Govt. deadline to owners of closed tea gardens

The Centre has set a deadline of August 31 for the owners of closed tea gardens in Jalpaiguri.

They have to either reopen the gardens or find prospective owners to run them by that date, failing which the Centre will take them over, said Union minister of state for commerce and industry Jairam Ramesh in Calcutta today.

The Centre enjoys that power under Sections 16 (D) and 16 (E) of the Tea Act.

Ramesh was there to discuss the issue with state commerce and industry minister Nirupam Sen and finance minister Asim Dasgupta.

Already, there have been 20 offers from interested people claimed Dasgupta. Currently there are 13 closed gardens in the Dooars. A committee under the chairmanship of an additional secretary of the Union commerce ministry will decide on the prospective buyers. The reopened gardens will enjoy an exemption on cess and agricultural tax till 2009. However, till they reopen, workers of these gardens will be provided with free foodgrain, medicines, drinking water facilities in addition to an allowance of Rs 750 per month by the state government, said Dasgupta.

Earlier, the junior minister had visited IIT Kharagpur, 130km from Calcutta. He said the Centre has decided to take IIT help to develop tea technology.

Ramesh said IIT would set up a tea engineering research centre for which the tea and coffee boards were providing Rs 16 crore and Rs 3 crore respectively.

IIT Kharagpur is already researching on tea and has turned a 15-acre patch of barren land in Goali, 3km from Kharagpur, into a garden.

Source: The Telegraph

Acquisition of closed tea gardens

A standing committee on commerce and industry of the Bengal Assembly has recommended the acquisition of closed gardens of the Dooars under Section 16 (D) and 16 (E) of the Tea Amendment Act, 1953.

A report placed by the panel — standing committees have representatives from all parties — in the House today advises the state government to extend all possible support to the Government of India in the takeover process.

Members of the committee will meet Speaker Hashim Abdul Halim with their recommendation first, after which they plan to leave for Delhi to discuss the issue with the Union minister of state for commerce and industry, Jairam Ramesh.

“We will first meet the Speaker for his consent. As soon as we receive the green signal, we will leave for Delhi. We will also visit the tea gardens for on-the-spot inquiries,” said Congress MLA and chairman of the committee Sudip Bandopadhyay.

He added: “Interaction between the state and the Centre is necessary. They must interact on issues related to workers of closed tea gardens.”

According to the committee’s report, 18,000 tea garden workers of 13 closed tea gardens have been rendered jobless. It also mentions a study conducted by the Jalpaiguri health administration, which said over 550 workers have died in the last 15 months in the closed gardens.

The recommendations follow close on the heels of the Tea Board of India’s ultimatum to owners of closed gardens, who have been issued the open-or-perish diktat. They can either open the gardens and avail of the “package that includes waivers and sharing of interests designed to ease their liabilities or face legislative measures”, Ramesh had said almost two weeks ago.

At the same time, the junior commerce minister had appealed to chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to rein in “local-level leaders of a Left trade union to end the crisis in the tea industry”.

Today’s report also alleged misappropriation of funds sanctioned by the state for the gardens.

“The state government had sanctioned Rs 33 crore in the last financial year for the starving workers. But we found out that the funds have not reached the workers. For this, we have recommended proper monitoring, supervision and vigilance on the part of the state government so that such misappropriation can be avoided,” said Bandopadhyay.

Source: The Telegraph

Duncans charged for cutting down tea wages

Jaigaon: The Congress-affiliated National Union of Plantation Workers (NUPW) has alleged that provident fund deductions from the wages of workers have been reduced in 14 tea gardens owned by Duncans across the Dooars, Terai and the hills.

“During the months of May and June the company has deducted 10 per cent of the workers’ wages as provident fund instead of the regulation 12 per cent. This means they will get far less than their statutory dues at the time of retirement. I have faxed a complaint to the central and regional provident fund commissioners in Delhi and Jalpaiguri respectively about the discrepancy,” said Pravat Mukherjee, the general secretary of the NUPW.

A worker of the Duncans’ Killott tea garden, Suraj Thapa, said if a person works for 26 days a month his wages, including the food concession, comes to around Rs 1,472.

