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Bengal's Tea Gardens Brewing Trouble

Karma Paljor Karma_Paljor

Updated: January 19, 2017, 6:02 PM IST
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Bengal's Tea Gardens Brewing Trouble
A tea estate in Darjeeling
Darjeeling: At Tiger Hill in Darjeeling, we waited at 5:30 am for the sun to rise. Perhaps one of the most watched site in the world, it is a mesmerising sight as sun rays hit the peaks of Mt Kanchendzongna, also known as Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world.

The sight eluded us, the main peak covered by clouds. The similar gloom is there as we move around in tea gardens across the queen of the hills. Sought world over as champagne of teas, today many plantations are struggling to survive.

[caption id="attachment_1338071" align="alignnone" width="474"]Mt Kanchendzongna on a good day Mt Kanchendzongna on a good day[/caption]

At Peshok, we met Pratika Rai who spent four decades at the tea estate that was run till 2015 by Alchemist, a company headed by Trinamool Congress MP K D Singh.

She is today running from pillar to post to get her provident fund and retirement benefits. The new owner is yet to take over, throwing the lives of 2500 workers in disarray. May hopeless have moved on migrated to cities to earn a livelihood.

Those who remain are fighting to get their dues which run into a few crores. The workers protested and even went on hunger strike, a deal was struck but no one from the management has honoured the deal. Kamala Chettri had just started working when the troubles began, a widow with a daughter she has nowhere to go and makes ends meet by working in homes and MNREGA schemes in her village.

"We would like to request the government to auction the tea garden to a company that can run it. Today most of the companies just want to sit on real estate in the hope that guidelines change and they can make a profit in future," said HM Pradhan who used to work as a supervisor at the tea garden. Together, they are fighting a losing battle. He shows me photocopies of agreements signed with the new owners. This is a crisis that is waiting to burst in the seams.

We meet PT Sherpa, president of the Tilak Chandra Roka is Darjeeling and Dooars Plantation Labour Union, the largest tea garden workers union in the region. He said absenteeism has gone up by 40% in majority of the tea gardens. The workers get barely Rs 127 a day and most are now steadily moving to the cities in hope of a brighter future, few are left to work. Production has gone down by nearly 30% and so has the quality. Only a few tea gardens are working earnestly, some managing to augment revenues by combing it with tourism like the Happy Valley Tea estate they have an advantage as they are close to the city.

“Most planters are running at a loss, most managing because they see value in the real estate in future," echoes a senior officer in the government refusing to be named. "No one cares about the tea estates, all the three players , the owners, the workers and the government are running in different directions. If nothing is done soon the industry will collapse," Sherpa said.

Demonetisation has also had an impact as the gardens were cash driven. The workers who expect to be paid every week don't want to travel to the nearest bank or ATM which is on an average 25 km away. They will lose a day’s salary. They are demanding that they get off on a weekday instead of a Sunday. Initially as owners struggled to pay salaries the government came to its aid. The District Magistrate released loans to tea gardens to ride over the rough time. Although most have bank accounts travelling to the nearest bank is still a struggle.

You can see much more on #Budgetyatra at 8:30 this Saturday only on CNN News18
First Published: January 19, 2017, 5:34 PM IST

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