| The Dalgaon tea estate. A file picture
Cooch Behar, March 20: The management of Dalgaon Tea Estate declared a lockout last night, leaving more than 2,000 workers in the lurch.
Indiscipline, and not security, has been cited as the reason behind the closure of the estate, around 70 km from Jalpaiguri town. The immediate reason for the shutdown is a failed meeting between the management and union leaders yesterday.
The workers, who were unaware of the development, found the factory and the office locked this morning. The garden had shot into prominence on November 6, 2003, when angry workers raided the house of Citu strongman Tarakeswar Lohar and burnt to death 19 people in a chilling turn to a dispute over jobs.
Before leaving the garden — owned by RNT Plantations Private Limited — the management had issued a notice to the Falakata police station, stating that they were “suspending” operations.
Contacted over phone, co-mmercial manager B.L. Bothra said: “It is not that we are feeling insecure. The garden has been closed because of indisciplined workers. They come and go as they like. Recently, they demanded the removal of an assistant manager, Arun Sharma, who had ha-uled up a guard for sleeping on duty.”
The incident took place on March 6 and an “an angry Gangaram Ekka (the guard) retaliated by slapping the manager”, alleged Bothra.
“A day after the incident, we held a meeting at the Tea Association of India (TAI) office in Ethelbari (in Jalpaiguri district) where the workers demanded Sharma’s removal. Not only that, all the domestic help and chowkidars refused to attend to their duties at the bungalows,” Bothra said.
The commercial manager claimed that even after the mob attack more than three years ago, the garden had not been shut down. “Despite the fact that we have been running huge losses, the workers’ dues have not been kept pending,” said Bothra.
The union leaders, however, have a different tale. Mani Darnal, the general secretary of the Intuc-affiliated National Union of Plantation Workers, said: “It was a drunk Sharma who had hit the chowkidar. We had requested the management to be sensitive towards workers who have a grisly past. We didn’t want more trouble.” He, however, admitted that there were no dues-related problems.
The secretary of the TAI’s Dooars branch, Ranjit Dutta, alleged that the lockout was the result of the workers’ adamant attitude. “The action tak-en is unfortunate, but yesterday’s meeting had fallen through,” Dutta said.
The subdivisional officer of Alipurduar, P.D. Pradhan, said a tripartite meeting has been called at the assistant labour commissioner’s office on Friday to settle the dispute.