Report to Smt Nirmala Sitaraman

Author: BMS      Date: 14 Jan 2016 14:09:05

Ref.NO:                                                      Date:

 

To,

Smt .Nirmala Sitaraman

Hon.Union Minister for Commerce & Trade (I/C)

Government of India, New Delhi

 

Sub: Tea gardens of West Bengal: Issues that need immediate attention to change the pathetic situations of tea workers

 

Respected Madam,

Namaskar.

West Bengal is having a vast area of Tea Gardens. The Tea Plantation area is situated in North Bengal region covering –Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Alipurdwar, Cooch Bihar and Uttar Dinajpur districts. Around 450 gardens spread over in these districts. Around 3.5 lakh permanent workers and around 0.50 lakh contract workers are working in these gardens. One significant aspect of these gardens is that -majority of workers belongs to Adivasis and 50-55% of the workforce in these gardens is female. Tea is one of the surviving industries other than Tourism in North Bengal. Two registered Unions affiliated to BMS are working among the Tea garden workers. They are –Bangia Cha Mazdoor Sangh and Jalpaiguri Zilla Cha Bagan Mazdoor Sangh.

 

Bharatiya Plantation Mazdoor Sangh is the Industrial Unit of Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) working in Plantation Sector. The federation is having work in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam and Mizoram. Its’ having work among Tea, Coffee, Cardamom, Rubber and Cashew plantations. The Central BMS has received, reports regarding the labour unrest in North Bengal Tea gardens due to closure of Tea plants. There was also a news item regarding the starvation deaths in West Bengal Tea gardens. BMS central Committee annoyed about the developments and decided to send a study team to know the field realities.

Study  Team
The Study Team has toured in North Bengal area, to study conditions of Tea garden Workers . The team has met different trade Union activists working in tea Estates, visited various estates in Doors region, Terai regions, met workers belonging to abandoned gardens, functional gardens, sick units and profit making gardens. They visited different labour colonies, dispensaries, drinking water sources, etc. and gathered information. The Progressive Tea Workers Union (PTWU) of Adivasi Vikas Parishad led by its Chairman Sri John Barla extended full cooperation also took the team in interior areas of Doors region.
A special meeting was called on 19 & 20 March 2015 at Silliguri to discuss various issues faced by Plantation workers of North Bengal. Representatives from all the four districts have attended. Based on our field visits and consultations, we are here with bringing the problems faced by these workers for your kind notice and for a favourable action.

# Gardens visited:

 Leesh river TG, Sonali TG, Bagrakote TG , Metila TG , Devpara TG, Red Bank TG , Surendra Nagar TG, Lakhipara TG , Vijayanagar TG  and Atal TG.

Prevailing conditions –

> DRINKING WATER:

There is acute scarcity of safe drinking water in almost all estates. Due to this people are suffering from diaharia, cough, and water born deceases. The water gets reddish with iron rust content. Another crisis is that most of the hand pumps need repairs. Water level in wells have gone down, locals feel that, they have to go miles for water after two months. Majority of managements have failed to provide safe drinking water. One surprising thing is that, the local administration is not serious about this issue even after getting many reports and repeated requests by Unions.

>FOOD GRAINS:

In most of gardens, workers after working for 12 days get Two kilos of Rice and Four kilos of Wheat on subsidised rate by the managements. The workers will be penalised if they are absent from duty in between. The Tea Garden workers do not come under BPL category even though they get only RS 95/ per day. Due to this, they are denied subsidised food grains   of 35 kg per month per person. The government has to change / alter its policy for these areas. Tea workers have to be brought under BPL category. Due to shortage of food many people have become sick. Starvation deaths also have been reported from some estates .Though state Government and managements deny this but it's a reality which Unions, Managements& Governments should work for.

> MEDICAL FACILITIES:

 Except in Vijayanagar estates of Terai region, and Lakhipara Goodricke estates in almost all places, there is an abysmal medical facility. Worst sufferers are women, kids and old. In some places, people have died due to lack of proper medicines at right time. People have habituated to deaths as if it's common phenomenon. Garden dispensaries are not functioning, in most cases the compounders are running hospitals with sub standard drugs. There is neither supervision nor punishments if management errs. In many estates, the hospitals exists either name sake, even if exists, it will not have majority of facilities. So, BMS strongly feels that, the Central Government should think of either group hospitals or ESI dispensaries


> WAGES:

Till the recent wage agreement in February 2015, in almost all places workers were getting Rs 95/ as daily wages. The managements on record shows Rs 190/ as daily wages and deducts Rs 95/ under various heads as fringe benefits.  After wage agreement, some of the TG managements have started paying Rs 112/ as daily wage from March 2015 onwards. Still many of the TG in Jalpaiguri Dist and Alipurdwar dist are not implemented the agreement properly. There are lot of arrears to be paid. Some special measures /instructions are needed for this purpose.

