Oct. 2: Puja revelry in Assam’s tea belt was unusually subdued today with the row between tea companies and labour unions over bonus showing no sign of ending.
The tea tribes, known to celebrate Durga Puja with fervour, continued to mourn the death of five workers of Khobang tea estate in Tinsukia district in police firing on Monday. The community’s downbeat mood was reflected in the low sales figures reported by shopkeepers in the towns adjoining tea gardens.
Sources said most tea gardens in Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Sonitpur, Jorhat and Golaghat districts were tense and the presence of police and paramilitary forces in these areas had made the workers angrier.
In the gardens of the Barak Valley, festivity was restrained, but the situation remained under control.
Of the 870 registered gardens of Assam, over 30 per cent have yet to pay bonus to workers. In some cases, unions negotiating with the companies have refused to accept bonus at the minimum stipulated rate of 8.33 per cent.
Traders based in the towns close to clusters of tea gardens have been indirectly affected by the dispute over bonus. Many are already counting their losses.
“This is the worst Puja season I have known. As most tea garden workers have not received bonus, sales have dropped by at least 60 per cent, compared to the festive season last year,” a shopowner in Dibrugarh said.
The Assam Adivasi Students Association has called a bandh on Monday in protest against the incident at Khobang. The Assam Tea Tribes Students Association had called one yesterday.
The season of discontent in the tea industry has been characterised by dwindling profits and labour unrest over issues ranging from the allegedly colonial attitude of managerial staff to low rates of bonus.