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Where parties dare not promise

Jalpaiguri, May 6: Even Ja- yalalithaa wouldn't probably have laced her promises with gold in the vast expanse of the Dooars.

Where the greatest con- cern in life is the next meal, pledges and politicians don't matter.

The innumerable lines on 40-year-old Haribhakta Chhetri's face tell the story of a once-flourishing business. He is one of 1,103 permanent workers at Ramjhora Tea Estate, closed for the past four years.

With his family ' parents, wife and two children ' look-ing to him for food, Chhetri cannot spare a thought for the polls. 'All the candidates have come here and asked for votes. They have talked about state and national issues. But none of them has promised to re- open the garden. They know they can't,' Chhetri said.

Along with rice and loan waivers, the Tamil Nadu chief minister has promised gold and computers to voters. In the Dooars, they do not want so much but who cares'

Over the past six years, the tea estates have slipped into the red, thanks mainly to competition from countries like China and Sri Lanka and spiralling costs.

For the workers ' between 1,100 and 1,500 in each of the 153 Dooars gardens ' it has been a journey through a never-ending tunnel.

The Ramjhora labourers now work as stone-cutters near the Bhutan border, 6 km away. The garden is surviving on central schemes like the Swarnajayanti Gramin Rozgar Yojna, under which a worker gets 35 kg of subsidised cereal every 15 days and Rs 68 a day if engaged in work such as road and drainage repairs.

Electricity and water lines have been cut off. Mobile medical units, which come twice a week, provide a semblance of healthcare.

Despite the don't haves, Chhetri and his colleagues are lucky. Ramjhora is among nine gardens that are closed and so they are entitled to grants. Their counterparts in the sick estates don't get a farthing.

Ask Chhetri if he is unhappy and he is suddenly guarded. 'Everyone is to blame. How can we single out any one'

Tea workers in four of Jalpaiguri's 12 constituencies ' Kalchini, Nagrakata, Madarihat and Mal ' play a deciding role in the elections. Barring Kalchini, which the Congress holds, all had been voting Left.

Even if Chhetri and his ilk are unhappy, it doesn't reflect in the voting machines possibly because Assembly polls don't matter.

The panchayats do. Through them flow the grants and the Left controls all of them.

'A vote for the Left means they can get the basic requirements through the local bodies,' said Pratul Roy, a retired tea executive.

There is no Opposition anywhere outside Kalchini.

Raipur, Shikarpur, Kathalguri, Ramjhora, Kalchini, Raimatang, Samsing, Bamondanga, Bharnabari and Chinchula' the list of ailing gardens is endless and hungry faces flock one of Bengal's most picturesque pockets.

N.K. Basu, the president of the Indian Tea Planters' Association, said: 'The entire structure of the factory-cum-garden is crumbling.'

With the boom in tea prices in 1992-93 came small planta- tions in lower Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar. 'Around 1997-98, the first bought-leaf factories ' which don't have bushes of their own ' came up and the older establishments began struggling to provide competitive prices,' Roy added. The market had started slipping then.

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