Today in North Bengal there are two types of tea gardens. The old ones or ‘set gardens’ numbering around 300 are registered tea gardens enjoying a 99-year lease; they include associated factory, workers’ quarters, hospital, etc. Among these, 150 are in Dooars (Jalpaiguri), 100 in Darjeeling and 50 in the Terai region. They are either on the brink of lockout or have already announced it. On the other hand, the new tea gardens have mushroomed in the last couple of decades in North Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri and Coochbehar districts. Relatively smaller in size, these gardens have occupied around 60,000-80,000 hectares of what was earlier agricultural land, land of 150 large pineapple gardens and tribal land.
This new community of ‘tea cultivators’ has done away with all the obligations of providing to the workers amenities such as houses, medical and ration. They pay extremely low wages and violate the established rules for tea gardens at will. On the basis of low cost of production they flood the market with their wholesale supplies. In their money spinning drive speculators purchase tea wastage from Assam, mix it with CTC leaves and sell it in the market, which has brought down the quality. In the recent decades illegal tea gardens and such ‘bought leaf’ factories have grown everywhere. Even the ‘set’ tea gardens have started showing a retrogressive tendency to get converted to ‘bought leaf’ factories. This has prepared ground for a largescale labour and wage contraction. Phenomenon of ‘outsourcing’ or ‘farming out’ has also started manifesting itself in tea production.
Earlier the state government used to at least “curse” these illegally sprouting tea gardens. Now it has legalised them with “no-objection certificates”. The newborn intermediary and speculator class enjoys patronage of the ruling party. With the help of influential political leaders and corrupt panchayat prdhans they have wrecked havoc in the tea industry. Presently the real estate assets of ‘set’ tea gardens are on their agenda. Therefore, attempts to evict workers from tea garden land and convert such lands into high rise hotels and tourist spots are on. One example is Chandmoni tea garden near Siliguri, where the speculators-promoters-businessmen like Harsh Newatia, an agent of Bengal Ambuja, operating under the patronage of the Urban Development Minister of LF govt., tried to grab the tea garden land. On 26 June when the tea workers built up a resistance against eviction the LF Govt.’s police opened fire, killing two workers and injuring many.
Similar nexus was witnessed in Changmari between extortionists of CPI(M) and the police where the police opened fire to kill three workers and injure a dozen of them.
On behalf of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri district committees, a team immediately rushed to the hospitals and talked to the injured workers. An investigation team from party’s Jalpaiguri DC composed of Subrata Chakraborty and Bijon Sarkar went to the spot. On the basis of the report submitted by them Party demanded judicial inquiry into the incident, proper compensation to the deceased and injured workers and exemplary punishment to the police officers responsible of firing. A propaganda and protest campaign has been launched by the Party on these demands.
The Changmari tea garden trade union has been controlled by CITU and for 27 years one Sanjay Toppo is the secretary of the union without holding any organizational elections. Every week the worker, on getting payment, is compelled to pay Rs. 20 as “donation” to the trade union, but s/he gets a coupon of only Rs. 10 denomination. If a worker dares to question this discrepancy, the answer is that Rs. 10 would go to the central level.
Earlier the higher secondary school and the primary school in the locality were run by management committees filled up with Sanjay Toppo’s coterie. They used to extract money from students but never used it for development purpose. This practice continued for ten years and workers’ discontent piled up. Gradually overwhelming majority of workers got assembled under Amarnath Jha and Kumar Thapa to oppose Sanjay Toppo and his coterie. For the last two years when the management of the schools was taken over by Jha and Thapa, the money collected from students was spent for development of the schools.
The discontent against forcible collection from workers by the trade union bosses had piled up and on 9 February it assumed explosive proportions. Sanjay Toppo had gone to the tea garden with his gang to extort ‘tribute’ when more than a thousand workers put up resistance and Sanjay gang had to retreat. They went back to CPI(M) office at Luksan Bazaar and started harassing the workers who had gone their for marketing. Here too the workers put up resistance. Then the Sanjay gang took shelter in Nagarkata police station, from where the police came to attack workers, injuring several persons including women. Five persons including Kumar Thapa were arrested.
In this backdrop, some educated youth among local tribal people took the path of agitation and led by Amarnath Jha, mass of the workers launched protest on 24 February and blocked a road. More than a hundred policemen along with police officers from Nagarkata, Malbazar police stations and attacked workers who were staging their democratic protest. Lathicharge and teargas shelling was followed by firing in which two workers died on the spot and one died in the hospital. Police has razed Amarnath Jha’s house to ground and arrest 35 persons, including 23 women, one of them pregnant. Some women complained of molestation at the hands of policemen. However, this was a significant incident of resistance put up by a sizeable number of women. q