Monday, 30th October 2017

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Workers & planters oppose plucking plan

A meeting of the council of ministers, chaired by CM Sonowal decided to allow tea gardens to pluck leaves from April 1

By Ritupallab Saikia and Avik Chakraborty in Dibrugarh and Golaghat
  • Published 1.04.20, 12:24 AM
  • Updated 1.04.20, 12:24 AM
  • 3 mins read
Overgrown tea bushes at an estate in Gohpur in Assam’s Biswanath district. Picture by UB Photos

The All Assam Small Tea Growers’ Association and the Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association have opposed the state government’s move to allow the functioning of tea gardens from Wednesday.

A meeting of the council of ministers, chaired by chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, on Monday night, decided to allow tea gardens to pluck leaves from April 1 but with a rider — garden managements must take permission from the deputy commissioners of the districts where the estates are located and abide by state health department’s guidelines such as maintaining social distancing, washing hands regularly and providing the workers masks and gloves.

AASTGA finance secretary Rajib Gohain said, “Though no specific direction has been received from the deputy commissioner, we have decided to stop plucking of tea leaves for another week keeping in view the safety of tea workers.”

ATTSA assistant general secretary Jagdish Boraik said, “It seems the cabinet took the decision in a jiffy without keeping in mind the safety of the labourers. Unless proper safety measures are in place, we will not allow the management to start functioning of tea gardens. I also urge the state government to set up quarantine centres in tea gardens for those who have returned home from other states.”

ATTSA central executive member Lazar Nanda said, “We know that tea gardens are facing losses due to the lockdown but the management and the government should think of the poor workers. The big gardens have 2,000 to 3,000 workers and it is tough to maintain social distance.”

The Dibrugarh unit of the All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam appealed to the administration on Tuesday to continue lockdown in tea estates till April 14. Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha general secretary Rupesh Gowala said he was not aware about Dispur’s decision.

When contacted, Golaghat deputy commissioner Bibhash Chandra Modi said no official communication has been received regarding granting of permission to tea gardens to operate. “How can we give permission without conducting a joint inspection with police and health department along with tea garden management? Moreover, a set of guidelines needs to be followed before granting permission.”

“A tea garden with a workforce of 5,000 can’t be given permission. However, to maintain the status quo of the gardens, we may allow them to carry on with irrigation or spraying of pesticides with a skeleton staff but no production-related activities will be allowed. As of today, no garden in the district has permission to operate,” he added.

Industry stand: There are allegations that the government allowed functioning of the gardens just to escape the burden of paying a “relief package” to the industry, which is staring at huge losses because of the lockdown.

The Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations, the apex body of the tea industry, had sought support from the government by way of wage payments to the labourers through direct transfer of Rs 1,000 per week into the workers’ account for three months and provident fund contributions for workers.

A tea planter in Upper Assam said the crisis-ridden industry was set to lose the main production season because of the lockdown. “It will be difficult for the industry to survive without a relief package from the government,” he said and alleged that the government had taken the decision to shirk the responsibility of paying compensation.

Another planter said resumption of work in gardens would expose the workers to coronavirus and it would be difficult for the management to control the situation if any labourer gets infected.

A tea garden manager in Jorhat said it would be impossible to carry out production activities following all the rules and guidelines set by the health department. “It will not be easy to carry out a health check-up of all the workers everyday before starting work,” he said.

Senior cabinet minister Chandra Mohan Patowary said the lockdown would continue till April 14 and only those gardens/manufacturing units would function which get permission from the deputy commissioners. The easing of restrictions is only to ensure supply of essentials but safety restrictions will have to be adhered to, he added.

Additional reporting by Pullock Dutta in Jorhat and Pradip Kumar Neog in Duliajan