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Workers burn pocket for new bushes

Siliguri, Sept. 19: The garden is their only means of livelihood — open or closed.

And workers of Raipur Tea Estate, who have realised it the hard way, are determined to preserve the source of sustenance, even it means shelling out Rs 50 to Rs 100 for replanting tea bushes.

This, at a time when the 500 workers have been going without regular wages for more than two years. Under the joint action committee that runs the garden since its closure in July 2005, the workers get Rs 280 per month as against the Rs 1,296 and statutory benefits when the estate was open.

“Considering the state of affairs, we unanimously resolved to save the estate,” said Ratan Majumdar, a staff member of the garden located on the outskirts of Jalpaiguri, 50km from here. “It was decided that everybody would contribute to the buying of tea and shade tree saplings.” The process was initiated early this year and deductions were made from the wages.

The idea to replant saplings came from the urgency to get more tealeaves. Unlike the 12,000-13,000 kg of leaves that used to be plucked everyday when garden was open or just after it closed down, the daily collection came down to 2,300kg-2,400kg this year.

“Since the owner never took any initiative to open the garden, or the government any steps to include pruning and plucking under the 100 days work scheme, we decided to do something on our own,” said Augustus Oraon, a sub-staff of the garden.

The workers had bought the tea saplings from the nurseries and the shade trees were given for free from the block development office. “We are proud to say that 17,000 tea bushes have been planted on two plots of 10-acres each. We have also planted 8,000 shade trees. Each tea bush was purchased for Rs 2.25. For the shade trees, we had to bear only the transportation cost,” said Majumdar.

The saplings will grow into full-fledged tea producing bushes only after three to four years.

“This only indicates their sincerity and desperation to keep the garden alive,” said Aloke Chakravorty, the general secretary of the Intuc-affiliated National Union Plantation Workers in Darjeeling. “We want the government to make some minor changes in the aid schemes so that tasks like pruning and re-plantation are covered by it.”

Today, around 60 workers of the garden met Md Nasim, the joint labour commissioner, seeking his intervention to include the names of 30 labourers who have been left out of the scheme for workers of locked-out industries. They also complained that the doctors of the Jalpaiguri district hospital have stopped visiting the garden regularly.

Based on a Supreme Court order after a PIL was filed on closed gardens, the Bengal government had in 2004 directed that doctors from the nearest hospital would have to visit the estates on a regular basis.

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