Fate of closed tea gardens to be decided

Jan. 29: Officials of the Jalpaiguri district administration and Bengal government will meet in the third week of February to decide on the fate of the closed tea gardens of Kanthalguri and Ramjhora and their 8,000-odd impoverished residents.

The meting was fixed after the district administration received seven applications from entrepreneurs and companies expressing interest in acquiring the gardens, which have been shut for six years.

“We had advertised in newspapers and had sought bids from interested parties,” said Jalpaiguri district magistrate R. Ranjit. “This was followed by submission of applications, some of which contain joint proposals for both gardens. We plan to meet next month, open the bids and decide on them.”

Ranjit said there were “five proposals for Kanthalguri and two for Ramjhora”. The extended deadline for submitting bids was January 15.

In the past six years, the state government had made repeated attempts to reopen the estates but failed before cancelling the leases.

Finally, upon the insistence of Union minister of state of commerce and industry, Jairam Ramesh, it was decided that the state government would take the responsibility of finding new owners for Ramjhora and Kanthalguri while the Centre would take care of the remaining 11 closed gardens in the Dooars.

B.L. Meena, the divisional commissioner of Jalpaiguri, said senior officials from the state land and land reforms department would attend the meeting in February since “the leases of both the gardens stand cancelled”.

“We will evaluate the bids and finalise the companies or persons to whom the gardens can be handed over,” Meena added.

The district magistrate said: “We are yet to fix the modalities of the meeting. But there is a possibility that those who have bid for the gardens or their representatives will be called for an interview before any decision is taken.”

Power restored

Power supply to Dalsinghpara Tea Estate has resumed, reports our Jaigaon correspondent. The supply was disconnected on January 3 following non-payment of bills. Today, the management cleared one-third of the dues.

Source: The Telegraph

Talwar tips for Mujnai Tea Estate

Alipurduar, Jan. 28: Workers of the abandoned Mujnai Tea Estate will focus on off-season maintenance of bushes from tomorrow to get fresh leaves in the coming season. The work includes pruning and weeding and digging new drains.

The decision was taken at a meeting called by Bagan Bachao Committee, a body formed by the workers of Mujnai, after a discussion with Anuradha Talwar, the president of the Pashchim Banga Khet Majur Committee.

The management of Mujnai had abandoned the garden on November 22, leaving 962 workers in the lurch. Despite several meetings the impasse could not be solved. The workers have not received their wages for the last three months and ration for 22 fortnights.

The absence of the management also affected maintenance of the bushes.

“If the maintenance work does not start now, the workers will not get fresh leaves in the next season, which begins around mid-March. On the other hand, if the bushes yield good leaves, the workers can earn money by selling them,” Talwar told The Telegraph over telephone from Mujnai, 65km from here.

Talwar said she had advised the workers to place four demands to the administration.

Every meeting between the administration and the owner must be organised in the garden, so that the workers get to know the decision and are not “misguided” by trade union leaders.

When the management does come back to run the garden, it must openly declare the steps it will take for the development of the garden.

If the workers invest their money earned from selling leaves in the garden, as it happens in Shikarpur, the management has to pay the amount back to them.

Finally, the workers should submit a memorandum to the assistant labour commissioner, demanding that the garden be declared closed until the management returns so that they could get government relief.

Ashish Biswas, the convener of the Bagan Bachao Committee, said the workers would start maintenance from tomorrow. They would place the demands to the administration by the end of this week.

“We cannot prune tea bushes under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme which safeguards 100 days of work. If that was made possible, we would have benefited a lot,” Biswas said.

Managers flee from tea garden

Jaigaon: The manager and three senior managerial employees of Dalsinghpara Tea Estate have fled the garden, apparently on the pretext of going to fetch cash to pay the workers their last month’s dues.

The Calcutta-based Octavius Tea and Industries, which owns Dalsinghpara, has also pulled out the managers of two of its other estates in the Dooars. The managers of Dalmore and Sylee have left under similar circumstances.

The workers of Dalsinghpara said the management had announced on January 5 that the dues chalked up in the fortnight between December 13 and 26 would be paid soon. “Later, on the same day, they announced that the payment would be made on January 12,” said a worker.

