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26 Dec 2016

Trouble brews in North Bengal’s tea belt over new RBI directive

Rumela Sinha, HT, 25 Dec 2016, JALPAIGURI/ALIPURDUAR: The 7.30am siren echoes across the length and breadth of Samsing tea estate in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal on the foothill of Himalayas every day. But the chirpy leaf-pickers have turned a deaf ear, as they jostle for their turn outside banks. The cash flow in the tea-producing belt of the Dooars-Terai region in north Bengal, post demonetisation, resembles the dried-up rivers and rivulets it is surrounded by.
A new RBI directive that mandates garden owners to pay workers through their Jan Dhan account is brewing fresh trouble in Jalpaiguri-Alipurduar-Cooch Behar districts. Angry workers in Dooars and Terai are boycotting work to hit the streets. They are demanding resumption of the fortnightly talab (wages) system prevalent in the region for more than a century. “Why did the RBI pick tea industry to implement this cashless system? What is their right to intrude in our professional domain?” asks Nitish Mandal, a tea union leader. But, depositing monthly salary into the workers’ bank accounts will spell doom for the cash-dependent gardens.
Of more than two lakh permanent workers employed with 276 gardens in Terai, Alipurduar and Darjeeling districts, 96,000 don’t have bank accounts. Two clerks and a manager in a bank in Bagrakote have to serve over 25,000 people, adding to their miseries. “We are simply helpless. You can see the rush outside my branch every day. We have to maintain accounts of as many as five tea gardens,” says M R Mitra, the branch manager, adding how they organised four camps and opened over 300 Jan Dhan accounts in the last two weeks. Outside Mitra’s branch, people are cursing their garden manager or the government.
“I had to skip a day’s work to stand here at the queue. To top that, one-fourth of the amount that I withdraw is spent on conveyance as the branch is 20km from my home,” said Siddha Tirkey, a daily wage earner at the Sonali tea estate. Sanjay Bagchi of Indian Tea Association (Terai branch) thinks the situation might soon lead to unrest as most workers did not receive their last ‘talab’.
Moreover, being illiterate, they are not equipped to operate bank accounts. “If banks do not arrange for a customer service point at the gardens, the workers might end up starving,” he said.
J Parekh, a manager at Duncans-owned Bagrakote tea garden, called for more bank branches and ATMs in the region.
“You can’t always expect people to travel miles each week after a hard day’s work.”On Friday, the Tea Board requested the RBI to issue suitable directives to banks to smoothen payment of wages.
Sanjay Ghai, general manager of Gendrapara tea estate, owned by Goodricke, feels the RBI decision was arbitrary.

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