Poll worry for parties, not for shut gardens

Workers of the closed tea estates and their families will exercise their franchise this time too, but political parties are at a loss to calculate the expected votes.

One of the reasons is that the garden electorate has refused to be swayed by promises from candidates to reopen the estates stalked by poverty and malnutrition once they get elected to the Lok Sabha.

“Ever since our garden was closed down, we have seen four polls and the coming general election is the fifth one. Every time, leaders come in convoys, spell out their parties’ policies, make commitments and leave. Nothing has, however, changed in the estate and we continue to be unemployed. We depend on the meagre amount doled out by the government and the odd jobs that we do now and then,” said Rajen Murmu, a worker of Kanthalguri Tea Estate that has been closed since July 2002.

The labourer said the residents of the garden had grown accustomed to the false promises. “Actually, none of us believe what these candidates say. We ignore them.”

The CPM, which claims to have a strong base in the Dooars brew belt, has been facing unpleasant questions even from its cadres in closed estates.

“We are depending on alternative means to earn money. We do not have the slightest hope that our garden will reopen even if the CPM candidate wins. In the past five-six years, people in closed tea estates have learnt the truth that the only interest of the parties is in the number of votes they can garner,” said Sania Bhumij, a worker of Raipur Tea Estate and a member of the Citu, the CPM’s labour wing.

Dejected though they may be, the workers are, however, not ready to boycott the polls. The election day has other appeals for them.

“It might sound funny but tea estates wear a festive look on that day. Several people flock the booths; children run around; elders take a puff and sip tea; women visit the makeshift shops in their best saris. This has been a practice for many years. It is more of a festival. It is a relief from the mundane life. The only difference this time is the lack of enthusiasm among labourers to work for any political party,” said Phanindranath Das, an employee of the closed Sikarpur and Bhandapur Tea Estate.

A Congress leader admitted that the workers were not much interested in attending meetings and listening to the leaders talk.

Besides empty promises, two other factors — the assertion of the Terai-Dooars co-ordination committee of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad that it will boycott polls and the growing clout of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha in tea estates — have made the electoral results unpredictable.

“Considering the present situation, it is indeed tough for parties like the CPM and even the Congress (the Intuc, the Congress labour wing, has bases in some tea estates) to calculate the approximate votes they will get from the tea estates,” a CPM leader said in Jalpaiguri.

“Although campaigns are going on and responses are good, the Parishad’s call for poll boycott and the inclination of a section towards the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha have made equations complicated. The Citu may have a strong base in the gardens, but it is difficult for the CPM to predict who will win this time,” he added.