The management put up a notice on January 14 saying the payment would be made between January 21 and 25. The manager and his subordinates left the garden on the last day.

Currently, the garden is without electricity: the supply has been cut because of non-payment of past bills. As a result, the workers are not being able to run the pumps and are facing an acute drinking water scarcity.

Prabhat Mukherjee, the general secretary of the Intuc-affiliated National Union of Plantation Workers, said Octavius Tea and Industries had taken over Dalsinghpara, Dalmore, Sylee and Nayasylee gardens in June, 2004 after signing an agreement with the Bengal labour department.

“They have not fulfilled a single promise made in the agreement, including payment of the workers’ dues,” Mukherjee said.

“Dalsinghpara has had 15 managers in three-and-a-half years. The current manager is now saying that he will not return to the garden till the owner sends him funds to make the payments,” Mukherjee added.

P.K. Chatterjee, the secretary of the Dooars Branch of the Indian Tea Association, said he was totally in the dark about the chain of events.

Jalpaiguri district magistrate R. Ranjit said the management had agreed to clear one-third of the electricity bills by January 29. “If they do not pay up as promised, we will take action, but I have not heard that the manager had abandoned the garden. I will look into this.”

The Center wants more of orthodox tea variety

The Center wants tea gardens in Bengal to come out of the red by producing more orthodox varieties.

The proposed tea park in Siliguri will also help the gardens to increase exports and improve financial health, according to Jairam Ramesh, the Union minister of state for commerce.

“Tea exports from Bengal is a big zero if we leave out production from Darjeeling. Even the contribution of this hill region to the country’s total exports (of the beverage) is just 1 per cent,” Ramesh said

There are 312 gardens in the state, of which only 13 are closed. However, there are many financially weak gardens whose problems need to be addressed at the earliest.

Ramesh said the government was considering a tea park in the state to provide avenues for creating value added products and increasing exports.

The government will encourage the production of orthodox varieties more than CTCs, or curled-torn-crushed varieties. Orthodox varieties now make up just 8 per cent of total exports.

“There is an increasing demand for orthodox tea globally and Bengal can take a cue from changing preferences of consumers of the beverage and create a niche for itself,” Ramesh said.

Officials said the tea park would be set up at an initial cost of Rs 20 crore by the Tea Board and the state government.

Ramesh said this could help the gardens, which are not in a financial sound situation, to be competitive.

He said the Darjeeling brand also needed to go in for a makeover or it would face problems in the future.

“No value addition for Darjeeling tea takes place in India. All the value addition is done in Germany. This has to be changed,” the minister said.

A Cup that Cheers!!

Among one of my most ardent secret desires has been this half-baked dream of running a small tea shop on a nippy yet picturesque hill station. I'd love to brew a variety of teas and served not in grubby glass tumblers, but filigreed cups and saucers, with home-made cookies and savories. Somehow I think it is impossible to separate the powerful bohemian association I have had with a cup of steaming tea.

If I were playing a game of word association and someone was to ask me to conjure up a lot of cheer, I would immediately think of a cup of tea. You might drink tea the oriental, the continental or simply the Asian way, but no matter how you do it, a cup of tea always brings a smile to people's faces and a sense of comfort that spreads like a soft warm glow from within. I often wonder how the dark dried leaves of a diminutive shrub can hold such great potential to conjure up so much magic in people's minds. But the truth is that poets, writers and thinkers have poured out their angst on paper with inspiration from little else but endless cups of tea.

I have thousands of happy tea-laced memories. The best one is that of stopping at a small hill-station in the lap of the Himalayas and having very syrupy tea in shiny and tall brass tumblers. The tea had the acrid flavor of the coal on which it was brewed and yet it seemed the perfect drink to have on a cold morning to sooth the vertigo that a winding, uphill and bumpy bus ride had given.

I do have very diverse tastes in tea. I love the gently brewed, green flavor of the perfect Darjeeling tea, served in delicate blue china and tinkling with the melody of a small spoon slowly stirring in a lump of sugar and its fresh aroma titillating the senses.

And yet I simply cannot do without my morning cup of strong ginger tea that helps me clear my head, soothes my aches and pains and gets me cracking on a fresh new day.

