department and the agency, the director said.

As a precursor to implement the proposal, the agency has already done a survey. “A list, comprising names of the 13,000-odd families in these tea estates, has been made,” he said.

“We had engaged a Siliguri-based NGO for the work. It has submitted a report to us. Decision has been taken to install lights in 5,000 quarters in the first phase and then go for the rest. The work is expected to start post-monsoon.”

While this lighting facility will be provided free to workers of the closed gardens, the agency has decided to launch gas-run generators, yielding around 100 kw power each in two market places located in the brew belt.

“We have thought of using tea shrubs and other vegetation as raw material,” the agency officials said. “These materials will be passed through a gasifier to make a combustible gas consisting of hydrogen and methane. This gas, in turn, will be used to run the generator to produce electricity attached to a local grid in market areas. We have received proposals for eight sites . Of these, two will be selected.”

But the electricity will be charged from the subscribers. “This is a revenue-generating scheme. People taking connections will have to pay ,” they said.

Source: The Telegraph

Jairam Ramesh, The Union minister of state for commerce and industry, expresses feeling of dissatisfaction with the West Bengal government's action to reopen closed tea gardens in comparison to Kerala's drive for the same.

“Though we have CPM governments in both the states, it is surprising that only one of the 14 closed gardens of Bengal has reopened in the past one month, whereas in Kerala, five of the 17 closed gardens have started functioning within the same time span,” Ramesh told The Telegraph over phone from Delhi today.

“On July 17, eight more gardens are likely to reopen in Kerala,” he added.

Ramesh said the delay in Bengal was at variance with the progressive attitude adopted by the government here. “Representatives of the government speak so much of industrialisation and are even showing progress in some cases. But the unprecedented delay in persuading owners or prospective buyers to reopen the gardens has left us wondering about the contradiction,” he said.

The minister will be in Jalpaiguri on June 29 aiming to reopen three closed estates — Samsing, Bamandanga-Tondu and Redbank (see chart).

“We had decided at a meeting in Calcutta last month that we would be in Jalpaiguri to reopen the gardens. Before that, I would be in Calcutta on June 14-15 to review the situation with tea board officials,” Ramesh said. “It seems that entrepreneurs in Bengal could not be motivated like their colleagues in Kerala.”

This is the second time that Ramesh has decided to come down from Delhi to reopen closed gardens in the Dooars. On his first visit, on May 17, he was asked by the chief secretary of the state to shelve his plan of accompanying the owner of the closed Surendranagar Tea Estate to the garden for its reopening in the face of a possible law and order threat.

The owner, Rabin Paul, however, succeeded in reopening the garden on the scheduled date. Among the 14 gardens in Bengal that have been closed since 2002, Surendranagar is the only one that is currently functioning.

The minister’s plans for the June 29 visit has prompted a flurry of activities at the tea board office in Calcutta.

“We have already held a number of meetings and will meet bankers, owners and other stakeholders of some of the closed gardens tomorrow,” Basudeb Banerjee, the chairman of the tea board, said over phone from Calcutta.

Ramesh added that Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee would accompany him for the formal launch of the Special Purpose Tea Fund in north Bengal. The programme is likely to be held at the auction centre in Jalpaiguri on June 29.

Banerjee said initially the special purpose fund would be disbursed among “eligible planters from Assam and north Bengal” before the focus shifts to estate owners in south India.

“It would be launched in Guwahati on June 25 and in Jalpaiguri on June 29. So far, we have received 256 applications from across the country,” he added.

At the programme in Jalpaiguri, agreements would be signed between some of the planters from north Bengal who have applied for the special funds and the tea board, Banerjee said.

While Ramesh sounded confident about his plan of reopening the three closed gardens during his visit to Jalpaiguri, Paul, who also owns Redbank tea estate, remained non-committal.

“We have received a letter from the minister asking us to reopen Redbank, but we are yet to decide on the issue as there are some pending problems at the garden,” Paul said from Calcutta.

Source: The Telegraph

Nalsa Tea Garden Report submitted to PM

A report submitted to the Prime Minister and the Chief Justice of India recently says that “state-based infrastructure has failed to support the income-less (garden) workers” of the Dooars.

The study by the National Legal Services Authority was referring to the “mismanagement in distribution of job cards and old age pensions and implementation of the 100-days-work scheme” in the closed tea estates, where 571 workers have died in the past 15 months.

