Rein in tea unions, Jairam tells Buddha

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By AVIJIT SINHA in Siliguri
  • Published 9.07.07

Siliguri, July 9: Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has been asked to rein in “local-level” trade union leaders to end the crisis in the tea industry.

The “request” from the junior Union commerce and industries minister comes two days after the Tea Board issued an ultimatum to the owners of 14 closed gardens in the Dooars — reopen the estates in a month or face takeover.

“In some cases, local-level… leaders seem to have become as much of a vested interest in perpetuating closure, as the owners themselves,” Ramesh has said, seeking the chief minister’s “co-operation regarding the role” of the unions.

Not that the minister has blamed the unions alone for the fate of the gardens. “Sadly, I’m convinced that the existing owners in most cases do not mean business…. There are interested buyers and a couple of them did meet me when I was in Jalpaiguri.”

Ramesh has urged Bhattacharjee to form a committee and evaluate all offers from prospective investors. “The early announcement of such a committee will signal we mean business.”

The letter also contains details of Ramesh’s tour of the eight tea gardens and the financial package that has been offered to their owners.

The letter has been dispatched, Ramesh confirmed over the phone from Delhi. “I’ve written to the chief minister for his intervention. I’ll visit him next week to discuss the issue,” he added.

Representatives of the planters’ associations, however, feel the central aid of Rs 38.65 crore for 33 closed estates across the country is not enough to get them started again.

“Along with financial restructuring, it is essential to rationalise the workforce,” said N.K. Basu, the principal adviser to the Indian Tea Planters’ Association. “In gardens like Kanthalguri and Bharnobari, the production of leaves has come down by more than 50 per cent but the number of employees has remained the same.”

Kalyan Basu of the Tea Association of India echoed him. “Unless a balance between manpower and production is struck, chances are that these gardens will close down again in the lean season,” Basu said.

Others said the nitty-gritty of the package offered — like meetings with bankers and calculation of dues and waivers — should have been worked out before the ultimatum was issued.