The venue for the interaction between tea workers and BJP’s national president Amit Shah has been shifted from Jalpaiguri to Nagrakata, where tea workers are likely to demand amendment to the Plantation Labour Act.
BJP sources said Mr Shah will meet select tea workers at Nagrakata, an Adivasi-dominated region in the Dooars in Jalpaiguri district, in the afternoon of 8 April.
A senior BJP leader said Mr Shah wants to know firsthand the problems faced by tea workers and the industry and the role of the state government, “so that he can form plans to resolve the problems.”
“The BJP leadership wants to resolve the problems of tea gardens from its heart. If the BJP can bring in massive changes in the tea industry, workers will automatically support the party in both Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in the state,” a senior BJP leader said on Thursday.
Talking to The Statesman over the phone, BJP MLA from Madarihat, Manoj Tigga, said: “Tea is the only industry in north Bengal, but the state government is not thinking seriously for the development of the industry. The state managed to escape from doing more for the workers by providing temporary relief.”
Mr Tigga said the state government has asked planters to pay an interim relief of Rs 17.50 a day from 1 January 2018, while the tripartite wage agreement was terminated on 31 March 2017.
“A state government cannot issue such an order without unanimous decision through negotiations among tea workers, planters and the government. The state cannot deprive workers of their legitimate claims. Such instances have never occurred earlier,” he said.
Notably, a tea worker used to get Rs 132.50 as per the last tripartite agreement, and with the interim relief, the state has asked planters to pay them Rs 150 a day.
“The state also can’t deprive workers of ration. Though the state has recently announced another interim payment of ration value (Rs 9 a day), all tea workers have been deprived of their ration value (a part of their wages) of Rs 660, since February 2016 when the National Food Security Act (NFSA) was implemented.
The NFSA is a Central government project, and being an Indian citizen, a tea worker has the right to get food grain from the government too. There is no relation with the Plantation Labour Act and the normal ration system provided by the planters,” Mr Tigga added.
“We need a total change from both the Centre and the state governments. The Plantation Labour Act always favours owners of tea gardens. An amendment to the Plantation Labour Act is imperative,” he said, adding that workers will be getting medical benefits and treatment from hospitals like the ESI if the Act is amended.
“I raised this issue in the Assembly to draw the attention of the state labour minister Moloy Ghatak,” he said. “The situation of tea gardens has deteriorated and the plight of the workers has gone up. There is no proper road to walking. There is no proper housing where workers can live peacefully after eight hours of duty every day. Virtually, there is no roof that can protect them from rainwater. There are no windows and even doors in their quarters. As our country is campaigning for digital India, the condition of tea gardens is deteriorating,” the MLA added.
Citing another example, he alleged: “The Dhumchipara tea gardens owned by Duncans have not deposited workers’ provident fund till date.” Tea gardens are closing and reopening, while workers, including women, leave for other states to earn their livelihood, BJP leaders claimed.
“The Dheklapara tea garden is closed since many days. The then north Bengal development minister Gautam Deb occasionally used to visit there to feed Khichri to the workers. But distribution of Khichri is not a permanent solution. The BJP wants to adopt a method to bring in total development and permanent solution to the tea industry in West Bengal,” Mr Tigga said.