| Workers load the plucked leaves on a truck on the first day. (Below) Women labourers of the garden welcome Dipa Paul. Pictures by Biplab Basak
Siliguri, May 17: Surendranagar tea estate today resumed operations after three years, bringing down the number of closed gardens in the Dooars to 13.
Five kilograms of rice and wheat were given to each of the 308 workers along with mangoes and sweets. Around 170 labourers plucked leaves as a token gesture. The others were busy with the celebrations held to mark the reopening.
Union minister Jairam Ramesh, who had promised to attend the ceremony, was absent and so was Rabin Paul, the owner. The Jalpaiguri district administration had advised the junior commerce minister against coming, citing security reasons.
However, the workers were happy with the presence of Dipa Paul, the managing director of the garden and the wife of the owner.
“Hundreds of labourers welcomed me with flowers and took me to the office. I was touched. I have promised not to leave the estate if they cooperate with us,” said Dipa. She claimed that the labourers have told her that they prefer the owners to run the estate instead of the operations and maintenance committee (OMC).
Pradip Mallick, a leader of the National Union of Plantation Workers, affiliated to the Intuc, said: “Around 170 workers plucked tealeaves and pulled out weeds in the garden. The leaves were handed over to the management’s representative.” A few labourers and some of the office staff, all members of the Citu-controlled OMC, however, had stayed away from the garden today.
This, of course, could do little to mar the spirit of festivity. “We are hopeful that things will change soon,” said Punam Minz after half-a-day’s work. Dipa had declared a holiday for the second half.
“Since we don’t have a factory at Surendranagar, arrangements have been made with other gardens which will purchase the leaves like they do for Dharanipur (another of Paul’s estate),” said Paul over phone from Dharanipur, 5km from Surendranagar. “By the way my wife was welcomed, it proves that the law and order issue was probably cooked up.”
Paul also said he would intimate the latest development to Ramesh. “Surendranagar should be deleted from the list of closed tea gardens.”
The Citu, however, was guarded in its reaction. “We have heard about the management making attempts to trespass into garden territory but don’t have the details,” said Amal Prasad Roy, the treasurer of the Citu-affiliated Cha Bagan Mazdoor Union.
Shashank Prashad, the newly elected president of the Tea Association of India, while welcoming the Centre’s initiative to open closed gardens, has urged Jairam Ramesh to provide a relief package to ailing estates to prevent their imminent closure.