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Plains tea estates struggle: Planters

- Yield drop, price dip and debts plunge gardens into crisis, claim owners

Siliguri, Aug. 14: An association of tea planters today said more than half of estates in the Dooars and Terai were in dire straits because of low yield, less prices and debts, and expressed the apprehension that those gardens might be closed if the rates fell further.

The Consultative Committee of Tea Plantations asked the government to expedite the process of renewing the lease of garden land, review of salami and permission to earn secondary income through utilising vacant land in the plantations to wriggle out of the crisis.

“The average auction prices of Dooars and Terai Estates in Siliguri (Tea Auction Centre) from January to June this year are Rs 134.50 and Rs 122.34 respectively. Around 54 per cent of the Dooars estates and 60 per cent of the Terai estates are operating at levels below the averages,” reads a press release issued by the committee today.

An office-bearer of the committee said out of 165 tea estates in the Dooars, 89 were earning less than the average price, while income was higher than the average rate in the remaining 76.

In the Terai, 59 of the 99 tea estates are earning less than the average price. “Only 40 gardens are earning more than Rs 122.34,” said the office-bearer.

“Evidently, a sizeable number of tea estates are just managing to break even and could be shut if prices fall or costs increase abnormally,” said the office-bearer.

The planters have cited a number of factors for the gardens’ inability to make decent profits. “Low yield, price below the production cost, ageing bush, high debts, low labour productivity and working capital constraints are the reasons for the tea estates’ declining profits,” said a tea garden owner.

The release issued amidst talks between the planters and trade unions for the revision of tea garden workers’ wages in north Bengal also points out that an accurate assessment of the industry’s capacity to withstand cost pressures is critical to the sustainability of the huge number of labourers.

“We urge the (state) government to address issues like productivity in the course of the talks for the settlement of wages,” said a senior CCPA official.

The committee placed a number of demands before the government to tide over the crisis. “ We want the state to expedite the process of renewing leases of the garden land and review the imposition of salami. The lease amount is dissuading people from acquiring tea estates in bad state,” said the planter.

“The state should also allow use of vacant land in gardens for other revenue generating activities like tourism, horticulture and cultivation of alternative crops. The state and Centre should share some of the social costs which are borne by the industry to tide over the current crisis,” said the CCPA representative.

He said another important issue that needed to be addressed was the financial restructuring of closed gardens. “Waivers of certain dues and restructuring of existing loans can help reopen these gardens. Such facilities would also encourage infusion of fresh capital into these estates.”

As of now, five tea estates are closed in the Dooars.

Yesterday, representatives of several trade unions, including the Citu and the Intuc, met Union minister of state for commerce and industries Nirmala Sitharaman in New Delhi and sought her intervention for the improvement of the tea industry and to ensure that benefits were accrued to workers. “Even today, a tea garden worker is earning Rs 95 in the Terai and the Dooars. The pay is far below the minimum wage in the state. We invited the minister’s attention to this,” said Ziaur Alam, the Jalpaiguri district secretary of the Citu.

Mani Kumar Darnal, an Intuc leader from the Dooars, said Sitharaman had been requested to take the initiative to reopen the five Dooars estates.