| Darjeeling residents buy vegetables on Sunday, ahead of the five-day protest programme.
Darjeeling, Aug. 18: The Gorkhaland Joint Action Committee, the conglomeration of hill outfits leading the statehood agitation, today discussed the possibility of imposing an economic blockade that would stop the dispatch of tea and timber from the hills.
An economic blockade would adversely affect the tea industry as ready-to-sell tea cannot be stored for a long time.
If the gardens are hit economically, workers would inevitably suffer. Sources in the hills said the announcement that the committee was mulling the option of an economic blockade was made to get the Centre’s attention.
“During the meeting, we discussed the issue of calling an economic blockade by stopping the dispatch of manufactured tea and timber from the hills. The final decision is yet to be taken,” Enos Das Pradhan, the chairman of the joint action committee, told reporters at the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s Singamari office in Darjeeling.
The move, he said, would be part of the committee’s long-drawn Gorkhaland agitation. “This (planned economic blockade call) is to carry on the agitation without causing hardship to residents,” Pradhan added.
Tea officials said any move that would affect the industry was bound to hamper the lives of the residents, around 55,000 of whom are engaged in it.
“The industry pays salary and bonus from the proceeds from the sale of tea. If the sale of tea is stopped, the gardens will find it difficult to pay the workers,” a Darjeeling planter said.
Besides the 55,000 permanent workers in the 86 tea gardens in the hills, around 16,000 are employed every year on a temporary basis during the four plucking seasons. Tea and tourism are the two industrial mainstays of the hills.
Darjeeling has four plucking seasons — February-end to April (first flush), May to June (second flush), July to September (monsoon flush) and October to November (autumn flush).
About nine to 10 million kilograms of tea is produced in Darjeeling annually. While the first flush commands the highest price, the rest provide volume.
Many planters in Darjeeling said storing of tea was unviable. “Tea is hygroscopic (it tends to absorb moisture), and given the high moisture content in the hills, we make sure that manufactured tea is dispatched from the gardens within three days. If we keep the tea for a long period, we have to do firing (to rid tea of the moisture). This causes cost escalation and also hampers the quality of the tea,” a planter said.
A ban on the transportation of timber would not hurt too much as it can be stored for a prolonged period.
The joint action committee today said its janata ghar bhitra (people inside their homes) campaign would be held only tomorrow. The “stay-at-home” protest was earlier supposed to be held from August 19-23.
Shops will remain shut from August 20 to 23. On August 24 and 25, the committee will organise rallies across the hills.