Five Government-run tea-estates on Sale in West Bengal !
A report from Rungmook-Cedars tea garden by Laali Guraas team.
The blueprint was being prepared perhaps since a long ago…
In the year 2007, Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayeman of Dubai, and chairman of DP World Group, took a helicopter ride for an aerial view of some tea estates in Darjeeling. His company then had chosen the Queen of Hills for its first project in the hospitality industry in north Bengal — a “seven-star hotel”.
After landing at the Bagdogra airport, in a chartered flight, a five-member team of DP World Group took off for a view of the Pandam tea estate in Darjeeling, Ragerung estate in Ghoom and Rungmook-Cedars estate in Sonada, on a Sikkim government helicopter.
Seven years later, on this ‘Republic Day’, we, a team from ‘Laali Guraas’ magazine, had a long walk down the hills from Sonada to the same Rungmook-Cedars tea garden, which is one among the five Government-run Tea Estates which are set to be privatised or rendered to PPP (Public-Private Partnership) Model as announced by Amit Mitra. The first privatisation move comes within a fortnight of Amit Mitra taking over the additional charge of the state commerce and industry department. A total of about 3000 workers in these five tea gardens are to be affected by this new decision of privatising. The tea-gardens are Rungmook-Cedars (719 ha), Rangaroon (120 ha) and Pandam (382 ha) tea gardens in Darjeeling hills and Hilla (709 ha) and Mahua (683 ha) tea gardens under Dooars of Jalpaiguri district.
The West Bengal Tea Development Corporation — set up in 1976 to purchase ailing privately-owned tea estates — took over four gardens in Darjeeling and Dooars between July 1977 and April 1981. Mahua was developed later by the state.
Presently, Rungmook-Cedars has 1,931 workers and staff personnel, Pandam has about 268, while Rangeyrung has 199 workers in their payroll. The colour of the government changed, but the blueprint to sell the public enterprises remained same and thus is the negligence with the fate of the workers.
Our visit was to understand the situation and interact with the workers and the people over there to know their views regarding the shift of management and ownership to a private one.
Rungmook Tea Estate, situated on the beautifully crafted landscape is one and a half hour walk from Sonada. Estate's factory is merged with another Government-run Tea Estate 'Cedars', which is also on the list of getting privatised. These two Tea Estates together employs 1931 odd permanent workers, out of which 350 posts are not replaced after retirement. This is the main problem accompanied by suspension of gratuity of the staffs since past 28 months and since 11 months for the workers. The accumulated arrears and salary of the sub-staff, senior staff members and workers total Rs 2.15 crore, and disbursement of the amount has been pending since May 2011. It was learned that the firewood fund of the year 2014 has also been suspended. There are no differences of wage as compared with the private Tea Estates. The distributions of rations are timely distributed with exceptions in some phases, and other services like provident fund receipt etc. were also timely maintained.
Looking into the historical background of the Tea Estate, it was under a German owner even after Independence till 1981, but when the owner failed to pay taxes to the govt., and wages to the workers, the then owner Jeffery Jonston, a German born and brought up in Darjeeling was murdered suspiciously. After that the then Govt. undertook the Tea Estate.
There are same old excuses on behalf of the sellers’ side. The Government is talking about huge losses, the management stating that there are excess workers as according to the per hectare number of workers. This is being the reason cited for suspension of the workers. The govt. Is stating that workers of these gardens will have the option of taking up state government jobs in other departments or opt for a voluntary retirement solution. We witnessed the same blueprint while the Left-front regime too. Hundreds of govt-run enterprises were winded up or the workforce downsized through VRS schemes, funded by DFID.
The story remains the same. Spread the hoax of ill-functioning of govt firms, then either fire the workers, talk of austerity, and then invite private players to have a great treat! Like the Sultan in 2007, this time leading tea companies like BK Birla-promoted Jay Shree Tea, Ambootia Group, Bagaria Group and the Andrew Yule have shown interest in becoming strategic investors in five tea estates.
Talking to some workers and senior technicians, we were told that the majority trade union in the garden, affiliated to GJM, are opposing the privatisation, or rather we had an impression that the workers at least wants that the move of privatisation should be opposed. However, views opposite to this were also heard, among the workers. There were views that the carelessness of the government-run management as seen in other government departments is the main cause behind the deficit. And a strict management was the need of the hour to combat the current situation of the Estate, and this argument, in some way or the other gave an acceptance of the policy of privatisation. They also said that, there are chances of replacement of workers which is suspended since 2008. They were hardly aware of the other grave and adverse consequences which are set to unfold immediately after making the Estate a private enterprise. The enterprise which runs on profit- motive is ready to squeeze every drop of profit with no less ruthlessness seen till now.
The other trade union, affiliated to CPRM, is a weaker one now, and appeared to be silent and a bit indifferent to the situation and it seemed that they are awaiting the role of the majority union.
Local Leaders of the majority trade union however said that everything will be done by the head-office and there was nothing to do in their part. It was surprising to hear so. This is severely alienating the workers from the issue related to their own livelihood. Neither a poster nor any form of protest was seen in the area; rather it seemed that the tea-estate was set free for the predators to hunt!