|The closed Bundapani tea estate in Alipurduar.
Siliguri, Aug. 6: The chief minister has asked the Union minister of state for commerce and industries to invoke provisions of the central Tea Act so that several tea gardens that are lying closed for months in north Bengal may get new owners.
In a letter dated July 15, Mamata Banerjee wrote: “I seek immediate action under the relevant provisions of the Tea Act, 1953, which enable the central government and the tea board to handover any closed tea units to new management to ensure their reopening.”
Five tea estates are closed in the Dooars in Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar districts.
“There are several complications in these five tea estates. While there are legal issues in Dheklapara and Bundapani, the owner of Redbank Group, who owns three other closed gardens — Redbank, Dharanipur and Surendranagar — is showing no interest in reopening them,” a planter based in Siliguri said.
“The best option, as suggested by our chief minister, is to find new investors by invoking the Tea Act. This can only help in reopening in these gardens,” the planter said.
The chief minister’s letter, however, mentions Dheklapara, Surendranagar, Redbank, Bundapani and Raipur, a Dooars garden which has recently been opened after a new owner was found.
The Dharanipur garden is the only one among the closed estates that has not been mentioned in the letter.
Under the Tea Act, 1953, the central government can assume “management or control of a tea undertaking or unit” if its investigation throws up the following lapses:
n If the garden has made losses in three to five years preceding the time of investigation by the central government
n The average yield of tea from that garden has been less than 25 per cent or more than the district average in those three to five years
n The owners have habitually defaulted on payments of wages, PF and other dues
n The tea unit is managed in a manner detrimental to the tea industry or public interest
Of the five gardens mentioned in the chief minister’s letter, Dheklapara has been closed since March 2006. The others closed in 2013, but Raipur opened again this year.
The chief minister’s letter mentioned that nearly 3,000 workers were adversely affected because of the “closed and abandoned” gardens.
“The tea estates are on land leased out by the state government. As land is a state subject, the leases need to be changed or transferred in the names of new owners if the Centre invokes the act and finds new owners for these closed estates. It is good that the chief minister has clearly asserted the state’s stance,” a source in the tea industry said today.
In her letter, Mamata mentioned that the state government was ready to extend all possible assistance if the Centre decided to invoke the legislation.
“On our part, we assure that we will provide all possible administrative and regulatory support for any initiative that the Government of India may like to take,” the letter said.
Following the chief minister’s letter, state chief secretary Sanjay Mitra sent another letter to R.R. Rashmi, an additional secretary in the Union commerce ministry, on July 22, mentioning that there had been no starvation deaths in the closed gardens.
“No starvation deaths have occurred in the closed tea gardens of West Bengal. As a matter of fact, the recent deaths in the area have occurred due to other reasons like cerebral attacks, TB, child birth, haemorrhage, etc,” Mitra said in the letter.
Several Opposition leaders had toured the closed tea gardens in the June-July and alleged that reason for the deaths in the gardens was malnourishment.
Anuradha Talwar, the advisor to the commissioner of the Supreme Court on Right to Food, submitted a report on the closed gardens to Harsh Mander, the special commissioner of Supreme Court, and also to chief secretary yesterday.
“We have found that the state has extended relief in the closed tea estates but there have been deaths at regular intervals. There are gaps in medical facilities and people are migrating to other states in search of jobs,” Talwar said.
“No initiative has been taken so far to reopen the gardens, which, the workers have told us, is the permanent solution.”