Several management officials associated with tea gardens in the Hills have received ‘threat calls’ since yesterday from a person, who identifies himself as Rajeev Sharma, a member of the consultative committee of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) from West Bengal.

Planters, however, said Sharma was not a member of the FCI committee. Significantly, Sharma, who is allegedly close to a senior BJP leader and Rajya Sabha Member Subrahmanyan Swami, has uploaded a video clip in his Facebook account, in which he is seen threatening Rishi Saria of Rohini Tea Garden in Kurseong, for allegedly asking workers to join their duties despite the lockdown. Like Saria, managerial staff members of some other tea gardens in the Hills, including Sanjay Das, the manager Makaibari Tea Garden, have also allegedly received such calls from Mr Sharma, a resident of Alipurduar.

As the managerial staff of gardens associated with the Darjeeling Indian Tea Association (DITA) received the ‘threat calls,’ it was initially decided to lodge a complaint with the district magistrate. “I cannot issue any press release. Why should I lodge a complaint…?” DITA Secretary Mohan Chhetri, however, said. It is learnt that gardens in the Hills and the plains, which had remained open even after the lockdown announcement, closed today after they received similar calls from other different corners, including political parties.

Having failed to pluck green leaves and manufacture premium quality tea during the first flush season, the planters are upset and have said that they would not be able to pay their workers. Interestingly, an owner of a tea garden in the Hills said: “Darjeeling MP Raju Bista, being close to the union finance minister and commerce and industry minister, and one the other hand Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) chairman Anit Thapa being close to CM Mamata Banerjee, have played a pivotal role in closing down the tea gardens in North Bengal. The labour laws are clear- -‘no work no pay’. With the tea industry almost washed away, in any event the producers are not in a position to pay the workers for ‘no work’. Now, Bista and Thapa must quantify how much financial relief they will provide to the unemployed workers and the industry.”

Notably, Principal Advisor to the Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA), Sandeep Mukherjee, in a letter to Darjeeling DM Deepa Priya P, quotes the guidelines of both the Centre and the state governments and says: “As you are aware, tea is an agricultural operation requiring continuous process both in terms of manufacturing, as the green leaves are perishable and time sensitive, and also the plantation activities as tea bushes require continuous plucking…”

“Pending clarification on the exemption, we are unable to advise the members. Kindly note that time is of greatest essence and we would request you to kindly revert with your decision at the earliest,” Mr Mukherjee adds. However, Banarhat Tea Estate, Batabari, Gandrapara, Looksun, and Mogulkata tea gardens yesterday issued a notification, stating that the gardens, including the factory, would remain closed till midnight of 31 March.

Asked to comment, spokesperson of the Joint Forum, a conglomeration of trade unions, Zia ul Alam, quoted government advisories and said: “Employers will have to pay the workers during the lockdown period until further order.”

“A total of 20,000 migrants labourers have come to Alipurduar district. The present situation is not good due to the inhumane attitude of garden owners. We are waiting for fresh government orders regarding payment of wages,” said TMC leader Bablu Mukherjee, who is the senior vice-president of the Cha Bagan TMC Mazdoor Union.