The report also states that the starvation in the gardens was mainly due to “unemployment, absence of alternative income opportunities and limited access to social justice measures.

The survey comes at a time when the Bengal government has been claiming that the deaths in closed tea gardens is at par with the state average and had nothing to do with starvation.

Sreerupa Mitra Chaudhury, the national adviser to Nalsa, who submitted the report in Delhi last week, said: “We have conducted public hearings in Siliguri and also in the closed tea gardens, where hundreds of workers and residents made their submissions before our counsels.”

“Whatever facts and figures we have found from the hearings and during field investigations have been included in the report,” Mitra Chaudhury said over phone from Sikkim.

The report points out that women in these gardens are often compelled to take up exploitative tasks to avoid starvation. Added to this is the problem of trafficking.

On medical care, Nalsa’s national adviser said common support systems like ambulances for pregnant women and emergency drugs for snake bites, malaria and tuberculosis were absent, especially in the wake of the closure of garden hospitals.

The investigation also revealed poor and minimal supply of medicines and doctors. With the situation worsening in the brew belt every day, workers and even some labour leaders have indicated in their submissions the erosion of faith in trade unions.

Mitra Chaudhury has cited absence of free and competent legal aid and legal literacy. The National Legal Literacy Mission, aimed at community-based education of legal rights, has not been implemented in the gardens.

The report does not stop with the stark reality. It also suggests measures.

“We have recommended criminal proceedings against defaulting garden owners, cancellation of their lease, rescinding ownership to buildings and infrastructure raised on leased garden land and using the same as social infrastructure for residents,” the legal adviser said.

Other suggestions include development of rehabilitation strategies for residents and speedy implementation of packages announced by the Union commerce and industry ministry.

A nine-member all-women delegation from Nalsa will visit the closed gardens on June 25. The national adviser, who refused to reveal the names, said: “They hold eminent positions in the government and the judiciary and are decision makers.”

Source: The Telegraph

Dooars Tea Kids get help from United Kingdom

Alipurduar: To Sudipto Sarkar, New Land Tea Estate was second home.

A software engineer based in London, Sarkar feels it is time now for him to give back to the Dooars what it had once showered on him: lots of fun-filled days.

So when he saw articles on the starving garden children, Sarkar decided to do something that would bring back the smiles on their faces. He donated Rs 1 lakh. And the beneficiaries were the students of the closed and abandoned gardens. Incidentally, New Land, 65 km from here, is still open.

Sarkar’s maternal uncle, Kamal Gun said a few weeks ago the 35-year-old engineer had contacted him over phone from London. “He expressed the desire to do something specific and we picked on students who have passed this year’s Madhyamik and Higher Secondary examinations,” Gun said.

A clerk with the Birpara state general hospital, Gun said it took him only a few days to draw up a list of beneficiaries. “We concentrated on Ramjhora, Dheklapara, Kanthalguri, Red Bank and Chamurchi.”

Yesterday, at a programme organised at Birpara Mahabir Hindi High School, textbooks were distributed to 156 students who have passed Madhyamik this year and Rs 500 was given to each of the 18 students as admission fee for studying in colleges. The books and cash were handed over by Joachim Buxla, MP, Alipurduar and Kumari Kujur, the local MLA.

After the distribution Gun called his nephew last evening and told him that many more students needed help but could not be covered. “He said he will send more money soon,” Gun said.

Gun explained that Sarkar’s father was a senior engineer with ONGC and was posted in many different countries. “My sister Malati and her son Sudipto spent several years with us at New Land tea estate where our father was a clerk,” Gun said.

An impressed Buxla said: “This proves that the crisis in the tea industry has become an international issue. I thank the thoughtful youth on behalf of the benefactors.”

Source: The Telegraph

Death, disease and now human trafficking

The spectre of human trafficking looms over the Dooars tea gardens along with death and disease.

Acting on a tip-off last night, police rescued a group of 10 boys and two men from Dhupguri station. The boys, who hail from three different gardens in central Dooars, were being taken to Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, to work as farm hands. A middle-aged man accompanying the group was arrested.

“Based on prior information, our men were posted at the station last night. The boys were waiting for the Delhi-bound Awadh-Assam Express when they were spotted. Their movements were suspicious and when the man accompanying them could not explain what he was doing there, the entire group was brought to the police station,” said Tapas Das, the additional superintendent of police, Jalpaiguri. “During interrogation the boys insisted that their parents had permitted them to go and work at the farmhouse as shepherds.”

