Joint Forum, the apex body of tea trade unions, has demanded from the state government the distribution of land rights to tea workers.
The move, said representatives of the organisation, is to ensure that the workers living do not face displacement from their quarters if tea companies take up the initiative to develop tourism infrastructure in tea gardens.
Ziaur Alam, the convener of the forum with around 26 constituent trade unions, said that in recent times, a number of tea companies are building resorts and similar infrastructure for tourism in their tea gardens, both in the plains and the hills.
“There are reports that because of such projects, some workers have been shifted to locations other than their existing quarters. To ensure that no worker faces this kind of displacement, we want the state to provide land rights to them before allowing the tea companies to start such (tourism) projects,” Alam said.
In 2019, the state government came up with a new tea tourism policy which said that a tea company can use up to 15 per cent of its total leasehold land, subject to a maximum area of 150 acres, for tourism purposes.
The policy was drawn to encourage tourism and create alternative job opportunities for the population that dwells in tea estates.
Another senior trade union leader pointed out that the recent decision by the state Cabinet to sell government land instead of leasing out those in parcels — in a move to feed the state exchequer — has made them raise the demand.
“Recently, the state has decided to sell land to fill its coffers. It is not clear whether the land leased out to the tea industry will be offered for sale in due course but there is an apprehension of such developments in future. If it starts, and tea companies start buying up the land, thousands of tea workers will be vulnerable to displacement. That is why their land rights have to be secured first,” said the leader.
The forum, Alam said, has decided to hold three public meetings from the end of this month to apprise workers about the issue.
On January 29, a meeting would be held in Darjeeling, followed by another in Bagdogra (on February 11) and in Chalsa (on February 12).
“Even the parliamentary standing committee on commerce has stressed that land rights should be provided to workers, who have been staying in tea gardens for generations. If the state government does not act on our demand, we would be forced to launch an extensive movement on this issue across the industry,” said Alam.