The Managements claim that, the tea workers will not come under MW Act as their wages are covered under agreement. There is utter lack of supervision by the Labour Department, Tea Board and local administration. In a few gardens, salaries are not paid regularly. So there is strong resentment and unrest which may explode at any time. So, there is a strong need to cover these workers under Minimum wages Act.

>GRATUITY:

In many tea gardens, gratuity amount is pending for years. Many of the estates are not ready to pay in instalment basis too. In gardens like Bhagathpur Tea Gardens,Jalpaiguri dist. gratuity has not paid since last 12 years. Situation is not good.

 >Retirement Policy:

 It seems, that there is no clear cut policy regarding retirement age. In many TG in Aliipurdwar dist and Coochbihar dist. managements are removing workers are extending services as per their whims and fancies. Age restrictions start from 56 and ends at 62. Those who oppose / questions authorities will bear the brunt. BMS feels that the government should clearly come out with area specific policy and give due publicity for that. So that, ordinary workers can know his legitimate rights. Like that there should be clear cut policy regarding promotions also.

> LABOUR QUARTERS:

 Managements have to pay regular attention on labour quarters, but the ideals were kept only on record. Though, the company attains profits, still managements do not constructed new quarters. In some estates, quarters have been built with the assistance of Tea Board, but, thereafter, never bothered about the repairs and maintenances.  May it be Maitele estate or Devpara estates which are continuously making profits, are not interested to provide new houses or to pay attention towards repairs. People are living in a horrible condition. In many estates, the younger generation are not working in gardens and work in other states. They have either renovated their houses or built new ones at their sites. Many a times managements show these well built houses and gets self satisfaction. Even after working for 20-25 years as a permanent worker, labour does not have a roof to live. Another significant thing is that Indira Awas Yojana will not be applicable to these employees.

Acute shortage of quarters exists all over the plantation areas. Even though, there is a rule that, quarter should be allotted to at least to each family too not implemented .In some estates, quarters did not provided till their retirement of services. BMS strongly feels that, the Central government should bring some of its schemes like Indira  Awas Yojana for these workers and provide  accommodation  as early as possible .
In some of TG, managements are adopting different methods to harass BMS members. They are compelling our activists to vacate quarters branding them as non -workers even though entire family is working in the same garden since decades.

> FRINGE BENEFITS:

Managements are deducting money in the name of fringe benefits on different heads like firewood, medical, recreation. In almost all gardens employees face problem of fuel. There is acute problem. Due to lack of forests and strict implementation of environmental laws lot of restrictions have been imposed on firewood cutting. The need of the hour is to think about the alternate fuel supply. In this connection, we have to define the specific role of regulatory mechanism because it is affecting the employees’ right to livelihood. In many estates, workers have not been getting winter clothes, rain coats and shoes for years together. Even if supplied, it will be of a low quality one. How to check these irregularities is a big question. One funny thing is that much garden management are deducting some specific amount towards Maternity benefits not only from women but also from men.

The details of amounts collected in the name of Fringe Benefits per day per person –

  • 1.Housing-Rs 5.80
  • Medical Rs.3.25
  • Holiday & Welfare Rs.3.00
  • Ration Rs.14.00
  • Bonus Rs10.00
  • Provident Fund –Amount cuts but majority doesn’t know exactly
  • Maternity Benefit Rs.1.25
  • Tea Rs.1.90
  • Firewood Rs.3.70

 

> PROVIDENT FUND:

All managements are deducting Provident Fund amount amongst workers, but they don't issue receipts to workers. Out of 12 gardens in Jalpaiguri Dist .only one garden receipts were issued during 1994-95. Later on that all also stopped. Another significant point is most of the managements will not deposit the same amount with EPFO account. Due to which tea garden workers are forfeited with the benefits of Pension and EDLI scheme provision under EPFO. There is a strong resentment of workers to this type of attitude of the managements. They feel cheated.  The same issue may snowball into a big agitation in future.

