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Brew deal goes bitter, seals hope
- Young entrepreneur abandons gardens

Jaigaon, Feb. 9: From the saviour to the devil. Workers of Kalchini and Raimatang gardens feel that it did not take Gopi Nath Das much time to switch roles.

With the management abandoning the two gardens yesterday on the pretext of trying to arrange 'funds for the workers', 3,243 labourers have been left in the lurch.

Credited with turning the fortunes of the closed Dheklapara tea estate within months, Das had last year announced his plan to invest Rs 100 crore in the tea industry in the next three years. Impressed by his initiative, Jalpaiguri district magistrate A. Subbiah invited him to take over Kalchini and Raimatang, estates that had been going through tough times.

In September 2005, seven managers from Kalchini and Raimatang had resigned. What followed was a series of workers' protests ' from stripping the almost century-old European Club brick by brick to putting up road and train blockades. With a promise to clear all dues, Das took over the two gardens from Buxa Dooars Tea Company Limited on November 22.

Trouble began when Das wrote two letters to the district administration and the trade unions ' on January 31 and February 7 ' stating that the liabilities of both the gardens were far more than what he had bargained for. Till today the management owed 30 days' wages and 45 days' ration to the workers.

'When I signed the memorandum of understanding last year, I was told that the liabilities were worth Rs 25 crore. But now we have come to know that the actual dues run up to Rs 41 crore, an amount that I think, I will not be able to clear. Till such time the district administration decides on how to clear the dues, it will not be possible for me to make fresh investments,' Das said when The Telegraph contacted him on his cellphone today.

He claimed that he has already invested more than a crore in the gardens.

While Subbiah said the issue was being looked into, assistant labour commissioner M. Saha has convened a tripartite meeting tomorrow.

Pravat Mukherjee, the general secretary of the National Union of Plantation Workers ' the largest union in the two gardens ' said: 'The workers do not know whether the liabilities are Rs 25 crore or Rs 41 crore. It is a criminal offence on the part of the new owner not to clear wages and dues for the period of work during his tenure as owner.'

Lalao Oraon, a woman worker of Kalchini estate, said: 'We are back to square one. He (Das) is not the god we thought him to be. He is like the others.' The workers have, however, not stopped working.

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