Open-garden demand cloud on tea hike

The Bengal government’s decision to increase the financial assistance to workers of closed tea estates has evoked a mixed reaction in the brew belt.

While some have appreciated the decision saying that it would benefit the jobless workers, others have described it as a means to retain the vote bank in tea estates.

“We appreciate the decision that the workers in the closed gardens will receive Rs 1,000 under the FAWLOI (financial assistance to workers of locked out industries) scheme from next month instead of the existing Rs 750,” said Ajit Sarkar, the Darjeeling district secretary of the Citu. “We demand that the Centre extends similar assistance on regular basis, instead of occasional payments, and work with the state to reopen the estates.”

At present, over 13,000 workers in the 12 tea estates of the Dooars are covered under FAWLOI, said Rajat Pal, the deputy labour commissioner of Jalpaiguri. “We have heard the announcement but no orders have reached us so far.”

Those in the closed tea estates are, however, not so happy. “It is good that we will get Rs 250 extra but we doubt what will ultimately happen to us,” said Sania Bhumij, a worker of the closed Raipur tea estate. “The hike was announced after the government failed to reopen the closed gardens, even after declaring incentives for entrepreneurs.”

Samir Roy, the convener of the Defence Committee for Plantation Workers’ Rights, an apex body of tea trade unions, was harsh. “The state government has taken the easy route to please the aggrieved workers and provide some more alms before elections,” he said. “If the government would have used this fund for restructuring the gardens, the situation would have been much better today.”

Workers of Sikarpur and Bhandapur tea estates, who have been developing the garden, expressed contentment. “The hike will definitely reduce the workers’ woes, but most want their jobs back. We have decided to meet the district magistrate in Jalpaiguri tomorrow to press for reopening the garden,” said Phanindranath Das, an employee.

Leaders of the Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Workers’ Union, the trade union of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, however, are not ready to believe the government. “Unless we get something in writing, we are not ready to buy the announcement,” said Suraj Subba, the general secretary.