I don't mind the Indian masala tea which is more of milk and less of tea, brewed with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves and a couple of more spices. It has a place of pride in the tree of evolution as teas go.

Meant to tune

Then you have the myriad flavored teas that spoil you for choice and you can expect to find the variety if you were to come home for tea - there's lemon, chamomile, jasmine, peach, orange and even cinnamon - flavors that are meant to tune you to your inner harmonies.

I am not surprised that during the colonial days, tea was considered to be a princely treasure locked away in treasure chests and used sparingly as it wasn't so easily available.

It brings to mind a very funny penchant my friend's grandmother had. She would always dedicate her sorrows and anger to tea. Brought up in military traditions, she believed in control and understatement. So instead of throwing things or uttering a volley of abuses, she had chosen this least offensive path of celebrating her sulks and grief over an elaborate tea ceremony.

When upset, she would just withdraw to her room and spend a sleepless night listening to devotional songs and ring the bell for a pot of tea to be delivered to the room as early as five in the morning. For the rest of the day, her meal would be endless cups of tea and some biscuits; she did not have to say anything as the servants just knew they had to refill the pot the moment it was empty. It often took her husband a lot of effort that we billed as "tea diplomacy" to work out the thaw. When the stand-off would get over, she would revert to her one cup a day quota.

The only way to end this tea tattle is to wind up and settle down with a happy cup myself.

The Black Drink

This plant is a beloved plant. Southeastern Native Americans used the leaves to brew a highly caffeinated tea known as the Black Drink. Today, the plant is called Yaupon Holly, but long ago Creek Indians called it the “beloved plant.” The leaves were a prized commodity among all the Southeastern Native American tribes. The leaves were roasted then boiled to produce the Black Drink. The Indians consumed Black Drink much like Americans consume coffee, but with a few minor differences.

The Black Drink was served as an emetic during purification rituals that took place before councils convened or warriors went off to war or hunt. The natives believed that a physical purity led to a spiritual purity, and the Southeastern natives possessed a religious zeal for purity. Before a man could proceed with any important undertaking, he would first purify himself by purging with the Black Drink. Yaupon Holly became so closely associated with the purging ritual that botanists gave the plant the Latin name Ilex vomitoria.

Today, this plant is sold in different varieties as a landscaping shrubbery and can be found gracing the sidewalks of new developments such as offices and apartments. It grows wild in abundance around the Moundville Archeological Park, where archeologists have recovered ancient Black Drink ceremonial cups.

In 1564, the French explorer Rene Laudonniere witnessed a Native American Black Drink ceremony in what is now north Florida. He wrote: “They esteem this beverage so much that no one can drink of it ... if he has not already proven himself a warrior. Moreover this drink makes them break out in a very heavy sweat ... and they do not hunger or thirst for twenty-four hours thereafter.”

There are some accounts of the natives even using the beverage as a purgative.

Some anthropologists question whether it was the beverage or those who drank the beverage that induced the purging. Creek descendant and cultural interpreter Butch Fuller allowed me to try a cup of Black Drink. I suffered no ill effects. The beverage looked and tasted much like a cup of green tea.

The Black Drink ceremony was a solemn occasion. Special singers and dancers gathered in the village council house and performed as the Black Drink was brewed over a fire in a large, earthen pot. They would sit for hours drinking, talking and purging. As the Southeastern natives were decimated, the ceremony died.

But the name Black Drink lives on in a strange form. With the removal of the natives came the influx of whites and the snake oil salesmen. These swindlers peddled all kinds of toxic elixirs that promised to cure every disease known to that point. More often these elixirs did more harm than good.

When I was a child, my grandmother was a fan of the Black Draught elixir. Its main ingredients are casanthranal and senna. I distinctly remember her forcing spoonfuls of the vile laxative down my throat when she felt my system wasn’t running like water. Very soon it would. Today I thank my grandmother for my lack of weight control issues.

Black Draught can still be purchased, and the makers promise a movement in six to 12 hours. They must not be making it as strong as they used to because I don’t remember it taking that long. One thing is for sure: I hope to never have to drink any more Black Draught. I’m sticking with the Black Drink -- locally produced for more than 800 years.