“If 12 per cent is deducted, the employee’s share comes to Rs 177 and with a matching contribution from the employer is supposed to deposit Rs 354 to the provident fund account each month. However, at 10 per cent, the total amount comes to Rs 294, which is Rs 60 less than the actual amount,” Thapa said. Observers feel the cumulative difference for the 30,000 workers of Duncans would amount to Rs 18 lakh per month.

N.C. Poddar, the regional provident fund commissioner-II, told The Telegraph at his office in Jalpaiguri that the discrepancy had already come to his notice and he had informed the central provident fund commissioner’s office in Delhi about the development a fortnight ago. He also confirmed that Mukherjee had met him with workers from the Bagrakote garden of Duncans last Monday with a complaint on the issue.

“I have forwarded the complaint to our Delhi office,” Poddar said.

The secretary of the Dooars Branch Indian Tea Association, Prabir Bhattacharjee, said it was statutory for all tea companies to deduct 12 per cent from the workers’ wages. “There has been no amendment of the laws lowering the percentage,” Bhattacharjee said.

An executive of Duncans, K.K. Mehra, when contacted on his mobile phone said he had nothing to say on the issue. “You can contact the regional provident fund commissioner in Jalpaiguri,” Mehra said.

Source: The Telegraph

Siliguri Tea Auction sales crop down

Major corporate buyers of tea are shying away from the Siliguri Tea Auction Centre, resulting in a slump in volume of sale and price of tea produced in the Dooars.

For reasons variously interpreted and explained, cumulative buying by big players like Hindustan Unilever Ltd (formerly Hindustan Lever Ltd), Duncans, Eveready and Godfrey Phillips India Ltd has registered a sharp fall in recent times.

A look at the figures available with the centre shows that Hindustan Unilever, which used to buy the lion’s share of the auction centre’s tea, has reduced its purchase by more than three times between 1999-2000 and 2006-2007.

Industry sources said the FMCG major did not lift any tea from the Siliguri auction centre in the first quarter of this financial year. “This month, they have made a few purchases, but that is negligible compared to the amounts they used to buy about a decade ago,” a Siliguri-based broker said.

“Hindustan Unilever and other institutional buyers form our core business,” said S.K. Saria, chairman, Siliguri Tea Auction Committee (Stac). “It definitely is a setback for us when they do not participate in the auctions. Pricing of tea is affected the most because their presence helps prices go up.”

Former Stac chairman Ravi Agarwal, who is a member of the Siliguri Tea Traders’ Association, said in the absence of the big players, other buyers, too, are sticking to a wait-and-watch policy, hoping for prices to fall further. “They are buying only the tea that is strictly on demand and are not stocking up,” he added.

Figures show that after average price of tea touched a high of Rs 71.42 per kg in 1999-2000, it has remained around Rs 60 per kg for most of the intervening period, finishing at Rs 64.78 per kg in 2006-07. Total sale through auction has also remained more or less the same, despite an increase in tea production.

No one is quite sure why the Big Four are steering clear of the Siliguri auction centre. Some industry sources claim that there has been a decrease in the market share of these companies, while other say the big players are sourcing their tea from the Guwahati and Calcutta centres.

P.K. Bhattacharya, secretary, Dooars Branch of the Indian Tea Association, said it is not unlikely that the institutional buyers are resorting to private, or out of auction, sale.

Industry sources here said they are not in favour of private sales because in that case planters are less likely to get the best price for their tea.

M.C. Lohia, from the senior management of Tea Champagne, said competition from local entrepreneurs could be one reason. “Of late, there has been a surge in the number of local blenders who have launched their own brands,” he said. “They are eating into the market share of the larger companies.”

A spokesperson for Hindustan Unilever, however, said this was not so. “Since small and big players operate in different markets, there is little chance of one impacting the other,” he said over phone.

About sourcing, the spokesperson wrote to The Telegraph in an email that the company uses “all the available marketing channels, which include auction centres”. He said the company’s sourcing strategy takes into account “consumer preferences across domestic and export markets, blend recipes and the mix of (Unilever’s) portfolio”.

However, the spokesperson refused to divulge any details about the amount of tea Hindustan Unilever procures from different sources.

Source: The Telegraph

New owner for Chamurchi Tea Estate

Chamurchi Tea Estate is expected to have a new owner soon.

Located in the Dhupguri block, nearly 100km from here, the garden, with 1,047 workers, was abandoned in 2001.