It has been brought to the notice of the PF commissioner previously. Some years back a special committee was also appointed to set right things. Still there is no progress. The tea gardens workers are confused about the role of EPFO itself. The local PF officials show severe negligent attitude. Some stringent action is needed against PF authorities who are under the influence of managements and neglect the workers interests.

>Contract workers:

A new trend has started in many gardens. The managements are bringing out siders to work as Contract workers just to replace existing workers. This has created social tensions. By bringing out siders and denying work to existing workers, the managements are playing with fire. This attitude may lead to large scale violence in future. The state government and labour department are behaving just like a mute spectator. The Central Government and Tea Board should come forward and protect the interests of these workers whose livelihood has been depended on these tea gardens.

>SICK & ABANDONED GARDENS:

The plight of sick and abandoned gardens is unimaginable. They have denied all types of livelihood opportunities without workers fault. In Surendra nagar TG of Doors region, six persons have died due to starvation. Many people in abandoned estates have died due to lack of timely medical facilities, nutritional food and proper houses. As there is no employment, the workers are going to river beds to collect stones. Some people have left for other states and work as construction workers. Some have left to South Indian plantation area. It is also to be noted that, some people have been missing after leaving their native places. In Vijayanagar TG areas, workers have died in Goa, but family does not know  about the reason of death. They were little bit satisfied as they received the dead body .Such are the conditions.  What is the role of State Government, Central Government and role of Tea Board? In such cases has to be specified. In states like, Red Bank estate, which was abandoned, people do not have power supply for months together for their houses. Water tank in Surendra Nagar TG has disconnected by the EB officials which put all the workers under severe miseries. Providing such facilities are basic the responsibilities of state Government, but both Left government and Trinamool government have totally failed to protect the interests of these workers.

>OLD AGE PENSIONS & WIDOW PENSIONS:

Many people have applied for old age pension and widow pension. Only a handful of people have got it, the rest have not got any response. Some of the applicants have expired too. The officials deny pensions saying that, the applicants have crossed 58 years. The welfare measures of Central Government are not reaching these workers. So the Central government has to find a new way to implement its schemes in North Bengal TG areas.

>PRODUCTION:

 

Majority managements claim less production. but the fact is different .There is lot of difference between the quantity of leaves plucked in the field and leaves shown in the records for purpose of sales. Managements show wrong accounts and cheat the workers as well as government. After some time they declare the unit as a sick unit. So, there should be a proper enquiry on this aspect. The same managements are investing money on infrastructure sector. The gardens are flourishing giving good yield. But the processing plants are closed. Then, the managements supply, entire production outside plants, get sufficient money but shows in records that the unit as a sick unit. The design should be properly understood by the authorities. So, Tea Board should redefine its parameters of declaring a sick unit or loss making unit.

 

> ATTITUDE OF MANAGEMENTS:

 

 In North Bengal Tea Garden management’s attitude is the main reason for the crisis .BMS agrees that, they face stiff competition from global competitors and Tea Board has not succeeded in providing adequate support to them. It seems that, Managements’ priority has shifted from Tea Gardens to other sector. Some management have started investing money in Infrastructure sector. Though the managements are having capacity to pay Minimum wages as per MW Act they are not paying it. They have become defaulters with PF department. Besides this, some of the management have not paid dues to Tea Board, excise department and Electricity department. Taimlong , Kalchini estates are example for such actions. Negligence of regulatory mechanism and lack of stringent measures are the main reasons for this type of negligent attitudes.

 

> TEA TOURISM:

 

A new threat is emerging after Chandmuni Tea Garden incident. The Chandmuni TG was situated at the outskirts of Siliguri town. It was leased to somebody. Later in the name of city expansion, the government allotted it to private parties. The garden was uprooted. The workers who had been working for decades were thrown out mercilessly without showing any alternative jobs or shelters. A few of the workers were absorbed in the relative’s gardens of erstwhile owner. There was a big agitation by unions which lead to firing incident. Today you can see a posh new township, huge malls, markets, I-nox theatres and a few government buildings. So, workers feel the same type of experiments may repeat in other important towns and tourism centres also. Who will answer these apprehensions? Another issue / threat that is on discussion is TEA TOURISM promoted by some agencies in a planned manner. These agencies are demanding that all the sick and abandoned estates should be converted into a Tea Tourism centre at which resorts will be built after uprooting the bushes. At some places, the real estate lobby has kept eye on these highly potential Ares. So, the workers feel, something is behind the declaration as sick units. They find a conspiracy in the move. Today, their livelihood is at the crossroads. It is the Central government who has to answer these questions and remove all doubts. 

