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Fearing Loss of Jobs, Tea Garden Workers Up in Arms Against Proposed Airport in Assam's Barak Valley

The demarcation of the 325-hectare land for the proposed Dolu Greenfield Airport has been impeded several times due to massive resistance by the 1,700-odd workers of the garden. (News18)

The demarcation of the 325-hectare land for the proposed Dolu Greenfield Airport has been impeded several times due to massive resistance by the 1,700-odd workers of the garden. (News18)

While the MoU mentioned that jobs of tea garden workers would be protected and their dues cleared, the workers say they are not against an airport but it should not come at the cost of their tea estate

The proposed Greenfield Airport in Assam’s Barak Valley has stumbled upon a roadblock as protesting workers of the Dolu tea estate of Cachar fear the move will lead to job loss and have shown no signs of relenting despite repeated attempts to pacify them.

The demarcation of the 325-hectare land for the proposed Dolu Greenfield Airport has been impeded several times due to massive resistance by the 1,700-odd workers of the garden. The administration of the district and police force, armed with anti-riot reinforcement, has made several visits to the garden but to no avail.

“We are trying to remove this airport from our area for the last two to three months. There will be havoc if the airport comes up here. The poor shall perish completely and the administration visits only to pressure us. When the government says ‘Sab Ka Saath, Sab Ka Vikas’, then don’t we fall in the ‘sab’ bracket? We are poor and don’t understand much about the Memorandum of Understanding but one thing is for sure — we are not andolankari,” says Satyam Sautal, a worker at the tea estate.

A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between the Dolu Tea Company Private Limited, various trade unions representing the tea garden workers and the district administration at the office of the Cachar deputy commissioner to set up a Greenfield airport in the tea estate.

The new proposal said around 2,500 bighas of land will be provided by the tea estate for the construction of the airport for Barak Valley.

The MoU mentioned that jobs of tea garden workers would be protected so that the reduction in the land pool does not result in job loss. The agreement also stated that upon receipt of compensation from the state government, all the dues to the tea estate’s workers will be cleared and the company will not retrench or lay off any worker.

“The ongoing protest has been provoked by outsiders. The MoU has been misinterpreted owing to opposition to talks. There are no labour quarters in the 325 hectares of land that goes for the airfield. The plantation that exist on this land are more than 100 years old. Besides 508 hectares of land that remains out of the 835 hectare under cultivation, there is 101 hectare virgin land where plantation can be done. A 48-hectare land under plantation can be rejuvenated and one lakh infilling can be done to enhance the productivity of the garden. The nursery of the garden has the capacity to grow four lakh saplings,” explained Sudipto Sirkar, manager of Dolu Tea Estate.

Sirkar was rescued by the police on April 19 when the labourers agitated against the handing over of the garden land to the airfield. Owned by Kolkata-based Vision Tea Industries, Dolu Tea Estate and its three sub-divisions produce around 15 lakh kilograms of premium Assam CTC tea.

“Those who understand tea garden and its logistics would understand this simple mathematics that during an ideal plucking situation, we work in six cycles involving around 70% of work force that turns up to around 12,000 to 13,000. We do the plucking on a rotational basis of 12-13 days which goes on to explain that there shall be no retrenchment after we hand over the 325 hectares land,” said Sirkar.

As per the Airport Authority of India’s requirement, Dolu Tea Estate land meets the dynamics of 4.5-km length and 500-metre width. There is no need of earth filling as the area is a plateau and as per Geological Survey of India’s study, the soil too is ideal for an airfield. “In Barak Valley, you won’t find a more suitable land than this one,” the manager added.

However, the workers are not impressed. Satyam says: “The administration is trying to divide us, we have been firm on our stand that we don’t want the airport here. There have been several meetings and we have sent our memorandum to Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. The CM has not responded yet.

“We are not against an airport in Cachar but the plants cannot be removed; they sustain us. The government needs to look at us. The existing Kumbirgram airport too was built on a tea garden. Why the gardens…just because the garden people don’t have a patta of their land?”

As per an estimate, there are around 9,000 tea bushes per hectare of land and 325 hectares shall be used for the airport.

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