Michael Palmer is a staff photographer for The Tuscaloosa News. He can be reached at michael.palmer@tuscaloosanews.com.

The Special Purpose Tea Fund expected soon

The Special Purpose Tea Fund is expected to be made available to planters here from next month, said M. Das Gupta, the secretary-general of the Indian Tea Association.

“Two days ago, the Tea Board, which has been constituted as a non-banking financial institution, entered into a formal agreement with four banks — Uco Bank, Vijaya Bank, United Bank of India and IDBI Bank — which have exposure to the tea industry,” said Das Gupta.

“The Board will act as the borrower,” he added. “Pending completion of documentation by way of a tripartite agreement with the banks and tea companies, disbursement of the special fund will begin as early as possible.”

Das Gupta was speaking at the 130th annual general meeting of the Terai Branch of Indian Tea Association held in Bengdubi today. Later, he told reporters that “as early as possible” meant February.

The Rs 4500-crore special fund is meant for rejuvenation and re-plantation of tea bushes on 2.12 lakh hectare of land across the country over a 15-year period. The proposal to constitute the fund was first made in 2003.

“Planters will now have to put in applications with a security pledge, which in this case is the lease certificate (all tea plantations are on leased land). If that is already pledged with a bank for an earlier loan, the company will have to obtain a no-objective certificate from the bank,” the secretary-general told the gathering at Terai Club in Bengdubi.

Das Gupta said 2008 could prove crucial for the industry as it comes to terms with the recent rise in tea prices.

“The climb has started, but there is nothing to be euphoric about,” he said. “The average tea price in 2007 was about Rs 2 higher than that of 2006. But this rise does not meaningfully address the problem of rising costs. We hope that the tea produced in the new season will sell well. We have to keep a close watch on the prices.”

Longview Tea Garden gutted in fire

Darjeeling: The production unit of one of the biggest tea gardens - Longview Tea Garden - in Darjeeling hills was gutted in fire.

The fire broke out at 3 am at the production unit in West Bengal's Kurseong sub-division.

Four fire brigades from Kurseong and Siliguri were pressed into service, but by the time they reached the spot most of the property had been destroyed.

The garden workers had also tried to control the fire, but due to the wooden architecture of the unit, fire spread rapidly.

"There were wooden floors so it easily caught fire," said Gurmit Mallik, Manager of Longview Tea Garden, Silliguri.

Fire officials said short circuit could be the cause of fire.

"There is maintenance work going on in the tea industry and maybe due to some spark that got in touch with the tea dust led to the explosion," said Bishnu Prasad Dhar, a fire brigade official.

No casualties have been reported as the unit was temporarily closed, but the management estimated that the loss to property could be over 40 million rupees.

The tea garden used to produce 700,000 kilograms of tea annually, and 1206 casual and permanent employees work in the tea garden.

More for tourists visiting Darjeeling Tea Estate

A trek trail starting at 4,000ft, a century-old bungalow, picnic on the banks of the Mahanadi and folk songs to round up the day. All this and more are being lined by the management of Goomtee Tea Estate for tourists visiting the garden, 7km from here.

The nitty-gritty of the project is yet to be worked out, but work is on at full swing to complete it at the earliest.

The 4.5km trek trail will end at Majua Tea Estate at 6,500ft. Both the gardens have the same owner.

Workers of the two gardens are likely to benefit because some of them will be recruited as guides for the trekkers and employees waiting on the tourists at the rest house in Majua and the bungalow in Goomtee. The old bungalow located above the garden factory has already been turned into Goomtee Resort.

“The motive behind starting the trekking route for tourists is to improve the socio-economic condition of residents here,” said Ashoke Kumar Maharishi, the manager of Goomtee. According to Maharishi, the bank of the Mahanadi has also been spruced up for picnickers. Wooden chairs and tables are already in place.

“The river is 3km downhill ,” said the manager.

All the fun will not be limited to the days. Cultural programmes will be arranged for tourist at night.

“Garden residents have formed clubs, which will perform folk songs and dances. This will be another avenue for income,” said Maharishi. He, however, did not divulge how the cultural troupes will be paid.

