Tea tourism put to sleep

Siliguri, Oct. 30: Five years have passed since the government proposed tea tourism as an alternative means of income for the brew sector, but not a single project has been sanctioned till date.

“We had sent four proposals to upgrade existing infrastructure in the gardens — for example renovation of bungalows — to start tourism, but none of them were considered,” said Prabir Bhattacharjee, the secretary of the Dooars branch of the Indian Tea Association.

“The delay comes at a time when inflow of tourists is increasing in the Dooars and private resorts are mushrooming at locations like Lataguri and Jayanti.”

In 2003, when the tea industry was facing a slump, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had announced the government’s tea tourism policy at Central Dooars Club in Binnaguri.

He had then said the planters could go in for tourism projects by using available resources like employees and bungalows.

Bhattacharjee had also announced that the government would upgrade the roads leading to the tea estates — many of them located in idyllic locations.

“But the objection raised by the state land and land reforms department for using land, which had been leased to tea gardens, for other (tourism) purposes created the hurdle,” Bhattacharjee said. “We were told to earmark land necessary to create the infrastructure for tourism projects in the garden, surrender it to the department and obtain a fresh lease on it.”

With the Dooars emerging as a potential tourist destination, several tea companies are interested in launching tourism projects.

“It is time the government cleared the proposals which will not only be beneficial to us, but also for other sectors like transport, which will be indirectly associated with the projects. The government, too, will earn revenue if the tourism projects are implemented,” a planter said.

The planters also highlighted the deplorable road condition as another major impediment to the growth of tourism. “Given the pathetic state of the roads, we doubt whether any tourist will recommend the area to others,” said N.K. Basu, the principal adviser to the Indian Tea Planters’ Association.

The problems, the planters said, have been brought to the notice of Subrata Gupta, the managing director of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation, during his visit here this week.

“We will take up these problems with the tourism department at an appropriate platform,” Gupta said.

Manohar Tirkey, the minister of state for public works, however, said more funds had been sought from the Centre to repair NH31 that passed through the Dooars. “Work is expected to start soon.”

Small tea growers want more BLFs in north Bengal

SILIGURI, Oct. 29: The small tea growers of north Bengal have demanded an immediate annulment of the state government's prohibitory order on setting up of new Brought Leaf Factories (BLF) in the region.

According to the small tea growers, the absence of ‘adequate’ number of BLF's was hitting the small gardens across the region, as many a times there are no takers of the green leaves produced.

“In the past seven years, there have been a considerable rise in the number of small tea growers across north Bengal, while the prohibition on setting up new BLFs since 2001 is preventing the corresponding increase in the number Brought Leaf Factories over here.

As a result of this, the supply of green leaves is higher than what the existing BLFs can absorb. Hence, the small growers are fetching a lesser price for their produce,” said Mr Sanjit Paul, convener of the Small Tea Gardens Forum (STGF) affiliated to the Indian Tea Planters’ Association (ITPA).

As per the figures provided by him, early this month a kg of green leaves was fetching something around Rs 5.50 to Rs 6, which has now risen a little higher to Rs 8.50 per kg.

“Considering the higher price that ‘made tea’ is fetching in the auctions this season, these prices are very low. Unless the state government permits more BLFs to come up, the small growers will continue to be exploited,” Mr Paul said.
The Small Tea Gardens Forum has recently sent a memorandum to the principal secretary of the state commerce and industries department urging the annulment of the prohibitory order on the establishment of new BLFs in the region.

The bar on new BLFs was promulgated to ensure that the existing BLFs and tea estates would run as per their capacity. As of now, there are nearly 78 BLFs in north Bengal as opposed to the 15,000 small tea growers across the region.

Chamurchi may reopen soon

Siliguri, Oct. 29: Seven years after it was shut down, Chamurchi Tea Estate near Banarhat in the Dooars is showing signs of reopening.

Another closed garden in the region, Mujnai Tea Estate, will reopen on November 1.

“Om Prakash Mal, a known face in the jute industry of the state, had agreed to take over Chamurchi from the old owner last year,” N.K. Basu, the principal adviser to the Indian Tea Planters’ Association (ITPA), said today. “Finally, he has decided to reopen the garden and has arranged a meeting on November 6 in Calcutta.”

