Jorhat, Feb. 11: Former Assam Congress minister Jibakanta Gogoi's businessman son Rupak was today burned to death by workers of his tea garden following an altercation during a meeting that had been convened, ironically, to resolve a three-year wage dispute.
The grisly incident occurred at Gobindapur tea estate, located in Golaghat district, around 6 pm.
Golaghat deputy commissioner John Ekka said preliminary findings indicated that somebody first hit Rupak with a dao (machete) and he fell to the ground. The rest of the group then set the estate owner ablaze, he said.
The 200-odd workers, who also set fire to an office, later surrendered en masse at Numaligarh police outpost, near the garden.
Chief minister Tarun Gogoi and almost his entire cabinet was in Kaziranga, also in Golaghat district, when the incident occurred.
Ekka said Rupak, 38, was possibly set ablaze while he was still alive, though another version of the incident has it that he was hacked to death before being burned.
The victim was involved in Congress activities at the district level.
Sources said the workers had warned Rupak against coming to the garden until he paid them wages. The owner, however, convened a meeting with the labour union to end the dispute.
The situation ostensibly spun out of control when Rupak told representatives of the labour union that he would pay wages for only three days despite the estate manager having already assured them that wages for a week would be disbursed as 'immediate relief'.
'The labourers, who had not been paid their dues and rations for the past three years, got agitated after the announcement. One of them attacked the estate owner with a dao. The rest joined in immediately and overpowered the two personal security officers. The workers then set Rupak ablaze,' a source said.
The deputy commissioner said additional security personnel had been rushed to the area to maintain law and order.
The 400-acre garden, located about 14 km from Golaghat town, was purchased by Jibakanta Gogoi from Barooah Associates when he was the finance minister in the erstwhile Hiteswar Saikia government.
The garden subsequently fell into bad times and its factory was leased out to another businessman, who gave up after just two months. 'It was a financial mess,' the source said.
Rupak was trying to revive the estate, but repeatedly failed to arrive at a settlement with the labour union.
Disputes over wages are common in the industry and it has become more pronounced since the mid-90s, when profit margins dipped because of rising production costs and a decline in exports.
The social costs are high with the labour component being Rs 43 of the total cost of production of tea, which is around Rs 78 per kg.
The Assam government committee on tea had called for total transparency in tackling the issue pertaining to labour wages. The committee headed by Jayanta Madhab ' who is the economic and financial advisor to chief minister Tarun Gogoi ' in its report last year said in the negotiations total transparency should be adopted and political patronage be avoided.
The tea industry in Assam employs around 6 lakh permanent workers along with 6.6 lakh dependants and accounts for 53 per cent of the total tea production in India.
Today's developments have only vindicated the findings of the committee that the issue of labour wages has created a serious crisis in the industry with both the management and unions sticking to their own stands. It has led to violence with casualties on both sides.
At least three managerial staff were killed by angry labourers in different gardens while many others physically assaulted in 2003 following dispute over Puja bonus.
The crisis had reached a flash point when seven labourers were killed in police firing at Khobang tea estate in Tinsukia district when a large group of workers turned violent over the bonus issue.