The arrested person, identified as Devendra Singh, claimed to be the owner of the farmhouse. “He said the parents of the boys had consented to their going with him. He also claimed to have paid advance wages to some of the guardians,” a police officer said. The cops, however, are likely to file a kidnapping case against him.

Among the rescued, Anil Oraon (14), Lovo Munda (15), Surajit Oraon (15) and Akash Oraon (14) are from Kanthalguri Tea Estate, Otua Oraon (15), Hariram Oraon (16), Budhua Kheria (17), Prakash Oraon (25), Suresham Munda (15) and Ordhar Oraon (35) from Rheabari Tea Estate, while Barful Munda (15) and Manoj Munda (18) are from Banarhat Tea Estate. Of the three gardens, Kanthalguri is closed since July 2002, while the other two are open.

Though Singh claimed he had paid money, some of the parents denied any such deal. Chera Oraon, father of Anil and a resident of Kanthalguri, said: “Since our garden is closed, we went out yesterday morning to look for work outside the garden. When we returned in the evening our sons were nowhere to be seen. We looked for them throughout the night and were going to lodge a complaint this morning when some policemen came and informed us that our children had been rescued from Dhupguri.”

According to a survey done by Dooars Jagaran, an NGO working on trafficking in the area, the trend has become more pronounced in the last few years (see chart). “At least 47 people, including women, are missing from Kanthalguri alone,” said Victor Basu, a member of the organisation.

“People are trafficked mainly to Delhi and Sikkim. While some of them land household jobs, most of them go untraced.”

Source: The Telegraph

Court decision delays tea relief

Any possible legal relief for the starving thousands of north Bengal has got stuck in a maze of court procedures.

An SOS to the Supreme Court 10 months ago by workers of closed and ailing tea gardens has done little to bring relief.

The petitioners — Paschim Banga Khet Majdoor Samiti and four other associations — had wanted the court to direct the Centre to take “effective” measures. Under the Tea Act, the central government can take over ailing and closed gardens.

In August last year the apex court issued notices to the Centre, the Tea Board of India and several tea growing states, including Bengal. Of the 14 respondents, many are yet to receive the notice because of which the case cannot be listed for hearing.

Whatever the reason, the delay is costing the tea workers dear. Matters have come to such a state in Bengal that at least one worker is dying every day in the gardens of the Dooars.

A survey conducted recently by the Jalpaiguri health department in 14 closed estates revealed that 571 people have died between January 1,2006 and March 31, 2007. Of them 409 were below 60, the national average life span. More than 17,000 workers in 18 tea gardens of north Bengal are yet to get Rs 366 million as dues. The minimum wage for plantation workers has been fixed at Rs 53.90 a day — a daily labourers gets Rs 68 — as they are entitled to subsidised rations, safe drinking water, free electricity, medical, housing and other facilities. But none of these facilities are available in the 13 (one reopened recently) closed estates now.

The position is not much brighter in the other states, which include Assam, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Karnataka and Uttarakhand. Several owners have abandoned their gardens without paying wages and statutory dues.

The petitioners had said the Centre, the Tea Board, the provident fund commissioner and the gratuity controller were duty bound to protect the interests of the workers under the provisions of the Employees Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 1952.

Source: The Telegraph

WB Govt.'s failed promises to tea garden workers

Two months after Asim Dasgupta’s visit and it is almost time for the progress report.

The Bengal finance minister had sanctioned Rs 16 crore to the Jalpaiguri district administration while visiting the closed gardens of the Dooars on April 3.

Along with funds for the quarter ending in June had come a bunch of promises — doctors for every tea estate, several financial schemes and alternative means of livelihood. “Not only that, health staff attached to the gardens before they closed down will be recalled to provide better healthcare to workers,” the minister had said.

But even after 571 deaths, the picture remains the same. “Only two doctors responded to our advertisement,” said Banamali Roy, the sabhadhipati of Jalpaiguri Zilla Parishad.

“Not only that, not a single health worker, who had served in these gardens earlier, turned up,” said Bhusan Chakraborty, the chief medical officer of health, Jalpaiguri.

