The Bengal government on Tuesday decided to stop the survey and other work related to granting land rights in tea gardens of Darjeeling hills and Kalimpong, a day after Anit Thapa, the chief executive of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) requested for the same.
The state government’s order for the GTA area not only gave major relief to Thapa, but is expected to quell the wave of dissent in the hills, fanned by the Opposition parties, on tea land rights with a 5-decimal cap.
A government order to the district magistrates of Darjeeling and Kalimpong states: “I am directed …to request you to put on hold works relating to the Scheme for distributing homestead pattas in tea gardens under L &LR and RR & R Department’s Notification No. 3076-LP Dated 01/08/2023 in GTA area until further orders.”
On August 1, the state government issued a notification to distribute up to 5 decimals of land to residents of tea gardens across north Bengal.
In Darjeeling hills, though getting land rights with paperwork was a longstanding demand of tea workers, the 5-decimal limit did not go down well with hill Opposition leaders and a section of tea garden residents.
Opposition parties protested, stating several tea garden workers had over 5 decimals of land in their possession and hence should get documents of the entire land. Many leaders alleged that the 5-decimal cap would help the state government distribute excess land to private players.
Others have opposed the use of the word “landless” in the notification and have argued that hill residents possessed land for generations but only lacked documents.
On Sunday, a massive protest rally was organsied in Mirik by the newly formed Chia Shramik Surakasha Samiti (CSSS), which saw the participation of hill Opposition leaders too.
Thapa, who welcomed the state's land rights move initially, went on the backfoot following the swelling of protests.
A few days back Thapa “requested” the district administration not to visit the tea gardens to conduct land survey but instead keep forms at the land reforms offices so that only those willing to accept 5 decimals could go to the office and fill up the forms.
Again on Saturday, while speaking during the third foundation day celebration of his party, the BGPM, in Kalimpong, Thapa, said he would work to get land documents for the entirety of the land that tea garden people possessed. This statement was followed up with a letter that Thapa wrote to Bengal chief secretary H.K. Dwivedi on Monday.
“The new order is likely to put a lid on this controversy for now. It has come as a major relief for Anit Thapa and his party,” said an observer.
There are 87-odd tea gardens in Darjeeling hills that employ around 70,000 tea workers.
Unlike the hills, no objections have been raised on the tea garden land issue in the plains. This also explains why the survey is being kept on hold only in the GTA areas.
“We are in constant touch with our local leaders. They have apprised tea workers about the state’s decision to provide 5 decimals of land (to each settler). We haven’t heard of any disagreement so far and hope land is smoothly distributed among the people,” said Nakul Sonar, the chairman of the Trinamul Cha Bagan Sramik Union.
There are around 180 tea estates in Terai and Dooars. In all, two-and-a-half lakh workers serve in these gardens.
"In the Dooars, the state has started distributing free houses under the Cha Sundari scheme among tea workers.... This hasn’t happened in the hills yet. That is why it seems the scenario is different in the plains," said a political veteran of the Dooars tea belt.