Jungpana Tea Estate. File picture
July 31: Jungpana Tea Estate, whose brew had fetched the maximum price among Darjeeling gardens last year, suspended work indefinitely today, citing threats to officials by a section of workers.
The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha-backed Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Labour Union is the sole labour outfit in the Kurseong garden.
“A section of workers under the banner of the union has been making a series of demands, most of which are unacceptable,” a source in the tea estate said.
Jungpana, spread over 78 acres and employing 260 workers, produced 70,000kg of tea last year and toppled Castleton from its perch at the top of the totem pole among Darjeeling gardens with its tea fetching prices that were 20 per cent higher than its celebrated rival. Industry experts say Castleton has reclaimed the top slot with Jungpana continuing to snap at its heels.
On average, Jungpana black tea from the first and the second flush have touched prices of Rs 5,000 per kg and Rs 2,500 a kg, respectively, this year.
The tea estate has changed hands several times and the Kejriwal family acquired it from the Ranas of Nepal in 1956.
Jungpana director Shantanu Kejriwal said there was a “labour issue” at the garden. “We have had to order a work suspension, which had never happened before at the tea estate,” he added.
Kejriwal said the management had offered to talk to the union to break the stalemate but had been rebuffed. “We had asked the union leaders to meet the management and officials of the Darjeeling Tea Association and offered to hold the dialogue outside the estate so that they don’t feel threatened in any way. But the local union has not been cooperating. No institution can exist without some form of discipline,” he said.
Citing some of the “unacceptable” demands of the union, a garden official said that in 2002, the Jungpana management had offered the voluntary retirement scheme to a section of workers to reduce the workforce. However, now the union is insisting that workers recommended by it be employed in place of those who opted for the VRS.
“We can’t accept this as the purpose of offering the VRS would be lost if we employ more workers,” the official said.
The union has also demanded promotions for workers based on its recommendations. “This is equally unacceptable,” the official said.
The union also wants work to be assigned to the labourers in consultation with it. “We have not agreed to this. But the union kept insisting even though it is the management’s prerogative to assign work. This came in the way of our functioning smoothly,” the official said.
Officials at Jungpana said workers had been gheraoing and “threatening” them. The officials alleged that “unidentified” people called them up and threatened that their “safety would be compromised” if they did not agree to the union’s demands.
“Suddenly, there was a climate of uncertainty and fear in the garden as far as the management was concerned,” the official said.
Sandeep Mukherjee, the Darjeeling Tea Association’s principal adviser, said no workers’ representative attended yesterday’s meeting between the management and the workers at the association’s office.
“We wanted to have an elaborate discussion and settle the issues,” Mukherjee said. “But none of the workers’ representatives from Jungpana turned up. Instead, the intimidation of the garden managers continued over phone, leaving the managerial staff worried about their safety. It is for this reason that the management decided to suspend work.”
Sources in the Darjeeling Tea Association said the monsoon flush or the third flush of tea production at Jungpana would be affected because of the work suspension.
The Jungpana management said it had met all its statutory commitments to the workers. “If the garden becomes unviable (because of the work suspension), it won’t benefit anyone,” Kejriwal said.
The suspension of work notice issued by the general manager of the tea estate says: “The management notes with concern the recurrence of indisciplined, organised incidents that is being wilfully instigated in the running of the estate for the past few months with a malafide intention against the management.”
Union general secretary Suraj Subba said local leaders of the outfit had taken up some “petty issues” with the management. “We had not interfered in the process…. Today, we came to know that the management has closed the garden. The issues were supposed to be settled at the local level and we don’t know what exactly led to this situation. We will soon look into the matter. We want the garden to resume operations at the earliest,” he said.