| Ramesh (second from right) and Mukherjee (fourth from right) arrive at Jalpaiguri. Picture by Biplab Basak
Jalpaiguri, Oct. 16: The Union commerce and industry ministry has proposed the integration of the Plantation Labour Act with legislations that govern the panchayati raj system.
The labour act regulates the service conditions of workers in tea estates.
Jairam Ramesh, the Union minister of state for commerce and industry, said this today in an exclusive interview to The Telegraph. The integration he said would ensure that the Centre-sponsored welfare schemes are properly implemented in tea gardens across the country.
Ramesh said he had already written to Mani Shankar Aiyar, the Union minister for panchayati raj, youth affairs and sports, proposing the integration.
“Our feedback says that lakhs of workers in the brew belt cannot avail of the benefit of the panchayat-run schemes due to several technical constraints, though they vote in the rural elections,” Ramesh said. “Because of the constraints, many rural and anti-poverty programmes are not implemented in tea estates except in case of acute distress like closure, as in the gardens in north Bengal.”
Owing to the crisis in the Indian tea market, a number of tea garden owners are failing to provide facilities like housing, education, health and drinking water, which constitute the statutory benefits of the workers, Ramesh said.
“We feel it imperative to take up the issue with the state governments concerned and other quarters to integrate and bridge the critical gap that is acting as a deterrent in implementation of these schemes,” the minister said. “On the other hand, it is difficult to implement the related panchayat schemes in these gardens as they are on leasehold land.”
Aiyar has reportedly responded to Ramesh’s plea and in his reply dated August 7, said he has come across a similar problem during his trip to the brew belt in Kerala.
Ramesh arrived here around 1pm with senior cabinet colleague Pranab Mukherjee. Both the ministers went back in the evening.
The duo went directly to North Bengal Tea Auction Centre where they handed over a cheque of Rs 1,56,57,000 to Jalpaiguri district magistrate R. Ranjit. The fund would be disbursed among permanent workers of all the 13 closed tea gardens of the Dooars as festival grant. They will get Rs 1000 each.
“We had issued showcause notices to owners of all these gardens and given them 10 days’ time to reply,” the Union minister of state said. “Only three of them have responded. We are going to provide 24 hours more and in case the remaining do not respond, we will go ahead with the process of acquiring the gardens by invoking Section 16 (E) of the Tea Act.”
Raipur and Shikarpur-Bhandapur are among the three gardens likely to be opened by new owners, the minister said. “The others would be acquired. We have proposals from at least five prominent tea houses who are interested in running the closed gardens.”
Both the central ministers appreciated the efforts of tea board officials in expediting the disbursement of the grant. “We are working on e-auction and have assigned the task of designing the process to NSE.IT, a subsidiary of the National Stock Exchange. We expect to launch the system by next year and development of infrastructure in all auction centres, including Siliguri and Jalpaiguri, will start soon,” Ramesh said.