Trouble in a tea garden

Published : Dec 05, 2003 00:00 IST

Inside Tarakeswar Lohar's house, police personnel examining the charred remains. - SHIB SHANKAR CHATTERJEE

Inside Tarakeswar Lohar's house, police personnel examining the charred remains. - SHIB SHANKAR CHATTERJEE

The murder of 19 people in a tea plantation in West Bengal's Jalpaiguri district brings to focus the economic crisis faced by the tea sector.

ON November 6, the Dalgaon tea estate, situated 70 km east of the headquarters of Jalpaiguri district in West Bengal, turned into the scene of the worst carnage in the tea plantations of the Dooars when labourers set ablaze the house of Tarakeswar Lohar, the unit leader of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU)-affiliated Chabagan Mazdoor Union, killing 19 people. The incident was the result of a dispute between two factions of workers over the manner in which appointments to different posts should be made in the garden. While Lohar and his followers were in favour of employing people from outside, the majority of workers wanted the jobs to be given to those from within.

Matters came to a head when in August the garden management declared the vacancies of three clerical posts. Resentment among the workers started when Lohar began accepting applications from outside. In September, when outsiders filled the vacancies, a section of the workers demanded the removal of Lohar from the union leader's post. Although the union suspended Lohar soon afterwards, he continued to wield considerable influence within the garden. Around 7 a.m. on November 6, a group of 70 workers assembled outside Lohar's house. In an attempt to intimidate them into dispersing, Lohar opened fire, injuring 22-year-old Sanik Kachua.

As news about the attack on Kachua spread, a mob of more than 400 gathered near Lohar's house, overpowered his relatives and his security men, and set fire to the house. (With talks failing and altercations taking place regularly between his faction and the other, Lohar had kept about 25 people for his personal security, who apparently had been living in his house for the two weeks prior to the incident.) Lohar, however, managed to escape. Rabin Ray, a Jalpaiguri district leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), on receiving information about an imminent attack on Lohar, alerted the police. But when the police arrived it was too late. Nineteen bodies charred beyond recognition were recovered, and the whereabouts of the remaining six were not known. The police arrested 109 people, including women, in connection with the incident. Lohar was arrested later in the day.

That Lohar was a much-hated figure was evident when many of those involved in the crime remained unrepentant and willingly gave themselves up to the police. One of them, Nili Murmo, is reported to have said at the Alipurduar court: "I am not sorry for what I did. That is why I didn't flee after the massacre." Indications are that the incident was not the result of any intra-CITU problems. The 107-years-old Dalgaon tea estate, run by the Tantia family of Kolkata, has had no record of violence or management-worker standoffs. Barring occasional skirmishes, which were resolved soon, the estate has been largely a peaceful one.

West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee deplored the incident and termed it "terrible". He denied there was a political angle to the incident. CPI(M) State secretariat member Mridul De visited the site and said that the party had expelled Lohar two years ago. A three-member committee led by Industry Secretary Sabyasachi Sen has been set up by the State government to look into the incident. The committee is expected to submit its report in December.

Recruitment in tea gardens has often been a topic of dispute between managements and workers and among workers. Even as late as 1988, the employment of clerks in the tea gardens of Jalpaiguri was made from among educated Bengalis in and around the region. However, the gradual spread of education among the local garden workers resulted in higher aspiration levels among the new generation. There has been a growing demand that local people be appointed to clerical posts in the gardens. At the same time, the clerical staff, who have a separate union, have been demanding that their children be given the jobs they hold until retirement.

The Dooars Branch of the Indian Tea Association (DBITA), apart from playing the role of an intermediary in cases of conflicts between managements and labour in the past, was known to arrange entrance examinations and tests for clerical posts in the garden. This was a way to ensure impartiality in appointments. But the unwritten norm has been: "All things remaining equal, preference will be given to a garden candidate."

One of the major problems in the tea-growing areas is that they are in most cases situated in industrially backward regions. With the increase in population in these areas, which has been disproportionate to the development of other industries, those not absorbed in the tea sector become prime targets for recruitment to criminal organisations like those involved in timber smuggling.

The industry itself is going through a crisis. Since mid-1999, tea prices in the organised sector have been declining. In fact, 2003 is the fifth year of recession in the tea industry. As a result, quite a number of gardens in north Bengal have either closed down or suspended activities, finding it difficult to meet the cost of production. One of the major reasons for this is the emergence of small growers and the `bought leaf' sector, which accounts for around 18 to 19 per cent of the total production in Jalpaiguri district and Assam. This segment, having a lower cost structure, can sell tea in the auctions at a much lower price and still keep a margin. In the Dooars alone, there are more than 63 `bought leaf' factories.

Moreover, the wages have risen faster than the consumer price index. The tea industry is the second-largest employer in the country after the Indian Railways. In the Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Dooars region alone, the total number of permanent workers is above 2.5 lakhs and more than six lakh people are dependent on the industry. Apart from the wages, the entire social cost of the workers, including their food and shelter, is borne by the industry. Permanent workers are given housing, electricity, fuel, blankets, aprons and umbrellas free of cost. Under the Plantation Labour Act, 1951, every garden has to maintain a hospital and paramedical staff. Earlier, the gardens used to maintain primary schools, which have now been taken over by the government.

With all these expenditures and dwindling auction prices, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the gardens even to pay the wages. At the same time, the managements cannot risk discontent among workers. In 2002, market conditions and rising costs precipitated the closure of 20 gardens; this year the number has come down to 10, with some of the closed gardens reopening. D. Chakroborti, general secretary of the Indian Tea Association, told Frontline: "The burden of social cost that the industry has to bear is making the organised sector uncompetitive vis-a-vis the `bought leaf' sector. In no other country is such a system prevalent. I am not saying that the workers should be deprived of their rights in any way, just that some of the responsibilities should be shifted from the shoulders of the industry."

When the Plantation Labour Act was promulgated in 1951, there was hardly any government-supported social infrastructure such as hospitals and educational institutions. Although that situation has changed, the industry still has to go by the law. Earlier this year, the Central government set up an inter-ministerial committee under the chairmanship of the Additional Secretary of Commerce L.V. Saptarishi, to look into these issues. One of the recommendations of the committee was that the government bear 50 per cent of the infrastructural and social costs of the tea industry.

According to the recommendations, 40 per cent of the costs will be borne by the Centre and 10 per cent by the State government. "If these recommendations are indeed implemented, it will be a major relief to the industry, and bonuses and wages of the workers will no longer be a headache," said Chakraborti.

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