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Poll+violence+bandh = tea loss

Jorhat/Dibrugarh, April 8: Elections have cast a negative shadow on the tea industry in Assam with poll-related violence leading to frequent closure of gardens across the state resulting in the industry incurring heavy losses at the beginning of this production season.

Estates across the state were closed today in the wake of the Assam Tea Tribes Students Association-sponsored 12-hour Assam bandh called to protest the state government’s alleged failure in taking action against the culprits who attacked the president of the organisation, Prahlad Gowala, on April 3.

Nearly 4.8 lakh workers of 870 registered tea gardens in Assam’s Brahmaputra valley will lose their daily wage because of this bandh.

Ironically, the association’s decision to support the bandh has invited criticism from various quarters.

“It is totally a needless bandh. The workers will lose their pay as the employers follow the ‘no work, no pay’ system,” Dileswar Tanti, the general secretary of the Asom Chah Mazdoor Sangha, said.

Activities in most of the gardens across the Brahmaputra valley came to a standstill as ATTSA activists and their supporters prevented workers from going out of their labour lines (colonies) early this morning.

“Of the 130 gardens under the Assam Branch Indian Tea Association (Abita) Zone-I which covers Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and some parts of Sivasagar, most of the gardens had zero activity throughout the day,” S. Ghosh, the secretary of Abita Zone-I, said.

“Attack on a student leader is purely a law and order issue. The organisation should have approached the police for this,” Sukra Tanti, a worker of Hapjan tea estate in Tinsukia district, said.

However, the bandh evoked mixed reactions in the areas other than the tea gardens where the ATTSA activists backed by their supporters tried to enforce the bandh.

An ambulance driver, Surjya Kanta Das, employed at the Barbaruah PHC in Dibrugarh was injured after he was attacked by ATTSA activists at Lepetkata around 9am.

“Das was returning home after his night duty when the ATTSA activists attacked him. We have arrested Ashok Urang, the assistant general secretary of ATTSA and 10 other activists for the incident,” a police official at Barbaruah police station said.

Night buses, too, came under attack as windshields and window panes of many long distance buses were damaged. The activists also staged a demonstration in front of Mathurapur police station in Sivasagar district after police caned one of them.

The ATTSA said it was compelled to call the bandh because the government failed to book the culprits responsible for the attack on Gowala.

Sub-divisional officer of Nazira subdivision in Sivasagar district, where the incident took place, however, said one person was arrested and a magisterial inquiry ordered into the case.

Tea industry incurs a loss of nearly 30 crore per day during the production season.

On March 27, one of the best tea growing areas in the state — Sonari in Sivasagar district — observed a bandh paralysing work in the estates.

With nearly 70 gardens, Sonari sub-division alone produces about 20 per cent of Assam’s total production of about 500 million kg per year. The Sonari bandh was called by the ATTSA in protest against police resorting to a lathicharge on a group of tea community youths, which was holding a demonstration in an election meeting of senior Congress leader and Dibrughar MP Paban Singh Ghatowar.

Estates in Upper Assam were also closed on April 4, the day of polling. “Such frequent bandhs is a negative impact on tea production. The industry is incurring losses in crores because of these bandhs,” an Abita official said.

Tea production season in Assam has just started with planters expecting a good harvest this year with favourable weather conditions at the start of the season.

The industry recorded a drop of about 16 million kg in 2010 at 429 million kg compared to 445 million kg in 2009. Tea estates in the states generally remain open during the frequent bandhs called by various organisations in Assam mainly because of the remote locations of the gardens. However, a bandh called by the ATTSA has a good impact on garden activities with labourers keeping away from work.

These bandhs have also robbed the tea garden labourers of their wage, which is Rs 71.50, which they get for a day’s work.

Reacting to the recent bandhs in the tea estates, a senior official of the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha said these bandhs were totally unjustified.

“These bandhs have only deprived the labourers of their daily wage. No organisation should call a bandh in tea gardens because it has an impact on the tea labourers, who have a hand to mouth existence because of the low pay,” the official said.

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