| UNDER THREAT: Work in progress in a tea garden in Assam
New Delhi, Oct. 6: Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL) has received an extortion threat ostensibly from the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa), demanding Rs 2 crore from the company within a fortnight.
An extortion note was received by the company at Doom Dooma in Tinsukia district of upper Assam on September 26.
The matter has been brought to the notice of the government of Assam, the Union home ministry and other relevant agencies dealing with the Northeast. Although the extortion threat was received in the last week of September, government sources here claimed that the home ministry was informed only last Friday.
An HLL spokesman ruled out paying any extortion money to the Ulfa, saying: “The company which is a part of Unilever operates in more than 50 countries in the world and as a part of its global policy, does not make any such contribution.”
The company spokesman also confirmed that the extortion note had been brought to the attention of the authorities.
“We have informed the state and central authorities who have taken all measures to ensure the continuation of our operations, both in the plantations and in our factories. We have a long and abiding commitment to the state of Assam and its people as borne out by our investments of over Rs 250 crore made in the past three years. We are also committed to our employees as well as to the people in our ancillaries who are dependent on us.”
The HLL spokesman, asked about the exact contents of the extortion note, refused to comment. According to reliable sources, however, the Doom Dooma division of HLL received the extortion note signed by one A. Saikia on behalf of the head office of the “Eastern Zonal Council of Ulfa”.
The note, written in English, was delivered with a covering letter in Assamese signed by one Moon Bora.
The covering letter, along with the extortion note, was received by a junior employee of HLL. It instructed the employee to deliver the enclosed note to the right authorities and to ensure that it was communicated properly to them. It gave a fortnight’s time for compliance or else threatened “action” against the company.
This is the second time that HLL has received a threat from the Assam militants. Under a similar threat in 1990, the company chose to close down its operations.
However, later HLL not only re-started its operations in Assam but also expanded them — from nine plantations in 1990, today it has 16. HLL’s 16 estates are concentrated in the two districts of Dibrugarh and Tinsukia and encompass over 7,000 hectares under tea. The company has nine factories in Assam for processing tea and one for manufacturing soaps and other personal care products.
The total estate population supported by HLL (workers and their families) in Assam is estimated to be about 67,000.
The extortion note comes in the midst of a wage crisis in the Assam tea gardens. Only last week in Tinsukia, plantation guards fired at agitating workers in one of the tea gardens (not owned by HLL).
Most tea companies paid a bonus of 20 per cent last year. However, this year, bonus in some cases has gone down to 8.33 per cent although most tea companies have averaged a 15 per cent bonus payout. HLL itself is believed to have paid 14.5 per cent bonus this year.