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Govt floats garden restructure plan

- Job assurance to workers from Mitra

Calcutta, Jan. 13: The Mamata Banerjee government today announced its intention to restructure five state-run tea gardens by bringing in a private investor, but allayed workers’ fears saying they would have the option of working under the government.

Around 3,000 workers are employed in the five gardens, three of which are in the hills and two in the Dooars.

The announcement was made by finance minister Amit Mitra after a cabinet meeting where Mamata gave the nod to look for a strategic investor for the five loss-making gardens — Rungmook-Cedars, Rangaroon and Pandam in the Darjeeling hills, and Hilla and Mahua tea estates in the Dooars.

“The government has decided to bring in a strategic investor. A transaction adviser would also be appointed to advise the government on whether to keep its equity or not,” Mitra said.

The loss made by the five estates is estimated to be around Rs 225 crore.

Each year, the gardens run up cumulative losses of around Rs 25 crore, the minister said.

He assured garden hands that they would not be jobless. “We are presenting this as a model. The workers would be offered government jobs. They will have the option. There are many, many vacancies in the government offices. Karur chakri jabena (Nobody will lose their jobs).” He said the employees would also have the option of voluntary retirement.

A tea industry source said the government’s move was a smart one. The state’s outgo would be less if a strategic investor pitched in.

Besides, the gardens need modernisation and replanting to survive, the industry source said. These steps would require further injection of capital.

According to sources, the government is aware that bringing a private player as a strategic partner could mean drastic changes in the operations of the gardens that could have a direct impact on the livelihood of the workers.

“Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, the government cannot take such a risk and so it has been decided that the jobs of the tea garden workers will have to be protected,” a source said. Mamata, sources said, made it clear during the cabinet meeting that loss of livelihood would have to be avoided at all costs.

Trinamul sources said the government’s job offer would also help in reining in workers’ unions that will oppose any move of downsizing the labour strength in the gardens.

Of late, Trinamul has made inroads into north Bengal, eating into the Congress base. “This is Mamatadi’s way of dealing with a situation that could easily be interpreted as a move that would hurt the interests of workers. The Opposition would have definitely taken up the issue and raised the point in the general election campaign,” said a senior Trinamul leader.

While the government is expecting that the job offer carrot will prevent labour discontent, sources said the government plan could run into opposition at the Rungmook-Cedars tea garden in the hills, which has around 1,931 workers, the largest workforce in the five estates.

“There could be trouble in Rungmook-Cedars as it has a huge workforce and poor yield. There is no clarity on what kind of jobs (would be offered)…. Besides, no one knows where the workers will be placed. There is bound to be trouble,” said a source.

The West Bengal Tea Development Corporation — set up in 1976 to purchase ailing privately-owned tea estates — took over four gardens in Darjeeling and Dooars between July 1977 and April 1981. Mahua was developed later by the state.

The announcement evoked mixed reactions from the workers, many of whom are still awaiting arrears of the wage revision of 2011. “Wages were revised in 2011, but we are yet to get the arrears between April and November 2011,” said Gyan Bahadur Lama, a union leader of Intuc-backed National Union of Plantation Workers in Mahua Tea Estate.