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15 Jul 2017

Villagers weed tea garden

People remove weeds from Badamtam Tea Estate near Darjeeling on Friday. Picture by Passang Yolmo
TT, Calcutta, July 14: People of a tiny hamlet in the hills support Gorkhaland but also want to save their tea garden, which is not only their economic backbone but also a "heritage" with which their life and culture are entwined.
While government offices and other public properties across the hills are being torched, almost the entire populace - including teachers, students and health workers - has volunteered to remove weeds from the Goodricke-owned Badamtam Tea Estate.
The villagers are balancing the agitation and voluntary service.
"Everyday, people, packed in 10-12 vehicles, go to Darjeeling to attend Gorkhaland rallies. We wholeheartedly support the demand. At the same time, we also want to save our tea garden and the rest of us volunteer to clean the garden which is part of our heritage, life and culture," said Mahendra Mukhia, the president of Sirubari Goan Samaj, a social organisation.
The garden is 16km from Darjeeling.
The villagers are weeding the estate to ensure that outgrowths don't destroy tea bushes.
"This is purely a volunteer work and a social initiative. No one expects to be paid and it is not just the garden workers who are lending a helping hand," said D.P. Pradhan, a senior Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leader and a former GTA Sabha member from the areas.
The garden employs 1,350 permanent workers and for the past one week, at least 300-400 people have been weeding the plantation in turns everyday.
An industry insider said: "The second flush is gone as tealeaves are overgrown and cannot be used for production. However, weeding is most important as this will save tea bushes."
Even if the general strike is lifted, tea industry insiders say, it would take "a minimum of one month" to finish the weeding and pruning and then wait for new leaves to bloom.
"Even if Gorkhaland is granted, the industry has to survive," said a worker.
The local Badamtam Co-operative Society is using its own funds to cook food for the workers. "The society is providing 125gm of rice and lentils per volunteer who is coming to weed the garden," said Pradhan.
The volunteers work in batches from 9am to 3pm.
Badamtam has a population of 5,000. Sources said the garden spread over 350 hectares produced about 1.30 lakh kg of made tea annually.
Of the total produce, 50,000 kg of made tea is manufactured during the second flush, which is almost "nil" because of the ongoing strife.
There are 87 tea gardens in the hills which are currently shut.

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