More work to be done for the tea industry

Mr Debabrata Biswas, the general secretary, All India Forward Bloc, alleged that the state government was practically doing nothing to regularize the small tea plantations and taking advantage of this apathy, the estate owners were depriving the plantation workers of all their legitimate dues.

He further said that there was no slump in tea industry with the market being steady everywhere.

“Yet the irony is that the total production of tea in India is much less than the tea being produced by a small country like Kenya. The government is not interested in reviving the tea industry. Take or instance the case of Darjeeling district. The tea industry is 150 years old. So many people are depending on it for their livelihood. Yet, there is no tea zone and the export mechanism is not as strong as it should be.
“The government instead of reviving the tea plantation is selling them to the real estate promoters. Besides, it is giving vest land for setting up small plantations and they are not being regularized and brought under the Plantation Labour Act. The owners are taking advantage of it and depriving the workers of the dues, which they as plantation workers are entitled to as per the PL Act,” he added. The Darjeeling district secretary of the AIFB, Mr Sritish Bhattacharya said that it was a known fact in the district that a move was going on behind the screen to sell out Bagdogra, Dagapur and Nischintapur tea plantations to the Realtors.

Tea Garden Festival at Naxalbari

At a time when 14 tea estates in north Bengal have been closed down for more than a year and others are lying in a moribund state, the Left front government in the state is all set to organize a tea garden festival at Naxalbari in Siliguri. The affair would cost the state exchequer Rs 10 lakh.

The three-day long festival, being organised by the state's backward class welfare department would begin on 28 January. The Assembly speaker, Mr Hashim Abdul Halim, would inaugurate the festival, which has been titled Rajjya Cha Bagicha Sramik O Banabasti Basi Loko Sanskriti Utsav- 2008 and would be held on the campus of the Nandaprashad High School.

As the name suggests, the three-day festival would showcase music and dance festivals by the tea garden workers and the forest communities. Besides this, seminar on problems and hardships of the workers would also be highlighted.

“The organisers are enthusiastic about the festival and are sure of its success. The Cha Bagicha Utsav would definitely be a big success. There would be no dearth of money as funds would be allotted by various local bodies across north Bengal,” said Ms Moni Thapa, sabhadhipati, Siliguri. The Siliguri Mahakuma Parishad is helping the backward class welfare department in organising the event.

According Mr Jagadish Roy, information officer, Siliguri, the festival would incur an expense of Rs 16 or even more than that. Obviously, the Opposition leaders are welcoming the festival with a pinch. “What an irony! On one hand, the state government remains a mute spectator as the workers of the closed tea estates suffer, but on the other hand, the same government is spending money for entertaining the plantation workers,” said Mr Aloke Chakravorty, president, Intuc, Darjeeling district committee.

The organisers, however, have points to counter the criticism. “It is not that the Cha Bagicha Utsav is being organised for the first time. Last year, the same was held at Banarhat in Dooars,” said Ms Thapa.

Source: The Statesman

Buyer for Bharnobari Tea Estate

The owner of Radharani Tea Estate in Kalchini, Jalpaiguri, has shown an interest in taking over the closed Bharnobari garden, the tea board said. Radharani is owned by Kingshuk Sinha.

“Representatives of Radharani met our chairman,” said G.Boriah, the director (tea development), Tea Board of India, over phone from Delhi today. “We asked them to meet the district magistrate and trade union leaders with his proposal.”

Earlier, Sinha had discussed the proposal with the Dooars Branch of the Indian Tea Association (DBITA), of which Bharnobari is a member.

“We have arranged for a meeting on January 10 at our office where representatives of the prospective entrepreneur will meet central trade union leaders to discuss the takeover,” said Prabir Bhattacharjee, the DBITA secretary.

R. Ranjit, the district magistrate of Jalpaiguri, confirmed the development.

Bharnobari Tea Estate, with 1,856 workers on its payrolls, has been closed since December 30, 2005. The total dues of the garden, according to the district labour department, are around Rs 3.2 crore apart from a bank loan of Rs 8.07 crore.“

“We appreciate the move and want the garden to reopen. However, the workers’ interests should be safeguarded,” said Prabhat Mukherjee, the general secretary of the Intuc-affiliated National Union of Plantation Workers.

Source: The Telegraph