The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Dash to Delhi for estate food flow

Siliguri, July 23: No tea garden in north Bengal has received its monthly allotment of foodgrain for the month of July.

Now as the deadlock nears a month, the situation is on the verge of turning volatile. So much so that food minister Paresh Adhikary today said he would go to Delhi on Monday to sort out the problem with the Centre.

'We are aware of the problem and have already decided to take it up with food minister Sharad Pawar,' Adhikary told The Telegraph over phone from Calcutta.

The tea industry wants the government to act fast. 'We have sought the chief minister's intervention in this regard as the situation is becoming difficult. We were forced to halt distribution of foodgrain to workers in all the 280 gardens of the region after allotment was stopped this month,' said N.K. Basu, principal adviser to the Indian Tea Planters' Association.

The stoppage follows the Union food ministry's decision to launch Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) in the tea estates. This would mean that garden labourers, who used to get their rations from the estate management as a component of their wages, will henceforth have to buy the cereals from ration shops at BPL rates.

The gardens, which were outside the purview of the PDS, used to procure the foodgrain from Food Corporation of India at the PDS rate of Rs 3.26 per kg and distribute it at 40 paisa per kg per worker every week. In addition, another 2.2 kg of foodgrain was distributed for each dependant of the worker.

The central food ministry, however, decided to bring the tea estates under the PDS system and thus stopped allotting foodgrain to planters.

'This sudden stoppage has put us in a spot and if the deadlock continues, it might lead to largescale labour resentment and management representatives will have to face the wrath,' Basu said. 'Considering the rise in prices, it is also not possible for us to purchase foodgrain from the open market and distribute it at subsidised prices.'

Trade union leaders, who consider the ration as a component of wages for the tea garden workers, are against the proposed PDS scheme. 'Under the system, workers will have to purchase foodgrain from ration shops at BPL rates. This is detrimental to the interest of the workers,' said Chitta Dey, the convener of Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers.

'By launching the scheme, the government is trying to cut down the workers' wages. This arrangement will only benefit the management, who are trying to shirk their responsibilities,' the leader added.

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