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15 Dec 2016

Tea gardens shut over job scheme flaw

Avijit Sinha in Siliguri Alipurduar, Dec. 14: A company based in Siliguri announced suspension of work in its two tea estates in Alipurduar district from today.

The reason for the shutdown is unique unlike other instances of closure of tea gardens in the industry. The management has said in a notice that it is forced to announce the suspension of work in Kalchini and Raimatang tea gardens as the workers and their families have not been provided with jobs for adequate number of days under the MGNREGS. 

“It is interesting to see that the tea estates have closed down not due to breach of peace or workers’ protests. In recent times, it is probably the sole example where a tea garden has closed down because the state did not give jobs to workers under the national rural employment scheme,” a senior tea planter based in Siliguri said today. 

There are around 2,000 workers in Kalchini and around 1,300 in Raimatang. They were paid wages for the immediate past fortnight yesterday. 

Both the gardens are owned by the Buxa Dooars Tea Company (India) Limited. The gardens were shut from 2006 to 2010.

In 2010, the current management took over the company and reopened the gardens.

“There were no takers for the gardens then but we went ahead and took over the company. At that time, we had clearly mentioned that the number of workers is more vis-à-vis the annual production. We had wanted to retrench a section of the workforce,” a senior representative of the company told The Telegraph. 

According to him, officials of the district administration had requested them not to go for retrenchment. 

“Instead, they assured us that the state would extend some social welfare schemes to help us. Among them was the MGNREGS under which workers and their family members were enrolled. However, in the past six years, the maximum number of days of work offered to a worker a year was not more than 15 days,” he added. 

The management sources further said when they took over the gardens, the annual production was around nine lakh kg of tea. In the past six years, the production has increased to 12 lakh kg per year, which the sources said, is still too low. 

“To make these two tea estates viable, the annual production should be around 30 lakh kg, considering the huge workforce. Now that the administration has not implemented the 100-days-work scheme completely in the two gardens, we are having acute shortage of funds and can no longer run the garden,” G.P. Dixit, the manager of the Kalchini garden, said. 

The decision has left trade union leaders furious. 

“The management has given some incredulous reasons to justify its decision. Social welfare schemes are extended in tea estates but that does not mean that a tea company will be dependant on it and will try to reap benefits out of it,” Mohan Sharma, a Trinamul trade union leader and the sabhadhipati of Alipurduar zilla parishad, said. 

While the Dooars Branch of Indian Tea Association (of which the company is a member) could not be contacted, representative of another tea association termed the closure “illogical”.

“If the company had any problem with MGNREGS, they should have taken up the matter with the district administration and panchayats. But closing down the gardens all of a sudden, that too during the lean period, is something which cannot be endorsed,” he said. 

D.P. Karanam, the district magistrate of Alipurduar, said: “Jobs have been provided under MGNREGS in both these gardens and also some other social schemes have been implemented. This cannot be a reason for closing down the estates,” 

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