Calcutta, May 8: The tea industry, upset over fresh allegations of funding insurgent groups, has urged the Assam government to provide adequate protection to planters.
Veterans in the industry said: “The government is fully aware of the problem. This is a law and order problem and Assam should handle the situation well. The tea industry keeps the government posted on what is happening in the gardens.”
Two Bodo militants had yesterday claimed in Guwahati that they had received a “donation” from a Calcutta-based tea company.
At least 300 of Assam’s 800 tea gardens are vulnerable to attacks from separatist rebels. Off the record, the industry admits it has been forced into “buying peace” for estate managers and other officials.
Tea officials said: “We are in constant dialogue with the government for improving the law and order situation. We made a presentation when the allegation of providing funds to two National Democratic Front of Boroland leaders cropped up. We are waiting to see what action is taken.”
The industry created an Assam Tea Protection Security Force in the mid-1990s to protect estate officials. This was a result of the United Liberation Front of Asom’s strategy of targetting large and medium-sized tea companies. The force was formed in 1995 and its services have been commissioned by 120 tea gardens.
Industry officials add: “Only the big companies were able to deploy the force. With the cost of tea production rising and price realisation going down, deploying the force is proving expensive.”
An official at a Calcutta-based tea major said: “Even the big companies are feeling the heat.” Companies have to provide food, clothing and weaponry to the force besides paying a salary.
Industry officials said the situation had improved recently. “In the early 1990s the industry underwent a nightmare. But the situation has changed a lot over the years.”