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13 Dec 2016

Cashless bliss? Tea belt deflates dream - Survey of 55 gardens in Dooars shows only in 1 estate all workers have bank accounts

AVIJIT SINHA & ANIRBAN CHOUDHURY, TT, Dec. 12: An indication of how far Narendra Modi could be from the dream of making India a predominantly cashless economy is available in a survey done by a tea planters' association in the Dooars, a tribal belt that employs lakhs of Bengal's workforce in tea estates.
The survey done by the Dooars Branch of the Indian Tea Association (DBITA) in its 55 member gardens of the 80-plus estates dotting Japaiguri district has thrown up these numbers:
• Around 30 per cent of the 1.12 lakh workers in these 55 gardens have no bank accounts
• In around 60 per cent of the estates, the nearest bank is at least 7km away
• In around 50 per cent of the gardens, the nearest ATM is at least 5km away
The RBI, which held a meeting on November 21 with banks in the tea belt, made it clear that wages could be paid in cash only for two fortnights. By then garden owners should have opened accounts for all workers.
In the minutes of the November 21 meeting, the RBI said a cash waiver that was allowed to tea gardens that month "will be available for two fortnights only, during which tea gardens will ensure opening of accounts by workers".
Workers are paid every fortnight in most tea gardens.
Payments of the first fortnight of November have been made in most estates. A few gardens have disbursed payment for the second fortnight of November.
A tea garden union leader cited a problem with distance that workers would face if they had to travel several kilometres to get his wages from banks. "Workers will have to go to banks on a working day. Given the distance of the banks from the majority of gardens, it would mean at least a half-day affair," Ziaur Alam, the convener of the Joint Forum that is the biggest conglomerate of garden unions, said.
The worker would end up losing a day's pay to collect wages of a previous fortnight.
Most of the workers got their due wages a fortnight after the date they were supposed to be paid in November as garden managements scrambled to find ways to withdraw cash above the RBI-imposed weekly ceilings.
In several places, garden workers took to the streets to demand wages. A tea estate was locked out because of protests by labourers that made management officials desert the estate.
The Telegraph tried to find out whether the tea industry is ready to go cashless and checked the data collected by the DBITA. (See chart)
In the Dooars, the DBITA is the largest association of gardens.
Other tea associations, such as the Indian Tea Planters' Association that has about 20 Dooars gardens as members, also said opening so many bank accounts in a fortnight was a tough task.
"Most gardens have taken up the task of opening bank accounts but they need at least another month," Amitangshu Chakraborty, the principal advisor of Indian Tea Planters' Association, said.
"We don't really know what to do as the RBI directive has said payments of only two fortnights can be made in cash. But the current situation demands that cash payments should be allowed for at least three to four more fortnights," he said.
S. Guha Thakurta, the DBITA secretary, said: "In many cases, we have found that nearby branches of banks, mostly in rural areas, do not have adequate infrastructure to open and handle so many new accounts at one go."
He said several times "despite money being transferred to the accounts, the workers could not withdraw the money because of the cash crunch in the bank".
Even today, tea industry sources said, clerical employees and office staff of a tea estate in the Dooars could get only Rs 500 in cash from a local branch of a bank when they went to withdraw salaries.
Tea planters are worried about how to make the next payment. Tea trade unions, under the banner of the Joint Forum, an apex body of 24 unions, held demonstrations in tea estates today.
"The central government and the RBI should not hurry to execute their plan of changing the payment system of the tea industry. Such a hurry can lead to undesirable circumstances and pose problems for workers," Alam, the convener of the Joint Forum, said.
"The workers have to face hardships in withdrawing cash unless the banks set up infrastructure in the gardens. There is no Internet connectivity in many gardens and we doubt whether ATMs or similar infrastructure can be set up at these places," the trade union leader said.
Tea planters said administrative officials had been updated about these constraints and the current state of affairs.
"We hope they would take up these issues with their seniors in the state, who in turn, need to talk on these issues with the Centre and the RBI," a planter in Siliguri said.
Mukta Arya, the district magistrate of Jalpaiguri, said she had consulted bankers and representatives of the tea associations. "Banks have taken up the task of opening accounts of tea workers. We have also obtained information from the associations and have forwarded all necessary details to the state finance department and the RBI," the district magistrate said.

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