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TEA AND COERCION

There is a suicidal streak in the trade union militancy in north Bengalís tea industry, as the gruesome massacre of 19 people in a tea garden has so tragically exposed. It is destroying an industry that has long remained the only hope for jobs and economic prosperity in what is otherwise an area of darkness. Gone are the days when north Bengal prided itself in its triple advantage of tea, timber and tourism. Depleted forests and stricter environmental laws have taken the shine off the timber business. Uncertain law and order situations and steadily deteriorating infrastructure have reduced the tourist traffic to a trickle. Only the tea industry still offered some hope in a region where economic development has been particularly slow even for a notoriously sluggish state. If irresponsible trade unionism has been the bane of Bengalís economy in general, it has been ruinous for the tea industry. One plausible explanation for this is the location of the tea gardens. Stuck deep in the hills of Darjeeling or the forests of Jalpaiguri, the tea gardens are like peripheral lands where the law often exists at the mercy of the lawless. Owners and managers of the tea estates are forced to buy peace with criminals masquerading as trade union leaders because they cannot hope to get the protection of law in times of need.

Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee should know the perils of letting north Bengal slip into further economic decline. The state government set up a separate development board for the region some years ago. But the state of the governmentís finance being what it is, it is no surprise that the board has achieved little so far by way of unleashing new economic forces. All this underscores the importance of the tea industry, not only as a provider of jobs but also as a pivotal economic activity around which many ancillaries can develop and revolve. The chief minister faces a challenge in the tea gardens ó he has to hold in check his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and its affiliate, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, in check and he has to ensure that the law works even in the remote gardens. It is a challenge he faces all over Bengal, but the tea estates could be as crucial a test for him as the coalmines of Burdwan, where too union coercion and lawlessness hold another vital industry to ransom.

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