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Ringtong tea garden opens after 17 yrs

Darjeeling, Jan. 16: Ringtong tea garden near here was reopened yesterday after 17 years with an initial worker count of 330, making the Darjeeling hills the only region without a closed estate in Bengal.

The management had abandoned the garden in Sonada valley after the factory had been burned down on December 19, 1996, during a labour unrest.

“The garden has been opened as per an agreement,” Sanjay Chowdhury, the owner of Ringtong Tea Company Pvt Ltd, said over the phone from Siliguri. The agreement to reopen the estate was reached on at a meeting attended by the representatives of the management and trade unions on December 24 last year.

The joint labour commissioner, Md. Rizwan, who convened the meeting, said: “It was agreed that the garden would reopen from January 15 and by 2019, it would employ workers as per the industry norms.”

According to the industry rules, a tea garden needs to employ one worker per every acre.

Ringtong was spread over 850 acres and had 944 workers at the time of the closure in 1996. Ringtong is 25km from here.

After the reopening, the management has agreed to employ 330 workers at the beginning. “From next year, the garden will start adding more workers in batches of 60s and 50s. By 2019, the worker strength will reach 650,” said P.T. Sherpa, the president of the Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Labour Union, affiliated to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha.

Sherpa said a survey would be undertaken to know the total area under cultivation as the management claimed that a portion of the plantation area had been encroached upon.

A workers’ committee was formed in 1998 to run the shut garden. Leaders of trade unions then claimed that the workers were paid Rs 10 for every kilogram of tea leaves plucked and the produce was being purchased by the proprietor. The leaders also alleged that the management would sell the tealeaves to other gardens at a higher price without having to pay the workers salaries and other statutory benefits.

A representative of the management, however, claimed that the owner was not on the committee and he had only provided “technical know-how” to run the panel.

When the estate was shut, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha had distributed Rs 10.8 lakh to 874 families residing in the garden on September 21, 2009, as “puja bonus”.

The management has also agreed to pay Rs 1,000 each to the 944 labourers as a “goodwill gesture” after the reopening.

“In the agreement, the management said it would pay the workers bonus at the rate of 8.33 per cent, 10 per cent and 12 per cent for the next three subsequent years,” said Sherpa.

In 1996, an agitation by the workers seeking more wages and better amenities had led to the arson attack on the garden factory. The bungalow of the manager was also ransacked in the course of the agitation.

With the re-opening of Ringtong, the hills don’t have a single tea garden that is closed now. The hills have 87 gardens in total. In the plains, there are 275 estates and eight of them are shut at present.

The Morcha union said the owner of Ringtong had also agreed to construct the factory as early as possible. “The union has done everything possible to reopen the garden. It has extended all help to the management to ensure that the garden functions normally. In future, if there is any problem in administering the garden, the management must take the entire responsibility,” said Sherpa.