Jalpaiguri, Aug. 4: Dealing a body blow to the government’s efforts to revive the closed tea gardens, another estate stopped operations on Saturday after a group of idle labourers who had been forced to work beat up the manager and two senior officials.
The suspension of operations at the Chuapara Tea Garden, a unit of McLeod Russel, comes days after the Ariaman Tea Garden of Jayashree Tea closed down on July 24. As many as 16 tea estates are closed in north Bengal.
Secretary of the Dooars Branch of Indian Tea Association Prabir Bhattacharya blamed the labourers for the unrest as unlike other gardens, Chuapara was doing well and had not reduced wages of the workers.
“A number of labourers are responsible for this. They thrashed the manager and an assistant manager and a tea taster, creating havoc in the garden. A complaint has been lodged with the Kalchini police station. The management was forced to close the garden.”
Manager J.P. Alex, assistant Atul Wale and tea taster Dipak Burbura were taken to Siliguri, from where they will be shifted to Calcutta. While Burbura has sustained injuries in the skull, Alex and Wale have been wounded in the spine.
Police have arrested four persons for the attack. “Of the four, two were named in the FIR. We are also looking for some other people,” said Jalpaiguri superintendent of police Siddh Nath Gupta.
Tea industry sources said the estate employs around 1,400 labourers, who are divided among three unions: the Cha Bagan Mazdoor Union affiliated to Citu, UTUC controlled by the RSP and the Intuc-backed NUPW.
“Over the years, the management found out that a group of labourers, comprising 10 to 15 per cent of the workforce, was drawing salaries without working. They used to sit idle and earn their wages. After holding discussions for two to three months, the management and the unions agreed to work upon and engage the labourers in some job of the garden. The management decided to crack the whip and gave them an ultimatum that they had to work.
“Finally, on Saturday, when the weekly payment was being disbursed, they attacked the management executives and ransacked the office. The manager, the assistant manager and a tea taster were wounded. The management was forced to stop operations in the garden,” Bhattacharya said.
What is galling, added Bhattacharya, is that only a handful of labourers was responsible for the “gross lawlessness”, which forced the management to suspend operations.
“At a time when the tea industry is facing a slump, this estate was running fine. There was no problem in the garden. Wages and amenities were provided regularly,” he said.
Tea officials were taken aback by the attack. “The industry is going through a bad phase. If the labourers now start creating unnecessary problems in the few gardens that are running properly, it will not be possible for us to continue production,” a tea official said.
Officials said they had been dealt a double whammy with the Coordination Committee of Plantation Workers saying the strike on August 11 would not be the end of the agitation launched by the workers.
Convener of the coordination committee, an amalgamation of trade unions, Chitta Dey said: “If the demands raised by us are not met by the end of this agitation, we would resort to strikes in the districts of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri.”
The committee has started its agitation in the tea belt of north Bengal since July 15.