Siliguri, July 8: The Tea Board of India has issued an open-or-perish diktat to owners of 14 closed gardens of Bengal.
At a meeting convened in Calcutta yesterday, tea board officials made it clear that gardens which fail to reopen within a month will be acquired by the Centre before being handed over to prospective entrepreneurs.
“They were told that they could accept the package that includes waivers and sharing of interests designed to ease their liabilities, or face legislative measures,” Jairam Ramesh, the Union minister of state for commerce and industry, told The Telegraph over phone from Delhi today. “The board officials have given the details of the scheme to the owners of closed tea estates as well as their bankers.”
The minister said a notification declaring the ultimatum — that in case the owners fail to reopen their estates within the next one month, the Centre would acquire them under Sections 16 (D) and (E) of the Tea Act — would be issued within a day or two.
Section 16 (D) states that the central government can take over the management of a tea estate and give it to any other entrepreneur after an inquiry into its workings. Under Section 16 (E), the Union government may do the same but without an inquiry, if the garden remains closed for three months or more.
Commerce ministry sources revealed that if the legislations are invoked after a month, discussions would be held with the state government to ensure that the new owners have no problem in running the gardens.
Closed garden owners admitted that the tea board has issued an ultimatum. “The officials have specifically told us that as the package awaits response from our side now, we must open our gardens within a month or else the government would resort to the Tea Act,” said Rabin Paul, the owner of the closed Redbank tea estate.
He was, however, quick to harp on some of the problems that were allegedly stopping many owners from reopening their estates. “The labour force remains the same as it was when the crisis started in 2000. While we cannot retrench anybody, the production of leaves has come down drastically. It is tough to strike a balance between income and expenditure, which I feel, is creating the mess,” said Paul.
Trade union leaders, however, have welcomed the decision. “This proves that the Centre is desperate to open the estates,” said Samir Roy, the general secretary of the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, which is affiliated to the West Bengal Cha Majdoor Sabha and is close to the Congress. “We welcome the move and hope that all the gardens will reopen within a short time.”