Livelihood hit in shut tea gardens
The novel coronavirus-induced lockdown has taken its toll on 12,000 workers of 14 closed tea estates in north Bengal as most of them cannot avail themselves of the monthly doles given by the state government because of absence of banking facilities in their vicinity and transport.
Besides, the labourers are without other sources of income in the lockdown and want the government to pay the FAWLOI (Financial Assistance to Workers of Locked Out Industries) monthly.
Each worker of the shut tea estates receives Rs 1,500 per month, but the amounts are paid together once in a quarter.
“The money is paid once in three months. In March, the state had disbursed the amounts for the last three months of the 2019-2020 fiscal. However, a section of workers resides in closed gardens located in the remote areas and they are finding it difficult to go out and visit the nearest banks. In some cases, the nearest bank is 20-25km away. In the absence of public transport during the nationwide lockdown, they have no way to withdraw whatever money that is left in their accounts. There is hardly any banking infrastructure in closed gardens,” a senior trade union leader based in the Dooars said.
In total, around 50,000 people live in the closed 14 tea plantations.
Workers of Raipur, a closed tea estate near Jalpaiguri, said the lockdown had added to their miseries. After the estate was closed around one-and-a-half years ago, a section of workers have migrated to other states. Others go out of the garden every day and work as day wagers.
“While some of us work in neighbouring gardens and small tea plantations, others go to Jalpaiguri to work at construction sites. Some make out a living by collecting stones from the Teesta river. Because of the lockdown, those gardens employ only some of their labourers. Most families in the closed tea gardens are thriving on relief now,” Bitna Munda, a worker of Redbank, said.
The workers and their families, who are waiting for the lockdown to be over, have also demanded that the state labour department pay the assistance every month, instead of disbursing it on quarterly basis. “We are getting foodgrains from ration shops but need cash to buy other grocery items and vegetables for at least two square meals a day. In some families, the situation is more grave as some of their members, who used to work in other states, have returned,” said Mangal Oraon, a worker of the closed Surendranagar tea estate in the Dooars.
Swapan Sarkar, the working president of the Trinamul-backed Terai Dooars Plantation Workers’ Union, said: “Banks should send their representatives with cash to the closed tea gardens. The state government has introduced a monthly assistance scheme for tribals above the age of 60 years and if there are such beneficiaries in any shut tea garden, arrangements should be made to see that the money reaches them,” said Sarkar.