Monday, 30th October 2017

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Hill contrast: tea bonus blues and festive cheer

Gardens simmer over lack of puja payment; Phulpati procession lifts spirits

By Vivek Chhetri in Darjeeling
  • Published 6.10.19, 6:22 AM
  • Updated 6.10.19, 6:22 AM
  • a min read
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Community leaders at the relay hunger strike for tea bonus The Telegraph Picture

Two contrasting images marked Dashain (Dusshera) in Darjeeling — Phulpati celebrations and a relay hunger strike for tea bonus.

The simultaneous protest and the celebrations on Saturday probably summed up the mood in the hills where tea garden works have for the first time in recent memory gone into their biggest festival without the bonus being disbursed. The hunger strike at Darjeeling Motor Stand was to express their solidarity with the garden workers’ demand for 20 per cent bonus.

Elsewhere in town, community members brought out a colourful rally marching to the beat of traditional instruments. “Phulpati is our tradition and we need to uphold it. This is why the sovayatra (rally) was held,” said a member of the organising committee.

During Phulpati celebrations, flowers, petals, and other offerings are collected from homes and temples before being taken to a puja pandal to pay obeisance to Durga.

The decorated palanquin carrying the sacred flowers (phul), leaves (pati) and sugarcane tied in red clothes — the colour symbolising the goddess — is usually accompanied by an ornate umbrella. It is believed that people who pass underneath the palanquin are absolved of their sins. Usually, nine types of flowers and leaves are mixed and this is called navapatriva.

On Saturday, the rally started near Darjeeling Railway station and wound its way to a Chowrasta pandal. Girls dressed as Hindu gods rode ponies through the streets.

A few kilometres away, the bonus backlash was palpable as leaders of various hill communities like the Rais, Gurungs and the Tamangs sat on the relay hunger strike.

Binita Khambu Rai, one of the protesters, said: “Our family members in the tea belt are facing hardships and we cannot stay away. Bonus is a right and when it is not disbursed we believe this is a form of atrocity against tea workers. This is why we are here to express our solidarity.”

The demand is for a bonus of 20 per cent — of a worker’s annual earnings — while the Darjeeling tea managements have so far offered 15 per cent. Tea workers in the plains have received a bonus of 18.5 per cent this year.

On Sunday, Binay Tamang, president of his wing in the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, will start a fast-unto-death at Darjeeling Motor Stand. A rally will be organised from Ghoom before the start of his protest.