Most of the workers of these closed estates, however, had not taken Dasgupta’s sops seriously. “We never really expected anything to happen. There was a mobile van earlier, which used to carry patients to hospital. For the past two-three months, that service, too, has been discontinued,” said Gopal Das, a worker of Sikarpur and Bhandapur Tea Estate.

Biplab Sarkar, a staff member of the Bharnobari tea estate, was more positive. He said a health sub-centre has come up in his garden though the supply of medicine is erratic.

Sania Bhumij, the unit secretary of the Citu-affiliated Cha Bagan Mazdoor Union at the Raipur tea estate, said the frequency of visits by the mobile medical team has increased. “Now it is four days a week, earlier it was two. But even now we don’t have an ambulance in our garden to carry patients to Jalpaiguri, located 10 km away.”

Some of Dasgupta’s other promises that are yet to come true include agriculture or multi-cropping on the 2,200 acres of unused land of the estates. “We had sent a proposal to start cultivation of pulses, black gram, corn and paddy on 800 acres,” said Sarthak Burma, the additional director of agriculture in north Bengal. “But it has not yet been sanctioned.”

Distribution of relief in the form of foodgrain and cash, however, is on. “We are always trying our best to disburse funds on a regular basis,” said Md Nasim, the joint labour commissioner posted in Siliguri.

Source: The Telegraph

Ramjhora Tea Estate workers protest

Alipurduar: Workers of the Ramjhora tea estate today blocked the state highway between Birpara and Pagli Bhutan for seven hours, demanding compensation for the havoc wreaked by a wild elephant.

The blockade was set up on Lankapara Road after an elephant from the Lankapara forest strayed into the Jogi line of the closed estate on Sunday night, fatally injuring Bandhan Gosai (61) and ransacking the huts. Gosai died last night while being taken to hospital.

The garden workers also gheraoed forest officials, including the range officer of Madarihat. After a six-hour discussion, the range officer paid Rs 25,000 on spot (half the compensation meant for Gosai’s family) and asked the workers to prepare a list of those whose huts have been damaged. “We have already paid half the money to Gosai’s family and will also repair the damaged huts,” said Manindra Biswas, the divisional forest officer of Cooch Behar.

Around 110 km from here, a herd of 35 elephants from the Diana forest entered Kalikhola village in the Nagracata police station area yesterday and uprooted 200 betel nut trees and damaged a field of paddy, reports our correspondent from Jaigaon.

Source: The Telegraph

Tea garden deaths in Jalpaiguri gardens

At least one person dies every day in Jalpaiguri’s closed tea gardens where workers have been battling poverty and hopelessness for the past five years.

The state government has for the first time admitted the humanitarian crisis, overshadowed by the Singur-Nandigram land wars and West Midnapore starvation scandals.

But the government refuses to admit either starvation or “malnutrition” — the euphemism it uses in West Midnapore — in the gardens where, unofficial reports say, at least 3,000 have died since the 2002 closure spree.

A survey in April across the 14 closed gardens (Surendranagar has reopened since then) found that 571 people had died in the 15 months ending March 31 this year. Of them, 409 were below 60, the national average life span.

But the chief medical officer of health (Jalpaiguri), Bhusan Chakraborty, steered clear of the word “malnutrition”. He cited a host of reasons for the deaths: over 250 had died of heart diseases and stroke, and scores of others from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cirrhosis of liver, hepatitis, TB, high fever, meningitis, malaria, cancer and septicaemia.

But doctors said many of these can be brought on by starvation or aggravated to the point where they can lead to death.

“Malnutrition lowers immunity; the body loses its efficiency in fighting infections. Studies have revealed that malnutrition is a big factor in TB,” said Dr Milan Chhetri of Apollo Gleneagles Hospital, Calcutta.

Some of the findings left Sharmishtha Biswas, coordinator of Uttaron, a workers’ facilitation centre at Birpara that analysed the figures, “astounded”.

The dead include 46 under-10 children — three every month. “Some 465 people — 80 per cent of the total — died at home and only 106 in hospitals and health centres or on the way to hospitals,” one of the analysts said.

Workers said they couldn’t afford the long journey to hospitals and the ambulance service was non-functional. Only three of Kanthalguri’s 53 went to hospitals. At Bhornabari, all 79 died in their homes.

Anuradha Talwar, adviser to the food commissioner of the Supreme Court, has received a copy of the survey results. She said from Calcutta she would take it up with the Centre and the state.

