A small tea plantation in Mainaguri. Picture by Biplab Basak
Mainaguri, April 16: The small tea growers in the Mainaguri block of Jalpaiguri district will vote tomorrow though they scripted success with little or no support from successive state and central governments.
The tea cultivators will press the button on EVMs twice tomorrow as elections will be held to Jalpaiguri Lok Sabha seat as well as Mainaguri Assembly constituency. The bypoll was necessitated by the resignation of the sitting RSP MLA who switched to the Trinamul Congress ahead of Rajya Sabha elections.
“People here will vote tomorrow more out of habit than any expectation. Over the years, little has been done by the state and central governments for the development of Mainaguri in particular and the Jalpaiguri district in general,” said Badal Debnath, a small tea grower, who is also the president of Panbari Small Tea Growers Society, a self-help group.
Mainaguri had a huge number of unemployed youths in 2000-01.
“It was a KLO hotbed with several disgruntled youths joining the outfit after being disillusioned with the empty promises of candidates,” said Debnath.
Then, Mainaguri was mostly producing vegetables and the farmers had to suffer because of low prices and lack of storage facilities. “In 2001-2002, we converted our fields into small tea plantations as there was hope that the cash crop would ensure a decent living. Instead of sitting idle and blaming MPs and MLAs for no help from governments, we took to tea cultivation” said Soumen Ghosh, another grower at Panbari.
Now, there are around 5,000 small growers in Mainaguri block and they engage over 10,000 people as workers in tea plantations.
Grower Harish Roy said the change in the standard of living could be felt in villages. “There is hardly a house with straw roof now. Several concrete houses are under construction and most of the youths ride motorcycles. All these have become possible as we joined hands, formed self-help groups and opened a bought-leaf factory (BLF) to process tea for a better price,” Roy said.
The first BLF was built by the Panbari self-help group as the small growers received less prices for tealeaves from the market. A total of 340 growers who own 279 hectares with a yield of around 25 lakh kg of tea created a corpus of Rs 1.80 crore. “But the total project cost was around Rs 4 crore. We took a bank loan of Rs 1 crore. The Tea Board of India granted a loan of Rs 1.2 crore,” said Debnath.
The construction started in 2011 and the BLF was inaugurated in Panbari in 2013.
Other tea growers in the district also replicated the Panbari model and built BLF.
Chandan Bhowmik, the Jalpaiguri district president of Trinamul, claimed that his party had always supported small entrepreneurs and expected the tea sector to flourish. “The growers deserve appreciation as they have joined hands and changed the Mainaguri block,” he added.
Biswaranjan Sarkar, a Congress leader in Jalpaiguri, said: “The state governments, whether run by Trinamul or Left, have never come forward to help these people. It is only the Tea Board which stood by the small tea growers.”