Siliguri, Dec. 2: The lean period has set in. Time now for the tea industry to go about its mean business.
Three gardens in the Dooars have just closed down with no sign of reopening in the near future. Several others in the Terai and Dooars regions are thinking of following suit.
U.B. Das, the secretary of Terai Branch of Indian Tea Association, makes no secret of the situation. 'We are genuinely worried that the management of several tea gardens will not be able to pull through during the non-productive months from December-end to March,' Das said. 'Some are trying hard to make both ends meet by investing from outside, but we are afraid that once the lean period sets in fully, operations in these gardens will come to a complete standstill.'
N.K. Basu, convener of Indian Tea Planters' Association, said: 'Last month, we wrote to the Union commerce and industries ministry explaining the situation in some of the gardens and sought central aid for them. But that has gone unheeded.'
After Madhu and Bomandanga tea estates, Samsing tea garden declared a lockout yesterday. In the Terai, Thanjhora tea estate is closed for more than a month now, albeit for a 'different' (read manager assault) reason.
Going by the general apprehension in the industry, Panighata, Belgachi and Bijoynagar tea estates in the Terai and Subhashini, Nemtijhora, Jogeshchandra and Sinchula of the Dooars are some of the gardens likely to face similar consequences.
Intuc leader Alok Chakraborty calls it the 'irrevocable habit' of the management. 'This time, we fear they will be more ruthless and close down more than the last year's figure of 20 gardens,' he added.
Trade union leaders alleged that the management declares suspension of work in a garden at the slightest pretext to avoid paying workers during the non-productive period.
'They take advantage of the lean period,' said Samir Roy, the secretary of the West Bengal Cha Mazdoor Sabha, referring to Thanjhora, where the management declared a lockout after six managerial staff were held hostage for 19 hours and manhandled for delaying payment. The management is not willing to open the garden till action is taken against the guilty.
'That is just a ploy,' Roy said. 'They are not very keen to open the garden. If they are complaining about the lack of administrative support, it is the fault of police, not the workers. The labourers were not responsible for the attack, which was carried out by some outsiders.'
'Thanjhora is a different case and is unrelated to the lean season,' Basu countered. 'Since no action has been taken against the guilty, how can we be assured of the security of the managerial staff'