“We have received a letter from Sushila Kejriwal, owner of Chamurchi Tea Estate,” said G. Boriah, the director (tea development) of the tea board, over phone from Calcutta today. “She has mentioned that Om Prakash Mal, a well known face in the state’s jute industry, has signed an agreement with her, consenting to take over the garden.”

Kejriwal has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Mal last week. The news comes within a week of the tea board’s ultimatum to owners of closed gardens, giving them a month’s time to reopen and avail of the financial assistance, or else face acquisition.

The letter is the first such to reach the tea board ever since the deadline was notified by the board, Boriah said.

The owner, who represents Chamurchi Agro (India) Ltd, when contacted in Calcutta, refused to give details on Mal. “It’s true I have signed an agreement with a new investor capable of resuming activities at the garden,” Kejriwal said from Calcutta. “As the property is in liquidation, we need to clear some technicalities and will seek advice from the tea board.”

She further said the outstanding liabilities of the workers would be borne by the new owner. “These issues have already been sorted out. As soon as the technicalities are over, he will restart the garden,” she said.

Trade union leaders, however, are wary of the development.

“As soon as the financial package was declared, an entrepreneur was found within a week,” Samir Roy, convener of the Defence Committee of Plantation Workers’ Rights, said. “Both the Centre and state should check the track record of these new buyers.”

Chitta Dey, the convener of the Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers, echoed him.
Source: The Telegraph

Tax cut on Siliguri Tea Auction

The Bengal government has reduced Central Sales Tax (CST) at the Siliguri Tea Auction Centre, but refused to grant a complete waiver.

“The state government has now fixed the CST at one per cent instead of the earlier two per cent with retrospective effect from April 1, 2007,” S.K. Saria, the chairman of the Siliguri Tea Auction Committee, told today.

“After North Bengal Tea Auction Centre in Jalpaiguri was granted a complete waiver of CST last April, we requested the government for a similar waiver at our centre,” Saria said. He added that the reduction would encourage more buyers from outside the state to buy tea from the Siliguri auction centre.

Industry experts believe the reduction will encourage above the board trading with proper documents. Traders are said to resort to trading on the sly to evade CST.

Source: The Telegraph

Good News for Indian Closed tea gardens

The Tea Board of India has issued an open-or-perish diktat to owners of 14 closed gardens of Bengal.

At a meeting convened in Calcutta yesterday, tea board officials made it clear that gardens which fail to reopen within a month will be acquired by the Centre before being handed over to prospective entrepreneurs.

“They were told that they could accept the package that includes waivers and sharing of interests designed to ease their liabilities, or face legislative measures,” Jairam Ramesh, the Union minister of state for commerce and industry, told The Telegraph over phone from Delhi today. “The board officials have given the details of the scheme to the owners of closed tea estates as well as their bankers.”

The minister said a notification declaring the ultimatum — that in case the owners fail to reopen their estates within the next one month, the Centre would acquire them under Sections 16 (D) and (E) of the Tea Act — would be issued within a day or two.

Section 16 (D) states that the central government can take over the management of a tea estate and give it to any other entrepreneur after an inquiry into its workings. Under Section 16 (E), the Union government may do the same but without an inquiry, if the garden remains closed for three months or more.

Commerce ministry sources revealed that if the legislations are invoked after a month, discussions would be held with the state government to ensure that the new owners have no problem in running the gardens.

Closed garden owners admitted that the tea board has issued an ultimatum. “The officials have specifically told us that as the package awaits response from our side now, we must open our gardens within a month or else the government would resort to the Tea Act,” said Rabin Paul, the owner of the closed Redbank tea estate.

He was, however, quick to harp on some of the problems that were allegedly stopping many owners from reopening their estates. “The labour force remains the same as it was when the crisis started in 2000. While we cannot retrench anybody, the production of leaves has come down drastically. It is tough to strike a balance between income and expenditure, which I feel, is creating the mess,” said Paul.

Trade union leaders, however, have welcomed the decision. “This proves that the Centre is desperate to open the estates,” said Samir Roy, the general secretary of the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, which is affiliated to the West Bengal Cha Majdoor Sabha and is close to the Congress. “We welcome the move and hope that all the gardens will reopen within a short time.”

Source: The Telegraph