Darjeeling, April 7: Saroj Subba (name changed) enrolled himself as a labourer in the cinchona plantations six years ago. He does not go to work but instead runs a grocery shop within the plantation. But every month Subba draws his full salary, like the rest of the workers who have gone to work throughout the month.
This is a model for destruction and the state government-run cinchona plantations, which are reeling from an annual loss of Rs 28 crore, have many such internal 'systems' which are to be blamed for their present condition.
An investigation by The Telegraph revealed that Subba is not the lone labourer-cum-businessman who has an alternative source of income. Hundreds of labourers of the garden never attend work but are being paid their monthly salaries. They get Rs 83 per day, which means they get Rs 2,158 for 26 working days.
Thanks to a peculiar set-up, prevalent since the Raj days, the labourers of the cinchona plantations are entitled to an 'extra' day ' a paid holiday ' if he puts in some hours of extra work. In the plantation's parlance it is called an 'over'. People like chowkidars, cooks etc who have to work even on holidays or Sundays are not paid extra salary but an 'over'. This implies that the person working on an extra holiday can avail of a leave at a later date.
However, people like chowkidars do not take leave but they sell their day's leave to another person, like Subba, for a lesser amount than the daily wages.
For example, the daily wage of a labourer in the cinchona plantations is Rs 83. However, a chowkidar who has accumulated such 'overs' sell them to people like Subba for anything ranging between Rs 40 and Rs 50. In turn, the chowkidar's extra day is transferred to Subba's attendance, something which was allowed by the British and which continues to be in practice. Subba only needs to buy 26 such 'overs' in a month and get them transferred to his attendance to get his month's salary and he does not even have to attend work.
Such 'overs' are entitled to any labourer in the garden who puts in extra work beyond the stipulated eight hours. 'In the cinchona plantations, the works starts from six in the morning and continues till 2 pm. However, if there is some minor work to be done after 2 pm, like running an errand, the management has to give him one 'over'. The errand might take him only half-an-hour, to complete but it is enough for him to earn an extra day.
'This is a system prevalent since the Raj days and it is still going on,' said a source in the plantation.
It is usually the divisional officer of the plantation who sanctions such 'overs'. The government is apparently oblivious to the strange practice, which is partly responsible for the huge losses accumulated by the cinchona plantations, but has done nothing to stop it.
There are other ways of earning an 'over' also. For example, if a labourer's housing quarters needs to be repaired, the management merely tells him to get it done himself and sanctions him around 50 overs. The worker does not have to go to the plantation but can stay at home and repair it. He will get his normal salary in addition to this 50 'overs', which he invariably sells to people engaged in other professions.
(To be continued)