The BJP’s attempt to begin the process of consolidation of its support base in Bengal’s brew belt with a rally on Sunday did not yield the desired result as some of the claims made by the party’s leaders at the programme were allegedly far from reality.
BJP MLAs of Kurseong, Darjeeling and Dabgram-Fulbari didn’t turn up at the meeting organised at Dagapur in Siliguri by the BJP Trade Union Relation Cell.
Union women and child welfare minister Smriti Irani, Bengal BJP president Sukanta Majumdar and Darjeeling MP Raju Bista attended the meeting, for which the party managed to mobilise barely 4,000 people, much short of a target of over 25,000 participants.
The meeting was organised against the backdrop of the recent Dhupguri bypoll in which the BJP was defeated by the Trinamul Congress.
Irani and other BJP leaders made some claims that drew sharp rebuttals from Trinamul, trade union activists and even tea planters in north Bengal.
The Telegraph presents the claims and the reality.
What Irani said: “The Centre has fixed a minimum wage of Rs 350 for skilled workers. I would like to ask Mamata Banerjee, why in your state, tea workers will not get higher wages. On the other hand, you revise your leaders’ (MLAs) salaries by Rs 40,000.”
Bista said: “The Prime Minister declared minimum wages in Parliament in 2022. But Mamatadidi is yet to implement it in Bengal.”
Fact: In Bengal, the daily wage of tea plantation workers has increased from Rs 67 to Rs 250 after Trinamul came to power in 2011.
“In fact, we are bothered about the consistent revision of wages by the state government as our cost of production has increased,” said a tea planter based in Siliguri.
In the neighbouring state of Assam, where the BJP is in power, the daily wage of a tea estate worker is Rs 232 in the Brahmaputra valley and Rs 210 in the Barak valley.
The Mamata Banerjee government had constituted an advisory committee comprising stakeholders of the tea industry and some administrative officials to recommend the minimum wage.
Despite meeting several times, the committee couldn’t recommend the minimum wage for the tea garden workers because of a lack of consensus among planters and trade unions.
Irani said although the Bengal government had introduced Cha Sundari, the first-of-its-kind free housing scheme for tea garden workers, “those who possess acres of land were asked to take 500 square feet without any houses”.
Sukanta Majumdar said: “Tea workers were cheated in the name of the Cha Sundari scheme. The living space provided to some workers is improper for a family to live in.”
Fact: In Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar districts, around 1,000 free houses with washrooms have been handed over to tea workers, said sources in the administration. “More houses are being built and those are being provided free to workers. Officers have been engaged to find out workers who have retired or who are on the verge of retirement so that houses can be provided to them first,” said a source.
Irani said the state government had allowed the construction of hotels and resorts in tea gardens but had not taken any initiative to provide land rights to workers.
“A worker doesn’t have land rights and once he loses his job, his family will be on the road. This is such an injustice that can’t be seen across the country. The state has not done anything in this regard,” she said.
Fact: The state government has announced that it will grant the right to a plot measuring five decimals to each tea garden worker. Surveys have commenced in different districts to identify unused land in tea gardens for the purpose.
“There were some disputes in the hills as workers wanted rights to the entire land which was in their possession. Senior officials are looking into the issue. But the intention of the government to provide land rights to tea workers, a longstanding demand, cannot be undermined as an official decision has been made in this regard,” said Vedabrata Dutta, Trinamul’s spokesperson for Darjeeling (plains) district.
The ruling establishment also asked why the BJP leaders were silent on the Narendra Modi government’s failure to implement the Rs 1,000 crore assistance that had been announced by Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the 2021 budget for the welfare of women and children in the tea belts of Bengal and Assam.
Manoj Tigga, the chief whip of the BJP in the Assembly, said: “As far as the central funds are concerned, the state has not sent any proposal so far.”
Asked about the absence of the three BJP MLAs from the meeting, he said: “We had invited everybody to the event, which was held under the banner of the BJP Trade Union Relation Cell. The decision (to attend or not) was up to them.”