The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The violence at the Dalgaon tea gardens is a symptom of the grave behavioural disorder of organized labour in West Bengal

A traumatic occurrence provides a window not only to the event itself but also to a wider range of factors that produce trauma. This is true for history as well as for psychiatry, from which the notion of trauma is borrowed. The horror of burning 19 persons alive does not bear repetition. It is facile to ascribe what happened in the Dalgaon tea estate near Jalpaiguri to the militancy of the tea-garden labourers. Granting that this is true, it does nothing to explain the incident and the ferocity of the violence involved. If labour militancy was the real cause then such violence would take place every time there was a labour agitation. Historians and sociologists have failed to quite understand the outbreak of this kind of violence. Setting aside for the moment the horror of the violence, this is an occasion to set the event in a completely different context. The evidence that is available suggests that the workers burnt down the house of the trade union leader, Mr Tarakeshwar Lohar. It appears that this leader of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions enjoyed an almost unique influence over the tea-garden labourers and, in fact, exercised enough power to appoint people to jobs. It was his appointment of three outsiders that fuelled the fury of the workers who felt that candidates from within the garden had been rejected. The workers alleged that Mr Lohar had done this for a consideration.

The moot question here is why did a trade union leader enjoy the power to actually make appointments' Selecting candidates and giving jobs should be the sole prerogative of the management. Mr Lohar had usurped this prerogative. The instruments used for this usurpation can easily be guessed. He had leveraged his power as a Citu leader. There was possibly the use of both coercion and blackmail, and a weak-kneed management had bought short-term peace by surrendering its prerogative. Mr Lohar had used this power to extend his patronage by offering jobs and thus enhancing his political clout. It is entirely possible that at some time in the past, he or the Citu had set up the principle of appointing only insiders in tea gardens. In other words, Mr Lohar and his ilk had queered the job market to gain in political clout and influence. This process had been possible because of the presence of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which acts as the abettor and protector of the Citu and all its irresponsible activities. In this particular case, the usual manipulation by Citu of the job market through patronage distribution has backfired.

The chief minister of West Bengal, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, would do well to draw the correct lessons from the gruesome incident. The real obstacle to Mr Bhattacharjee’s sincere efforts to attract investment to the state is the power enjoyed by organized trade unions. His real enemy is not the Trinamool Congress but Citu. The power that labour unions enjoy — largely because of the protection it gets from the CPI(M) — makes investors suspicious of the climate in West Bengal. Violent incidents only compound the fears. The trauma of Dalgaon is a symptom of the grave behavioural disorder of organized labour in West Bengal.

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