During a visit to one of the closed gardens, Ramjhora, in March this year, governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi was appalled at the poverty and squalor he saw. Gandhi had told junior PWD minister Manohar Tirkey he just had to look at the sick children to find proof of malnutrition.

Some 17,000 labourers are jobless in the 13 gardens. The closures began in 1998 with a slump in tea prices. Some gardens reopened but in 2002, about 30 shut down again. In 2003, reports of starvation deaths started coming in.

By Avijit Sinha

Source: The Telegraph

Over 100 permanent workers of Redbank Tea Estate in Banarhat, Jalpaiguri, have joined the adjacent garden of Surendranagar as casual labourers, sparking a row between Citu and Intuc-affiliated unions.

The workers come from Salboni, a division of the Redbank tea estate with 150 hectares of plantation. This morning, an altercation broke out between the two unions when members of the Citu-affiliated operations and maintenance committee (OMC) of Redbank went to the Salboni division to dissuade the labourers from going over to Surendranagar.

“When we went there, a few toughs, whom we suspect to be accomplices of the owner of Surendranagar, threatened us,” said Debabrata Pal, a member of the OMC. “We protested but turned back to avoid any law and order problem. We consider this to be a plot by the owner to create a rift among Redbank workers.”

Both the gardens are owned by Rabin Paul. But while Paul has regained control of Surendranagar after almost four years, Redbank is still run by an OMC. Redbank has gone into liquidation from March 28 this year and the OMC members put the blame for the situation on the “irresponsible attitude” of Paul towards the garden.

Leaders of the Intuc-affiliated National Union of Plantation Workers (NUPW), which enjoys the support of the workers of Surendranagar, said labourers are increasingly preferring them over the Citu. “Of the 113 permanent workers of Salboni, more than 100 are with us now,” said Pradip Mullick of NUPW. “Instead of plucking tealeaves and handing them over to the Citu-dominated OMC at Redbank, they prefer to work as casual workers at Surendranagar.”

In total, there are over 800 workers at Redbank.

The NUPW leader also claimed that it was Citu supporters who had tried to create trouble this morning. “But the workers thwarted their ploy,” Mullick said.

The workers in question said they had switched gardens on their own. “We used to get around Rs 15 to Rs 20 per day from the OMC for plucking tealeaves at Salboni, but at Surendranagar we are earning Rs 53.90 every day even as casual labourers,” said one of those who have crossed over.

Source: The Telegraph

More Tea garden deaths

Five persons have died of malnutrition and related diseases in the past 10 days in the Mujnai tea estate, 50 km from here.

Malati Munda, 58, who died this morning, was suffering from anaemia.

“For the past one week, she was running a high temperature. I told her to go to the Madarihat block hospital. She came to me this morning, too, but was very weak. She died after she returned home,” said Ashish Biswas, the health assistant of the garden hospital. Biswas is in charge of the hospital, which has been without a doctor since 2004. Mujnai is located in the Madarihat block of Jalpaiguri.

Mujnai was declared a locked out estate on Tuesday. While the management blamed interference from outsiders for its decision, workers alleged that they are yet to get around two months of wages and four-and-a-half months’ ration. Retired workers like Malati had not got their provident funds and other dues.

A tripartite meeting was supposed to be held at the office of the deputy labour commissioner of Jalpaiguri today, but it has been deferred to Monday.

Malati, however, is not the only one, her neighbours alleged, to have died of malnutrition. Budhni Malahi, Jhalo Naik, Etwari Oraon and Ghashi Bandhan went without a square meal, sometimes for as long as 20 days, before they died. Biswas, however, denied that the deaths were from starvation “I knew them all and had attended to them at some time or the other. The deaths were from malnutrition and absence of proper medical facilities,” said Biswas.

The secretary of the Birpara branch of the Intuc, Nakul Sonat, alleged that despite the management’s promise that the essential services in the garden would be in place during lockout, the water supply has been cut off.

Chief adviser to the tea garden N.N. Chakraborty admitted that essential services had been promised to workers.

“I am not sure why they are not getting them. I will definitely look into the matter,” Chakraborty said. Earlier, the garden had remained shut from January 1, 2002 to October 10, 2004.

Both the block development officer of Madarihat, T. Lama, as well as the Jalpaiguri chief medical officer of health, Bhusan Chakraborty admitted that they were unaware of the garden’s closure.

Source: The Telegraph