Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha (BGPM) leader Anit Thapa on Wednesday said workers would take over tea gardens in the Darjeeling hills if they were abandoned by respective management.
The threat from Thapa who is also the chief executive of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) comes in the backdrop of a trend among planters to close down or abandon tea gardens during the winter when production hardly takes place
“If any tea estate closes, workers’ welfare committee will run affairs. There will be no closed gardens within the GTA area from now onwards,” said Thapa, adding that such an initiative had started on Tuesday in Longview tea garden, about 20km from Siliguri.
Welfare committees composed of tea garden hands had functioned in the region in the past. The committees oversee the picking of tea leaves which are usually sold to neighbouring gardens.
The committees do not have the legal sanction to operate but the administration had not stopped them in the past given the livelihood issue in the abandoned gardens.
“Through these committees, the workers will be the owners of the tea garden,” said Thapa.
Darjeeling Tea industry insiders maintain that the warning has come at the right time. “There is a propensity among tea garden owners to shut shop between December and February when there is no picking and the factory doesn’t function,” said an insider.
The Tea Board of India directed gardens producing Darjeeling Tea to stop picking leaves from December 3.
Sources said specific timelines for processing green leaves in tea factories, sorting, gapping, packaging and moving packaged tea to the notified storage area with invoice marking have also been laid down. In Darjeeling and other hills in the country, the entire process has to be completed by December 16.
The move is aimed at quality control of tea.
Industry insiders have said many garden lessees are involved in “wilful” closure which is aimed at saving costs. “This practice will, however, destroy the industry in the long run and will not help address the issue of workers’ absenteeism,” said an insider.
There are also allegations from within the Darjeeling Tea industry that many lessees are now deliberately trying to close down the gardens to push their agenda of real estate development.
“Management of some gardens is eyeing land just for real estate development. There is every possibility that the state’s policy to allow tourism and allied businesses in a portion of the tea garden will be misused,” said a planter.
J.B. Thapa, the working president of the Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Workers Union, affiliated with the BGPM, said the Longview management had defaulted on paying workers wages. “That is why we have set up the workers’ welfare committee,” said Thapa.
Calls from this correspondent to Longview lessee Govind Garg went unanswered.