Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has decided not to exempt tea plantations in North Bengal from the lockdown, keeping in mind the ‘vulnerable’ situation of tea gardens owing to influx of a huge number of migrant workers.
Though tea garden owners are virtually upset at the state government’s decision, despite several reminders to the CM to continue operations and even other officials including state finance minister Amit Mitra, trade union leaders and other political leaders, including Darjeeling’s BJP MP, Raju Bista, welcomed the state government’s stand.
Also, Mr Bista today wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, requesting him for a team of medical and disaster experts to ascertain Covid-19 preparations in North Bengal.
Addressing the Press at Nabanna today, Miss Banerjee said: “Though the central government has asked us to open tea gardens, the state government has decided to wait and watch for a few more days, keeping in mind the Covid death in Kalimpong. I have been interacting with several people to know about the situation in tea gardens. If we open it now, the situation may turn critical.” According to the chairman of the Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA), Binod Mohan, the timing of the coronavirus outbreak was “bad.”
“It is a big setback for the tea industry because gardens are closed owing to the Covid- 19 outbreak during the first flush season. If it is open after seven days, we will be able to assess the situation. We don’t know for how long such a situation will last. Control over tea gardens is now out of our hands,” he said.
“I welcome Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s decision to maintain lockdown in tea plantations, keeping in mind the safety of hundreds of tea workers. Today, I have requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi to send a team of Medical and Disaster experts to ascertain Covid-19 preparations in the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital for North Bengal districts,” Mr Bista, on the other hand, said.
“Given the economic backwardness of North Bengal region, many youths, who were working in different states and abroad, have returned to their villages. Only a few have voluntarily gone into quarantine, while a majority of them have already mixed with the general population. My deepest fear is outbreak of the disease in remote parts of North Bengal where the local hospitals and communities are not prepared to combat Covid- 19,” he added.
Significantly, Joint Forum, a conglomeration of several trade unions in the tea industry, also welcomed the CM’s decision. Spokesperson of the Forum, Ziaul Alam, in a letter to CM, pointed out several issues and demanded development of health infrastructure and urged her to ensure continuous vigil on “social distancing” and maintain hygiene codes.
An insider in the tea industry said the state government should begin rapid tests in all tea gardens. Similarly, General Secretary of the North Bengal Tea Plantation Employees Union, Abhijit Roy, appreciated the CM’s decision to not allow resumption of operations in the gardens. “We are thankful to her and hope for similar proactive and positive response to our appeal for ensuring payment of wages to the tea workers,” he said.
The International Union of Food and Agriculture Workers (IUFAW) and the Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS) have also jointly appealed to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Justice, SA Bobde, and Justice L Nageswar Rao, highlighting the plight of tea garden workers in North Bengal.
In a letter to the CJ, on behalf of IUFAW and PBKMS, Anuradha Talwar has urged that employers should pay full wages for the lockdown period. She also said the central and state governments should pay the wages in gardens if employers don’t pay the same, and should recover the amount from them.