The Telegraph
Sunday , December 30 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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Ghatowar seeks better working conditions in tea gardens

Jorhat, Dec. 29: Union minister of state for DoNER ministry Paban Singh Ghatowar today said he did not believe that the killing of planter M.K. Bhattacharjee and his wife was the result of exploitation of workers by the tea industry, but an aberration from which we should all learn.

Addressing the 31st biennial general meeting of Tea Association of India (Assam branch) at the Gymkhana Club here today, Ghatowar referred to the Maruti plant incident in which workers were highly paid but had in spite of that killed the plant manager.

The DoNER minister said, “We should learn a lesson from this and change our ways in keeping up with changing times.”

“The days of mai baap — master and slaves — are gone. The management and employees should work like partners. We are not owners of plantations but trustees, working for the country,” he said.

Supporting the speech of Hemant Bangur, president, Tea Association of India who had earlier called for introspection and higher wages and incentives to attract and retain the present generation of workers in the tea industry, Ghatowar said the minimum wage in South India was very high. “As this is a free country, one is free to go and work in any place.”

“We will have to attract them and as Bangur has said, one day we may have to pay them hardship allowance as is paid to IAS and other officers who work in remote areas or on difficult terrain,” Ghatowar said. Earlier Bangur had told the tea industry not to blame MGNREGA which paid higher daily wages than the tea industry and was thus drawing away tea workers. The idea was to raise tea workers’ pay to stem the exodus.

“We have to get rid of the colonial style of working as we are dealing with a generation that knows everything of what is going on in the rest of the country. They are not scared to migrate as they can easily keep in touch with their families at a low cost and also have aspirations,” he said.

Ghatowar further asked the industry to educate the children of the workers.

“We have the biggest population of illiterates in our country and we need to change this scenario. It is your responsibility and a national commitment to make them literate. I have talked to the government and asked them to provincialise all schools in tea garden areas. In six districts this has been done,” he said.

Ghatowar further said that he had asked the government to take over some of the garden hospitals as these covered a large area. “If there are 1,000 workers in the garden, the population of the garden and surroundings might be 6,000, which is difficult for a garden hospital to cater to,” he said.

Speaking to The Telegraph, chairperson of the Assam Tea Planters’ Association Rajiv Barooah said the government should also revisit provisions of the Plantation Labour Act of 1951 to ensure that the tea industry was able to benefit from facilities that the government offered in the areas of health and education. “The authorities should also make an assessment of non-tea workers living in tea gardens as they could be potential trouble makers. This needs to be done for the safety and wellbeing of our gardens,” Barooah said.

“Workers don’t create law and order situations as a lockout only means that their livelihood is affected. Such situations are created by non-tea workers who live in the labour lines in tea gardens.”

Before leaving Delhi for Jorhat, Ghatowar had told The Telegraph that what has happened at Konapathar was “very unfortunate” and should “not have happened as it was very bad” for the industry. Nobody should take the law take into their hands and action will definitely be taken according to law, he said. “At the same time, the administration, the union and the management should also look into what triggered the unfortunate incident. They should all take proper action to prevent a repeat of such incident,” Ghatowar said.