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30 Dec 2016

Tea gardens turn cashless in tough times

TNN | Dec 30, 2016, JALPAIGURI/KOLKATA: Following the Reserve Bank of India's (RBI) order to abolish the 150-year-old talab or fortnightly cash payment of wages to tea garden workers, Majer Dabri of Alipurduar is going to be the first tea estate to go cashless from January 1 next year. The November 8 demonetisation move taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi led to a never-seen-before cash crisis in the tea industry as it was becoming impossible for the tea producers to pay each worker's salary via cash.
At a meeting held in Siliguri on Tuesday, January 31 has been fixed as the deadline to go cashless for all the tea gardens in the state. The meeting was attended by Union minister of state for agriculture S S Ahluwalia, RBI officials, state-level bankers, office bearers of the Terai Branch of Indian Tea Association (TBITA) and small tea growers' body Cista.
Chinmay Dhar, manager of the Majer Dabri Tea Estate, told TOI: "We have decided to go cashless from January 1, which will coincide with our garden's 100th years. Hopefully, this will enable 100% transparency in the garden."
Located around 10 km from Alipurduar town, Majer Dabri tea estate has 1,700 workers. Its management has ensured that all the workers get an Aadhar-linked account opened with the Bank of India. The bank has set up a permanent desk inside the garden which has a cash counter, fitted with a biometric system. "We have already started paying wages to the workers through this system. From January 1 next year, all cash transactions will come to an end in our garden. Even suppliers, contractors will be paid online," Dhar said.
"This is a great move by the garden authority, the first among all the 284 gardens in Darjeeling, Dooars and Terai," said Ram Avatar Sharma, secretary of Tea Association of India, Dooars Branch.
Initially, the tea workers had protested the Centre's decision to go cashless in the tea belt of north Bengal. Transition from age-old cash economy to an urbanized banking system wasn't an easy-to-digest affair for the tea workers, who mostly belong to the tribal belt.
"With the banks reaching out to the workers in their respective gardens, majority of the three lakh workers have opened accounts with different banks. Few gardens have also given land to banks to come up with ATMs there," said a garden manager in Terai.
Indian Tea Association (ITA) feels the situation is normalizing steadily as the payments have started. "The second tranche of payment has commenced and the workers are slowly getting themselves habituated with the banking economy," said Arijit Raha, secretary-general, ITA.
However, according to Bijoy Gopal Chakraborty, president of the small tea growers' body Cista, "One order cannot change it as a whole. Small tea growers and workers reside in remote villages where in many cases average distance of a bank branch is minimum 20kms and ATMs are 30kms away from each other. Rural banking system has no such infrastructure to deal with huge numbers of bank accounts."
J Parekh, manager of Bagrakote tea garden, corroborates Chakraborty's view. "We would like to have bank account and passbook for all the garden workers, but the problem is in implementation. After all, the workers need cash for weekly or biweekly haats, and for that you can't always expect to travel miles after miles each week after a hard day's work," he said.

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