 

>TEA IMPORT-A CHALLENGE:

 

The tea industry is facing big challenge from international markets. Due to heavy imports, the rates of local production have come down. Showing the low rates, the managements are not increasing the wages. So, they pay Rs 95/ per day .Ultimate sufferer is ordinary worker. So, the Government of India should consider this and take an urgent action to save the Tea Industry. 

 

> STATE GOVERNMENT APPROACH:

 

The West Bengal State Government is having a different approach towards this industry. It's response to unions and central government is not encouraging. It pays deaf ear to workers issues as well as managements issues. So, slowly managements are also losing interest in running industry and try to divert to another business. 

 

> ROLE OF STATE GOVERNMENT:

The State government is not effectively performing its responsibility. It denies starvation deaths, lack of basic facilities and  claims of providing all types of food materials. But at ground level nothing has been implemented properly. The ruling parties have been very negligent towards these workers. Most of the workers belong to SC's and ST's. The Adivasis who migrated from Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh around 100 years back are not yet recognised as Scheduled Tribes in West Bengal. Due to this, they are denied statutory benefits like education and housing. A new law or Government Order is required in this regard.

>Central Government Role:

 

The Central Government should hold a daylong meeting with different stake holders at Siliguri. Allot separate time to each section to know the ground realities. It can review the implementation of different centrally Sponsored Schemes. The Central Government can provide, ration to workers belonging to abandoned gardens and sick gardens as it does during natural calamities. It can assist in improving medical facilities, provide old age and widow pensions. Announce support price. Clarify its policy regarding tea tourism. BMS requests the Central Government to treat this as a matter of urgency and plunge into action.

 

The BMS suggests the following measures to bring solution to the problems:

 

  • Now, wages are governed by agreement. This has to be changed. So, BMS demands to implement daily wages as per Minimum Wage Act for Tea workers in West Bengal State.
  • Provide sufficient food grains to all tea garden workers. As there are starvation death cases, provide 35 kg rice per person per month for abandoned & sick gardens compulsorily. It can be done under food security act also.
  • Make a special provision and recognise all tea garden workers as BPL cards holders and provide food grains and other livelihood facilities.
  • Some way out has to be thought over to recover the PF amounts paid by workers to Management also to reimburse the same in their respective accounts. At the same time, some strict measures have to be taken to recover PF amount from defaulter from original defaulting date.
  • Immediate action is needed by the District authorities to provide power supply to labour quarters like Red Bank estates, medical facilities, safe drinking water and repairing all tube wells.
  • Repairing of houses and providing winter clothes & shoes by the Managements is required on war footing as many are exposed to severe cold which may cause loss of lives.
  • Provide a special grant on par with natural calamity relief measures, particularly to abandoned estates and sick estates’ workers.
  • Old age pension and Widow Pension scheme to be applied and implemented for all tea garden workers.
  • Recognise all Adivasis of North Bengal Tea garden areas under Scheduled Tribes Act and provide all statutory benefits.
  • Extend all medical facilities with hospitalisation.
  • Provide safety equipments to protect from hazardous Chemicals and pesticides.
  • Implement Subsidised Housing Scheme for Tea workers.
  • Arrange a daylong meeting of all stake holders with Union Minister of Commerce at Silliguri. Spare exclusive & sufficient time with workers’ representatives to know the ground realities.
  • Tea Board should redefine its parameters of declaring a sick unit or loss making unit.
  • Bring Tea workers under BPL category and provide all Social Security benefits.
  • Provide ESI coverage to all plantation workers.
  • As there were reports of starvation deaths also deaths due to lack of medical facilities ,the central government has to apply RSBY schemes, Food security bill ,PDS scheme ,housing schemes to the plantation workers .


Hope you respond positively and take appropriate decisions.

Sincerely yours

 

(Shankar Dass)

General Secretary

BMS West Bengal

 

Copy to—

  1. Honourable Union Minister for Labour & Employment

Government of India, New Delhi 

  1. The Chairman, Tea Board, Kolkata.

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