The ghost of West Bengal’s labour militancy simply refuses to be buried. And every time it returns to haunt the state, the hope of its industrial recovery recedes farther. That is exactly what happened when some workers of a tea estate in the Dooars beat up three managers — the unit closed shop, adding to the list of 19 other non-functioning tea gardens in the state. It would be futile for the chief minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, to protest that the violence is not part of legitimate trade union movements. Although the culprits were arrested soon after the incident, it is not merely a law and order issue. The problem has more to do with the leftists’ doublespeak on the role of trade unions in a fast-changing economic scenario. That is why even Mr Bhattacharjee, who seems so anxious to woo new investments, cannot quite disown the old rhetoric of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions. With the Citu, an affiliate of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), still striking militant postures to retain its following, other unions follow suit to try and keep their flocks together. Much of Bengal’s image as an investor’s nightmare is due to this competitive union militancy. Only warped minds can support such suicidal acts for the sake of political expediency. Mr Bhattacharjee needs to shed his — and his party’s — ambivalence towards labour militancy.
As it is, the tea industry has been passing through a crisis, not just in Bengal but also in Assam, where the revenue from it has slumped to Rs 4 crore from about Rs 100 crore a few years ago. Obviously, the industry’s woes are as much due to a recessionary market as to lack of modernization in both production and management. The last thing the industry needs at this critical hour is labour unrest that leads to closure of units. Ironically, the state government has now decided to set up an experts’ panel to look into the plight of jobless tea workers in north Bengal. It would have been more worthwhile to examine the state of the industry which resulted in these workers losing their jobs and to suggest ways to stem the rot. It is common sense that workers cannot retain their jobs if the industry continues to decline. It also makes basic economic sense that workers have to bear the brunt of a slump as much as owners and managers. But the leftists are not particularly known for rational thinking or action. Instead of doing their bit to save the industry, they have called a tea strike on August 11, thereby surrendering economic logic once again to partisan politics. With comrades like these, the chief minister needs no enemies to run down Bengal.