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Planter murder triggers tea exodus

Dibrugarh/Silchar, Feb. 15: Assam's loss-making tea estates today witnessed an exodus of executives apprehensive of attacks by workers angry over unpaid wages.

Sources said as many 24 executives ' all managers and assistant managers ' fled their estates in the three Upper Assam districts of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Sivasagar despite additional security personnel being deployed in the tea-producing belts of both the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys.

The trigger for the exodus was the death of garden owner Rupak Gogoi, the son of former Congress minister Jibakanta Gogoi, at Govindapur tea estate of Golaghat district on Friday.

A senior representative of the tea industry confirmed the development.

He said 10 executives of estates in Dibrugarh district, 4 from Tinsukia and another 10 from Sivasagar had left their gardens without even applying for leave.

All of these gardens are said to be incurring losses and have not been able to pay wages or distribute rations regularly to the workers.

Dibrugarh assistant labour commissioner Mofida Begum said her department was verifying reports of the exodus. 'We are keeping a close watch on the tea gardens in the district.'

Dibrugarh district has 150-odd tea estates.

Additional superintendent of police (headquarters) Ashim Swargiary said security had been beefed up in and around the tea estates that are prone to labour unrest.

Begum said the managing director of Sree Kamakhya Tea Company Ltd had been summoned on or before February 21 to explain the delay in payment of wages to workers.

'Manohari tea estate, which is owned by the company, has defaulted on payment of salaries to the staff for the past five months and not paid wages to the labourers for a month. The arrears amount to Rs 10 lakh. We served a notice on the managing director after failing to trace the garden manager.'

The 239-acre garden has 19 office staff and about 1,000 labourers, half of them permanent.

Sources said as many as 11 gardens in Dibrugarh district, 5 in Tinsukia and 12 in Sivasagar had defaulted on payment of wages, leading to labour unrest.

The All Assam Tea Tribes Students' Association blamed managers for the unrest in the gardens.

'We condemn the Golaghat incident, but it should also be examined why the labourers were compelled to take such a drastic step,' said Teros Gowala, the general secretary of the association.

Police in the three Barak Valley districts of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi have already taken a slew of precautionary measures, including regular patrolling in the vicinity of tea gardens and better co-ordination with private security personnel hired by some companies.

The Karimganj district administration refuted allegations that some workers of Gambhira tea estate had died either of starvation or for want of medical attention since the garden was closed down.

The management of Govindapur tea estate yesterday declared a lockout even as the Golaghat administration drew up a strategy to restore a semblance of normality in the garden.

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