Guwahati, Sept 13: Stranded without supplies for a fortnight, as many as eight tea estates in Assam’s flood-ravaged Barak Valley have shut down and many more could cease production over the next few days.
There has been no rail communication between the Barak Valley and the rest of the state since June 25, when a bridge near Lumding collapsed under the weight of a freight train. A fortnight ago, a massive landslide cut off the land route, too. The landslide at Sonapur in Meghalaya blocked a 300-metre stretch of National Highway 44, the valley’s lifeline.
Floods compounded the crisis, damaging interior roads linking estates in Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj districts beyond repair. The swirling waters of the Barak and its tributaries also caused extensive damage to tea bushes in about 30 plantations.
Tea estates of the valley today sent an SOS to the Tarun Gogoi government through their associations.
The secretary of the Tea Association of India (TAI) in Guwahati, D. Deka, told the Telegraph that most estates would close down unless the government intervened. “Plantations have had no rations, fuel and other items required to run a tea estate for a fortnight. The Barak Valley tea industry is truly in dire straits.”
About 60 of the 100-odd Barak gardens are affiliated to the association.
Their worst fear is not being able to pay Puja bonus to workers, leading to a potentially violent labour unrest. “We haven’t sold any tea in recent weeks, which has reduced cash flow to a trickle. We cannot pay bonus from empty coffers, can we'” a tea estate manager asked.
Since factories are not running, plucking has had to be stopped, too. Tea leaves have to be processed within a maximum of 20 hours of plucking to produce tea of good quality.
Deka said the number of trucks being allowed to ply on the damaged highway was inadequate for an industry that required a healthy supply chain. “The magnitude of the crisis would have been less had the rail network been functioning. Since trains are the main source of transport to these gardens, supplies have been erratic ever since the rail bridge near Lumding collapsed.”
Member estates of the TAI procure 4,906 quintals of rice and 3,720 quintals of wheat from the Food Corporation of India every month for distribution among their workers. Plantations affiliated to the Assam Branch of Indian Tea Association procure 4,030 quintals of rice and 2,770 quintals of wheat.
The bulk of these consignments is ferried to the valley by train.
“It is impossible to carry such huge quantities of food by trucks on a hilly road,” an official said.
The FCI has only one warehouse, in Silchar town of Cachar, for the entire valley.
Sources in Northeast Frontier Railway said repairs on the damaged rail bridge would not be completed until October.