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16 May 2017

Tea land leeway plan

Sambit Saha, TT, Calcutta, May 15: The Mamata Banerjee government is considering whether up to 25 per cent of land meant for tea cultivation in north Bengal can be earmarked for "alternative use" to help the ailing beverage industry.
The term "alternative use" is being seen as a reference to crops other than tea although sections of the industry are in favour of exploring real estate options.
The state government has set up a group of ministers to come up with a roadmap and their recommendation will be sent to the cabinet for approval soon, industrialists were told during a closed-door interaction today.
State functionaries present at the meeting, led by finance and industries minister Amit Mitra and industries secretary Rajiva Sinha, cautioned the industry not to assume that an "announcement" was being made. The matter is still under discussion, they emphasised.
"The government told us they would allow up to one-fourth of land for other use but for agricultural purpose. They indicated that real estate development may not be allowed," an industrialist told The Telegraph.
As many as 140,000 hectares, spread over nearly 500 gardens in the Dooars, Terai and Darjeeling, are under tea cultivation in Bengal. The gardens produce 358 million kg of tea a year and employ 2.5 lakh people. However, rising production costs, declining yield and erratic climate have dented the profitability of several gardens.
The land has been historically leased out only for tea cultivation under the West Bengal Estates Acquisition Act, 1953. The lessee or the company, without reducing the plantation area, may use the land for horticulture and growing medicinal plants on an area not exceeding 3 per cent of the total grant area of the garden.
"The new proposal is a welcome move. Owners can at least explore opportunities of growing alternative crops on large scale. The transformation may not happen tomorrow but it will be a start," said tea garden owner.
The Tata-owned Amalgamated Plantations is growing pepper in the gardens in the Dooars. Industry sources said cash crops such as pineapple and tomato could be cultivated and supplied to the food-processing industry.
A section of the tea industry said a small part of the land should be allowed to be used for real estate development. "It will be foolish to think entire 25 per cent of 140,000 hectares will go to real estate. Where is the demand? Who will buy? Only a fraction may go but that option should not be closed," said a garden owner.

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