Hundreds of workers of a tea estate and their families on Monday went to NH17, the most prominent highway that runs through the western Dooars in Jalpaiguri, and staged a road blockade for seven hours, demanding immediate payment of their wages.
Traffic on the highway, which connects Siliguri and Alipurduar via Dooars, was snapped throughout the day. While some vehicles stood in a queue, others took turnaround routes via NH27. Traffic moved only after sundown, when protesters dispersed.
The workers of Debpara, a tea estate located in Banarhat block of Jalpaiguri and around 60km from here, alleged that the management had not paid their wages for two-and-a-half months.
There are 1,200 workers in the garden.
“Last Friday, the workers had marched into Banarhat police station, which is around six kilometres from the tea garden. They had demonstrated there, demanding police intervention so that their wages were paid. The agitation was withdrawn after police officers assured them that they would look into the issue. Simultaneously, the tea workers had said that they would resume their movement if the demand was not met within Sunday,” a source in the tea garden said.
The staff in Debpara have not received their wages for the past eight months, sources said. The salaries of the sub-staff are due for around three months.
On Monday, as the management didn’t pay any wage, the workers got angry and decided on the highway blockade.
As the news spread, a team from Banarhat police station reached the spot. Seeing the law enforcers, the workers got agitated and instead of leaving the spot, started shouting slogans against the owners of the tea garden.
“The stretch of the highway where the blockade was raised is very important as it connects Siliguri with the rest of the Dooars. The sudden blockade left several vehicles, including buses and trucks stranded. The movement of tourists was also affected in the area,” said a source.
Senior police officers reached the spot and spoke to the workers to lift the blockade. Workers, however, declined to do so unless their demand was met.
Around 5pm, the officers arranged a phone call with Subhagata Gupta, the deputy labour commissioner of Jalpaiguri, and the protesting workers.
Gupta spoke with them over the phone and said that a tripartite meeting had been convened in his office on Tuesday to resolve the impasse.
Following his assurance, the workers decided to lift the blockade. The police personnel present on the spot took up the task of regularising traffic movement.
Over the past few days, this is the second time that tea workers resorted to a road blockade to demand wages.
On November 18, workers of Choonabhutti, a garden located in the same block, had blocked the India-Bhutan Road over the same demand.
“It is unfortunate that tea workers of this region are having to resort to road blockades to get their dues. Simultaneously, unpaid wages hint at the financial incapacity of tea companies which is not a healthy sign for the industry,” said Soumen Nag, a social researcher in Siliguri.