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West Bengal tea garden workers protest 'unjust' takeover plan, insist: Pay dues

By Sandip Singha, et al* 

About 1,300 workers of the Jateswar Division of Birpara Tea Garden have begun a struggle to prevent the illegal and unjust takeover of their garden by Merico Agro Industries Ltd. They have read from the newspapers that a meeting has been organised by the West Bengal Labour Department between trade union leaders and the management of Merico Agro Industries Ltd. 
They received no information about this meeting. Nor were they consulted in any way. Also present at this illegal meeting was local MLA, Manoj Tigga. On February 13, 2021, in a workers’ meeting in the garden, the tea garden workers came up with the following three demands:
  1. As per Supreme Court order, the dues which are remaining should be paid immediately before opening of garden.
  2. All the Provident Fund dues which have not been paid by the management should be paid before opening of garden.
  3. The new management should directly come to the garden and make agreement with the workers of the garden before opening the garden.
According to the Tea Board, the total dues which needs to be paid to the workers are Rs 6.33 crore (till 2016, gratuity not included). If gratuity and interest is included this amount would be more than Rs.10 crores . The workers have been only paid an interim relief of Rs 1.76 crore by the government of West Bengal due to a Supreme Court order. The 2,623 workers of the Birpara garden have not been paid their Provident Fund dues since the last 20 years. They have also not been paid their gratuity since 2007.
Birpara tea garden (gram panchayat Shishujhumra, district Alipurduar) was abandoned by the Duncans Pvt Ltd in 2015. It was temporarily opened in 2017 by Duncans, but was again abandoned in September 2019. After this, the Jateshwar division of the Birpara garden made a collective of their own to run the garden. 1300 workers started working on 405 acres. Since then, the workers have received Rs. 10 per kg for plucking leaves.
Thus, many workers were able to earn around Rs 250-300 per day during the season. The collective started saving right from September 2019 and has now successfully saved so much by selling green leaves that each tea garden worker of the Birpara Jateshwar division received Rs 11,280 as bonus from the surplus savings on October 7, 2020. They have also recently received money for their paid leave (“saal chutti”) during the off season. Workers feel the past year has been better for them than even when Duncans was there.
The workers are especially upset about the agreement that took place between so-called trade union leaders and the Merico Agro India Limited in the presence of the Labour Department because this is in contravention of both High Court and Supreme Court orders .On September 20, 2016, in a case filed by Duncans Industries Limited (MAT 562 of 2016), the High Court gave an interim order that states as follows:
In that view of the matter, subject to result of the appeals, the following interim arrangement has been made by us after hearing the learned advocates for the parties:
"(a) the appellants-writ petitioners shall take over management of all the seven tea gardens;
(b) the appellants-writ petitioners shall pay both the current and arrear dues of the workers;
(c) the appellants-writ petitioners shall run the gardens in a prudent businessman like manner; and
(d) the appellants-writ petitioners shall keep the Tea Board informed by fortnightly returns as to the steps taken by them.
It is clarified that the interim order has been passed only for the purpose of improving the lot of the workers as also that of the gardens. The appellants shall not be entitled to alienate or encumber any of the fixed assets except in the usual course of business."

The seven gardens (Lankapara, Gairganda, Tulsipara, Hantapara, Dumchipara,Birpara and Dimdima) thus belong to Duncans and they are not allowed by the court order to give these gardens to any other owner. They are to run the gardens and return dues to workers.
There is also a Supreme Court order (CONMT PET (C) No 16/2012 In W.P.(C) No. 365/2006), in which the Supreme Court had ordered that workers in over 50 closed and abandoned tea gardens (including the 7 Duncans gardens) in 4 states to receive all their dues , including Provident Fund and gratuity. 
Also, each tea garden owner was ordered on December 11,  2019 to deposit an amount of Rs 2 crore which to this date have not been deposited by Duncans, Merico or any other of the tea garden owners.
According to the workers of Jateswar division, they have put a lot of effort to turn the garden into a paying venture ,after it was deserted by Duncans. Now that it is in profitable condition a new greedy owner is wanting to take over. The workers are angry with the management as well as the government, and do not have any faith in the new employer who didn't even consult with them before taking this decision.
So, the workers have decided that they will not allow any company to enter the garden unless and until all their demands are fulfilled. The workers met MLA Manoj Tigga and informed him about their intentions. They have also sent a letter to Labour Minister Shri Moloy Ghatak, and to the Additional Labour Commissioner. and have given a deputation to the Assistant Labour Commissioner at Birpara. 15 women workers are meeting the police and teams of workers are going to the BDO and DM.
---
*Kiran Sharma, Vinay Karketta, Christian Kheria, Kuldeep Lama, Anuradha Talwar with Paschimbanga Khetmajoor Samity (PBKMS)

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