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