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Bill poser for tea industry

Guwahati, Dec. 25: The new system of providing foodgrains under the Centre’s National Food Security Bill to the tea industry will lead to serious problems.

The Assam food and civil supplies department, in a letter on December 13, has informed tea industry associations that in view of the implementation of National Food Security Act, 2013, allocation of foodgrains to organisations/institutions/management groups of tea gardens will be stopped.

“Under NFSA, tea garden labourers will be provided foodgrains if found eligible as per norms,” the letter stated.

Under the new system, the state government will issue fresh ration cards (present ration cards will be discontinued) to workers, who will have to collect ration from a fair price shop like any other villager. Ration shops are expected to be located within a distance of 3km. A beneficiary would be entitled to 5kg of rice, wheat or coarse cereals at Rs 3, Rs 2 and a rupee per kg a month, respectively.

“The present system where the industry used to procure foodgrains was working smoothly. Now it is up to the government to supply food grains to us. What is the guarantee that it will reach on time? And if it does not reach on time, there is bound to be unrest. The new system has to be implemented smoothly,” a tea garden manager in Upper Assam said.

In the Assam tea industry, there are five lakh permanent workers and an equal number of temporary staff. The industry has provided all the details of the workers to the government on the prescribed forms but there seems to have been no progress.

Under the new system, gardens will have to apply for ration cards for their workers. “Whether they will be considered eligible as beneficiaries will depend entirely on the state government,” an industry source said.

“The scheme mentions 5kg of rice, wheat or coarse cereals per person per month, whereas in the present system, each adult worker gets 3.26kg per week, which is about 13.06kg per month, besides the dependent ration. So what about the balance of about 8kg per adult worker per month? We are confused and have not received any clear directive on this regard from the government,” said Bidyananda Barkakoty, chairman of the North Eastern Tea Association.

On whether the gardens will provide cash to workers in lieu of ration, sources said this can happen only after an industry-level agreement between the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations, an apex body of tea producer associations in India, and the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS).

The only solace has been that ACMS — the state’s oldest and largest tea workers’ organisation — has welcomed the move. This system is already prevalent in South Indian tea industry. In Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the gardens do not give ration. The workers buy foodgrains at subsidised rates from fair price shops.