The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Stir in planters' bitter brew
- Strike-hit tea cries for lifeline, Buddha in rescue attempt

Calcutta, July 18: As the crisis in the tea gardens of north Bengal deepened, the government today continued efforts to hold another round of talks with the planters and workers on Wednesday.

'We are trying our best to break the impasse,' chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said at Writers' Buildings. 'Before the tripartite meeting, we will hold bilateral talks to seed the grounds for a positive outcome.'

He spoke after an almost hour-long briefing from the labour minister, Mohammed Amin, labour secretary Ashok Mohan Chakraborty and commerce and industries secretary Sabyasachi Sen.

A tripartite meeting on Saturday failed with representatives of the tea garden workers' unions walking out after being offered a wage hike of Re 1 by the planters. Fourteen unions have called a 12-hour bandh in Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling and North Dinajpur tomorrow to protest against the planters' stand.

'We are in no position to make a renewed offer to the workers. We are losing Rs 15 crore each day of this ongoing strike and will take long to recover from this. The workers walked out of the last meeting, not us,' K. David, the regional vice-chairman of the Indian Tea Planters' Association (ITPA), said after a meeting with Chakraborty.

During the meeting, tea industry representatives said the fortunes, importance and resilience of the industry have sharply declined over the past few years, rendering it incapable of absorbing the high cost of labour welfare and the trade unions' demands.

'It does not matter whether the water level is two inches or two feet above the head,' said David. 'The fact is we, as an industry, are drowning, and there is no lifeline in sight.'

The planters, facing fierce competition from global players like Kenya and Sri Lanka in the export market and from other beverages at home, are no longer in a position to pick up the tab for the cost of labour welfare, a delegation from two industry lobbies told the government.

Drawing a parallel with the steel industry as it was before the economic liberalisation, they pointed out that a primary producer like Tata Steel was unable to absorb the rising cost of labour welfare, which once included township infrastructure, healthcare, education and food.

With the production cost climbing 40 per cent, the tea industry has been in doldrums over the past five years. Especially hit has been the organised sector, which faces competition from small growers who do not adhere to the social security measures prescribed in the Plantation Labour Act.

'The cost of social benefits has jumped 25 per cent in five years. After the Food Corporation of India stopped supplying food grain, we are having to procure it at the market price (Rs 10 a kilo) and give it away at 40 paise,' a planter said.

The planters had tried to introduce productivity-linked wages, which would have enabled workers to earn more if they produced more, but the unions shot down the scheme.

Amin is scheduled make a statement on the tea crisis in the Assembly tomorrow.

The Left Front would support tomorrow's bandh, state CPM secretary Anil Biswas said, adding: 'The problem has arisen because of the adamant attitude of the garden owners, who are refusing to hike wages even three years after the previous agreement expired.'

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