Trade union leaders, representatives from the ITPA and other stakeholders of the tea industry will be present at the meeting to be held at the additional state labour commissioner’s office.

“The date of reopening will be fixed after discussing the payment of liabilities like the workers’ dues, the status of factory and the plantations,” Basu said.

But before the meeting, the trade union leaders and the planters will sit in Calcutta on November 4 and 5 to discuss the revision of salaries of the workers in the estates, a union leader said.

During the past seven years, the workers and their families in the garden solely depended on the proceeds of tealeaves which they usually sell to nearby estates and to some bought-leaf factories.

“We could not see any hope as the owner did not respond to our repeated requests and reminders from the government,” Raso Mahali, one of the 846 workers in the garden, said referring to Sushila Kejriwal, the director of Chamurchi Agro (India) Ltd, the previous owner of the garden. “It is nice to hear now that a new owner is interested in reopening the garden. We are eagerly waiting to see the factory start again.”

Decomposed leopard carcass found in garden

Siliguri, Oct. 24: Workers of Kurti Tea Estate in Nagrakata found the decomposed carcass of an eight-year-old male leopard this morning.

Around 8.30am, the pluckers spotted the carcass covered with mites, ants and insects in Section 19 of the estate and informed the garden management.

“Immediately, I rang up police and foresters, informing them of the incident,” said R.K. Rungta, the manager. “Those who saw the carcass said it seems to have died seven to 10 days ago.”

Ram Majhi, the worker who first saw the body, said they had not plucked tealeaves in the section for the past 10 days or so. “We suspect that the leopard might have died during the period.”

The foresters could not specify the reason for the death. The life expectancy of a leopard is 15 to 20 years.

“I have seen the body and primarily feel that it might have died a natural death,” Tapas Das, the divisional forest officer (wildlife-II), said. “However, we are not ruling out any other reason which will be clear only after the post-mortem is conducted at Gorumara National Park.”

Over the past few years, leopard deaths have become frequent in north Bengal. On October 19, a big cat was found run over on the tracks along the Diana tea garden. The animal was around 9 to 10 years old. Another male leopard was found dead on the tracks at Sonagachi in September.

“Leopard population has been increasing in the country, but our concern is that their deaths have become frequent now,” said Animesh Bose, the founder coordinator of the Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation.

Assault slur on jawans

Jaigaon, Oct. 21: Residents of Central Dooars Tea Garden in Kalchini today alleged that the SSB jawans had beaten up many of them and ransacked their quarters.

The SSB has denied the charge.

Bikram Subedi, a resident, said he had been hit on the head and his leg had been broken by the SSB. “The jawans had dragged me out of my house and ransacked the room and broke the television set,” said Subedi who was under treatment at the Kalchini block health centre. He was later referred to the subdivisional hospital in Alipurduar.

A woman worker of the garden, Dalmaya Kajir, has got a similar complaint. “The jawans broke into my quarters when I was away and ransacked my house for no reason.”

Tension had been brewing since last Sunday when the border guards stopped three jeeps carrying players and supporters who were going to the garden for a football match.

“They stopped the vehicles on the pretext that they were over-loaded and picked up an argument.Suddenly the personnel started beating us up with lathis,” said Samir Thapa, a worker who was part of the football team.

This morning, a group of garden residents went to the SSB camp to settle the matter. But the jawans allegedly beat them up. The personnel then came to the garden and attacked them. “Deokumar Thapa, Biswaranjan Kanji, both workers of the garden, and Kamal Sharma, an ex-serviceman, were assaulted by the jawans,” a worker said. “The second shift of workers did not report for duty because of the tension in the garden.”

The officer-in-charge of the Kalchini police station, R. Chhetri, later inspected the garden with his team and received a complaint from the workers.

B. B. Gurung, the commandant of the 30th Battalion of the SSB, however, denied the charge.

“On Sunday, our jawans asked the three drivers of the vehicles which were overloaded where they were going. The garden residents then abused us. In the evening, about 500 people came to the camp and attacked us. One of the workers Bikram Subedi threw stone at a jawan, injuring him seriously. The injured has been admitted to the air force hospital at Hasimara,” Gurung said.

The additional police superintendent of Alipurduar, S. R. Mishra, said steps would be taken on the basis of the complaint.