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Damage control with cash, probe
- Bandh today against tea killings, cry for gogoi’s scalp

Sept. 30: A rattled Assam government announced a slew of damage-control measures a day after the police firing on workers of Khobang tea estate, but came under fire from all quarters for failing to read the writing on the wall.

Seven labourers were killed and over a dozen injured when security personnel opened fire on protesters who allegedly turned violent while demanding Puja bonus at the rate of 20 per cent. The garden management, which declared a lockout after the incident, had offered five per cent less than what the workers wanted.

The Assam Tea Tribes Students Association (ATTSA) has called a 12-hour statewide bandh tomorrow in protest against the killings, while the Opposition Asom Gana Parishad has demanded the Tarun Gogoi ministry’s resignation for failing to prevent the crisis.

As pressure mounted on the government, it announced a magisterial inquiry into the firing and Rs 1 lakh each as compensation to the families of the seven victims.

The other steps include a directive to the management to end the impasse over bonus before Puja, deployment of police and Assam Tea Protection Force in troubled tea gardens and cancellation of Puja leave applied for by deputy commissioners and superintendents of police.

An official source said Gogoi, who is in the US on a personal tour, telephoned acting chief minister Bhumidhar Barman and asked him to “take all steps” to restore normality.

Barman, who holds the health portfolio, convened an emergency meeting at the state secretariat to discuss the situation and directed the Tinsukia district administration to assist the management of Khobang tea estate in ending the crisis. The meeting decided to set up a control room to keep tabs on tea estates that are prone to violence.

Tension in the Assam Frontier Company-owned Khobang tea estate was reflected on the faces of the workers when labour minister Rameshwar Dhanowar, minister of state for PWD Etwa Munda and minister of state for home Rockybul Hussain paid a visit.

The crowd that had gathered for the cremation of the seven victims turned hostile when the three ministers reached the garden.

In neighbouring Talap tea estate, labourers manhandled the manager and one of his assistants, forcing the army to intervene. The entire managerial staff was later escorted to Doom Dooma town.

The army, however, turned down a request by the Tinsukia district administration to help the police in the event of another burst of violence.

Workers of Kharjan tea estate, also owned by Assam Frontier Company, tried to block National Highway 37 near Panitola in protest against yesterday’s police firing.

ATTSA general secretary Kamakhya Prasad Tasa said there would be no plucking or pruning from November in gardens that had paid bonus only at the minimum stipulated rate of 8.33 per cent. He said the organisation would soon convene a meeting of all senior politicians from the tea community. Six ministers and 13 legislators represent the tea tribes.

The ATTSA even threatened to boycott the Lok Sabha election if the government did not mete out justice to tea garden workers.

A 10-member delegation of the Hind Mazdoor Kissan Panchayat, affiliated to the Samata Party, left for Tinsukia tonight for an on-the-spot assessment of the situation. The report will be submitted to defence minister and Samata Party leader George Fernandes, who is expected to visit Assam in mid-October.

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