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Lockout at Konapathar

Jorhat, Jan. 5: A lockout was declared at Konapathar tea estate under Bordumsa police station in Tinsukia district today.

The estate, bordering Arunachal Pradesh, has remained closed since December 26, the day labourers killed its owner Mridul Kumar Bhattacharjee and his wife Reeta.

The estate’s manager (in-charge) T. Ahmed told The Telegraph that the management had put up the lockout notice in the garden today and had sent letters to the district administration, the assistant labour commissioner’s office and the Margherita unit of the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS), the largest and oldest tea workers’ union in the state.

He said the official declaration of lockout was necessary under the industry law. “We should have hung the lockout notice in the garden earlier when work got stopped because of the killing of the owner couple. But due to security reasons, none from the management could go to the estate.”

Ahmed said he went to the garden today with police escort. He said the situation seemed to have improved slightly though tension was still palpable. He hoped that complete normalcy would return as the district administration, the labour department, the ACMS and the management were all making efforts in this direction.

He said the management was interested in reopening the estate but the situation had to improve so that the garden office staff and managerial staff could feel “safe and secure”.

Ahmed said he planned to stay in the garden from today and hoped that the other staff members would follow in the next few days. There are about 700 workers’ families, including casual labourers, on the estate, which is a member of the Assam Tea Planters’ Association.

A 17-member team of armed police and homeguards has been deployed in the estate with over 50 chowkidars guarding the garden’s assets like the factory, office and staff quarters. “I met the office-bearers of the garden unit of the ACMS today and talked to them about the steps they plan to take to restore normalcy in the garden and create a safe environment to dispel fear from the minds of the office staff,” Ahmed said.

He said he today received a copy of the memorandum, urging the management to reopen the garden, which was submitted by the garden union through the Margherita ACMS unit via the district administration three days back.

He said the management has already procured the workers’ weekly ration and wished to distribute it to them within the next few days. He also said the workers would be given their fortnightly payment.

He hoped that all the guilty would be brought to book soon. The police have already arrested eight of the 15 accused identified so far.

Tinsukia labour officer J.P. Agarwalla said his office had received a copy of the lockout notice and would soon convene a meeting between both the sides to discuss the reopening of the garden. He said the process to reopen the garden was already on with the ACMS, the labour department and the management under the aegis of the district administration.

ACMS Margherita unit secretary Hari Nandan Gour said the union was working towards reopening of the garden by keeping in touch with the parties concerned. In a meeting held at Margherita yesterday, which was attended by representatives of 40 estates, the union resolved to urge the district administration and the management to open the garden at the earliest, he added.

The Assam Tea Tribes Students Association is scheduled to start a phasewise agitation from Monday to demand resumption of work at Konapathar. Its activists will stage a three-hour sit-in in front of the assistant labour commissioner's office in Tinsukia.