Garden opens but doubts brew

Alipurduar, Nov. 2: The management of Mujnai Tea Estate has alleged that the workers have sold at least 30,000kg of tealeaves in four days despite an agreement on October 27 that plucking would be stopped the next day.

Although the garden in Madarihat reopened yesterday after 11months, the excitement usually seen among workers when an estate resumes operation was absent.

“The labourers apprehend that the management will once again abandon the estate. If it closes down, we will again have to wait for one year for the operations and maintenance committee (OMC) to take charge. Anyway, we will co-operate with the management,” said Ashish Biswas, a worker of the estate located 60km from here.

When a garden closes down, the government appoints OMCs which look after the estate, helping them pluck leaves and finding buyers for them. The sales proceeds are distributed among the workers.

In the past six years, the workers alleged that the management had abandoned the garden at least four times.

The owners, too, did not sound much hopeful.

N.N. Chakroborty, a senior adviser to Anjuman Tea Company Limited that owns Mujnai, said: “We expected to get a yield of at least 1 lakh kg of green leaves, but we are left with around 30,000kg only.”

“The trade union leaders had assured us at a meeting on October 27 that plucking would be stopped the next day. But that did not happen. Instead 10,000kg of leaves were taken away in a single day. One can imagine the amount for four days. The buyers of these leaves do not want the gardens to open and so the problems of closed estates never get solved,” said Chakroborty, who fears a crisis in the cropping season as well.

“Shade trees in more than 400 acres have been chopped. Some workers have even occupied the residences of assistant managers and staff,” he said.

The adviser to the company said during the period when the garden was closed, the workers sold tealeaves at Rs 7 per kg, while the market rate was not less than Rs 14.

The garden had been closed from April 2002 to October 2004 and from November 2005 to January 2006.

It again stopped operations in May 2007 for a month. It shut down again in November 2007 and reopened yesterday.

The estate has a workforce of 999. The company owes them Rs 1.50 crore in PF, Rs 30 lakh in gratuity and Rs 36 lakh in bonus. The wages of four weeks and ration of 11 months are also pending. The wages for October 2007 were given yesterday.

The factory was swept clean and so was the hospital, but there was nobody to decorate the offices, a practice among workers when a garden reopens. Nor was the management welcomed with flowers, another prevalent practice.