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TMC threats prompt planters’ letter

- Estate owners complain to labour minister about muscle-flexing at Chengmari tea garden

Siliguri, July 6: A section of planters has written to the labour minister alleging that workers of a Trinamul-backed union had repeatedly threatened the managers of Chengmari tea estate in the Dooars, days after they were confined by the same union.

The July 4 dated letter sent by Prabir Bhattacharjee, the secretary-general of the Tea Association of India, said Amarnath Jha, the general secretary of the INTTUC-affiliated Trinamul Tea Plantation Workers’ Union, had told the garden management that “he shall not allow” them “to enter the premises of the tea estate. The management has been holding out against such serious threats as livelihood of so many workers and their dependents are involved.”

Chengmari is the largest garden in India, employing 6,000 people and over 20,000 residents are dependent on the estate.

Five members of the management staff stay in the gardens, among them, the general manager and the deputy manager.

The INTTUC-backed union is the newest one that sprouted in the garden in 2012 when Trinamul was trying to make forays into north Bengal a year after coming to power.

Tea garden unions are crucial to any party’s growth in the Dooars as they are the party’s interface with over 2 lakh tribal tea workers in the 170-odd estates.

The CPM and the Congress back two other unions in Chengmari.

On June 30, the garden management and the Trinamul Tea Plantation Workers’ Union, led by Jha, sat for a bipartite meeting to discuss a list of amenities for estate hands. Some of the demands listed by Jha on that day were concrete quarters for every worker, employment in the garden for educated youths, a hospital, filling vacancies in the work force and early payment of gratuity to retired workers.

The Trinamul union had held a relay hunger strike in the garden last month and the management had requested the workers to end it and suggested talks, which were called on June 30.

According to garden officials, 15-20 minutes into the talks, the Trinamul union members grew agitated and confined the general manager, deputy manager and the secretary of the Tea Association of India’s north Bengal branch for over five hours. Police came to the Dooars garden and ended the confinement.

Bhattacharjee’s letter said: “The tea estate has three operating unions of which INTTUC is one. In north Bengal, the tea industry has a longstanding tradition of sitting jointly for any issue arising in the garden concerning workmen. This management is one of the progressive managements in the entire region, whose track record of meeting statutory obligations has been impeccable.”

The TAI letter mentioned the confinement of the officials by Amarnath Jha, who is a local Trinamul zilla parishad member.

Bhattacharjee wrote that since the day of the gherao, Jha and his associates had been threatening the management with dire consequences.

“So, I have written to the minister asking for his intervention to make sure that activities in Chengmari are not hampered by the Trinamul trade union,” Bhattacharjee told The Telegraph.

Chengmari has in recent years not seen any attack on garden managers. In the Left era, most of the clashes were between the Left and the Intuc-backed unions.

A planter based in Siliguri said if other unions also started intimidating management staff, the tea industry would be in grave crisis.

“After the change of government in Bengal, we were hopeful that militant trade unionism… was over. After the incident on June 30, we are keeping our fingers crossed,” he said.

Told about the TAI letter, Jha said: “Our demonstration on June 30 was completely justified as our demands were genuine. The allegation by the TAI that we were intimidating and threatening the staff of Chengmari is false and vague.”