Labour militancy never solves an industrial problem. There are scores of examples to show how it can sound the death knell of an industry. The recent killing of three tea garden executives by enraged workers in Assam has ominous portents for the industry. Although the labour unions have condemned the killings, they would do better to ponder if their own ways are responsible for such tragedies. Disputes over wages and other issues are part of any industry. The management and the labour unions constantly work to devise mechanisms to resolve them, even if the bargains do not satisfy both sides equally. If an industry is passing through a slump, as is the case with tea all over India, workers have to share the burden with employers. That may hurt but there is no escape from the laws of the market. Unfortunately, trade unions rarely see this basic economic logic and insist on benefits irrespective of the health of a particular industry. They do not always realize that such irrational positions inevitably lead to the decline and eventual fall of an industry. The brutal murders in Assam are an ugly manifestation of this irrationality.
The government of Mr Tarun Gogoi should have read the danger signal in the first murders that took place about a fortnight ago. Instead, its reaction has been woefully slow and inadequate. Even now, it seems to be more keen on placating the trade unions than ensuring law and order in the tea gardens. It is not enough for the authorities to bring the culprits to book; they have to firmly tell the unions that violence has no place in industrial bargains. Not doing so would be suicidal for a state whose economy is heavily dependent on revenue from tea, its only organized private sector industry. Successive governments in Assam have failed to protect the tea industry from extortions by militant outfits such as the United Liberation Front of Asom. If labour violence adds to its problems, the very existence of the industry will be at stake. With its two other traditional sources of revenue — timber and tourism — drying up, Assam can be in a serious economic crisis if tea too is sacrificed to irresponsible trade unionism. It is a desperate situation that calls for drastic remedies.