Planters, who were confused over the state government’s decision to go for complete lockdown twice a week from 23 July, heaved a sigh of relief this evening after the state government issued a fresh order, leaving the tea plantations out of the purview of the lockdown.
Several officials associated with tea associations had been discussing the fresh order and had been wondering whether the tea industry would come under the total lockdown after Home Secretary Alapan Bandyopadhaya yesterday announced the decision.
Darjeeling DM, S Ponnambalam, had earlier said that the state government would issue a notification on it and that the matter will become clear after that. In an order, Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha today pointed out 10 sectors, including emergency services and agriculture operation and tea garden operation in field as exceptions.
“If the tea industry comes under this lockdown in the future, the state will have to ensure full payment of wages and salaries for workers during the lockdown,” the spokesperson for the Joint Forum, a conglomeration of trade unions, Zia-ul-Alam, said.
“The state can allow operations in the tea sector if the newly-constituted task force in each plantation led by the managerial head maintains all health protocols to save residential tea gardens from community spreading. Recently, we have noticed that all health protocols are allegedly being violated in almost all plantations as they run after huge production to make up for the losses during the initial stages of the nationwide lockdown,” Mr Alam added.
Notably, Tamil Nadu had managed permission to begin operations in tea plantations as tea as a part of essential food items, and then Assam. After Assam, the West Bengal government had gradually allowed planters to start operations. It may be mentioned here that tea workers have not yet received their full wages for the lockdown period.
“Around 70 percent workers have been able to receive 50 percent after a legal battle. To fight the coronavirus, if the state goes for lockdown in the tea sector, it would have to ensure workers’ wages. The matter is sub-judice in the Supreme Court. The SC has already asked the state labour department to intervene to settle the matter. The apex court will hear on some related issues, seeking clarifications from the Central government,” Mr Alam said.
It may be noted that the Officer on Special Duty for Covid management in North Bengal, Dr Susanta Roy, had convened a meeting in early June with the administration, tea garden managements and trade unions on steps to be taken to keep the tea sector away from the pandemic.
A series of decisions were taken to main health protocols and it was decided that the management would not bring contractual workers from outside in ‘residential’ tea plantations and that regular disinfection of vehicles ferrying materials for plantations including made tea would be carried out. The gardens had also decided to increase the number of machines to weigh green leaves so that workers could maintain proper physical distancing. In the meeting, the trade union leaders also demanded a compensation of Rs 10 lakh if any worker died due to Covid 19, sources said.