In January 2023, West Bengal Chief Minister, during her visit to the Dooars region, said the workers would soon receive land patta. A month later, an area of 584.193 acres of leased-out lands was acquired by the state government under the West Bengal Estate Acquisition Act of 1953, section 6(3). Based on the West Bengal Land Reforms Act, 1955, Chapter VI section 49, selected tea garden workers were allotted plots of land ranging from 5 to 8 decimals either termed as ‘homestead’ or ‘sukha khet’ (vacant land).
While some saw this as a positive move, the nature of spontaneous decisions and actions from the state government further raised many questions and uncertainties in the minds of the workers. An All India Adivasi Vikas Parishad, Tej Kumar Toppo, for example, is relieved by the fact that the land holding is non-transferable. “Had the land been saleable, it would endanger Adivasi land, culture, and identity,” he said.
But there remains a catch in the Land Reforms Act: “Provided, further that no settlement of land shall be made with any person or with a member of the family of such person, who is engaged or employed in any business, trade, undertaking, manufacture, calling, service, or industrial occupation,” the Act reads.
In this context, lawyer and trade union leader Sandip Nandi sheds light, saying, “When the Act says ‘no settlement of land be made with…industrial occupation,’ one needs to read and understand the full context. The Act itself says that such other terms and conditions as may be prescribed: Provided that the persons are eligible for such settlement, preference shall be given to persons belonging to Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe or who form themselves into a Co-operative Society for the purpose.”
Dismissing claims that the landholder will not be eligible to procure a bank loan against the land patta, Nandi said public sector banks are legally bound to provide loans against the patta. However, private banks may have reservations about loan grants since they will have problems in confiscating the land in case of evasion.
The rumours about what can or cannot be done with the land have been of interest to political parties too. The ruling party’s labour union leader, Uttam Saha from Birpara, spent days tackling rumours that followed the state government’s decision on land grants. He alleged that the BJP has mislabeled the grant as a ‘refugee grant’. “The BJP is trying to create tension amongst workers here in Bengal. The same party, which has been ruling in Assam and Tripura, however, is yet to grant land rights to the tea garden workers in these states.”
The state government’s dependency upon the judgement of the bureaucracy and not educating party leaders further created confusion. Another reason for this sticky situation was the passing of the West Bengal Land Reforms Amendment Bill on February 15th of 2023, in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly.
Currently, according to the land ceiling rule, an individual or an institution can possess a maximum of 24.2 acres of land. Keeping more than the said amount of land is subject to the land ceiling act. The Act says the state government can acquire the excess land (and convert it to khas land) and lease it to various governmental bodies and organisations. The new amendment has clarified that such bodies include industrial parks, financial parks, food hubs, biotech parks, or a township project. These can get full ownership of the khas land after paying a certain fee.
However, the talks of converting leasehold land to freeholding have created a peculiar fear in the tea gardens outlying the bustling town of North Bengal – Siliguri. The workers fear they would be displaced from their villages if the amendment bill comes into play.
Land in tea gardens, which is government leasehold, will not be converted into freehold industrial land, assured Chief Secretary HK Dwivedi while talking to media persons in Siliguri. “Tea plantation areas will not be included because tea gardens are our heritage. We have to save them. If the area of tea plantations decreases it will affect the economy of this region. However, 15 per cent of vacant land within the tea garden area which is already under the Tea Tourism Policy has been allowed to be used for commercial and industrial activities. These include nursing schools, agriculture, horticulture and tea tourism,” stated Dwivedi.
“For a long time, people, especially the tea garden labourers, have been living in tea garden areas. They did not have pattas for which they could not develop their houses and were unable to get other facilities related to land rights. These lands are being marked. The government will provide them with the land documents after communicating with the tea garden owners. The process has already started,” the Chief Secretary said.
Experts believe the new land rules on tea tourism have been reformulated without considering the lives of the tea workers. These rules allow private companies to build resorts on 15 per cent, or 150 acres of tea garden lands. There is no doubt the land would not be used for building a township as the history of a tea garden in Terai in Darjeeling district suggests. Such huge tracts of land have to be carved out only by tearing down the tea plantation since not every tea estate has a huge amount of fallow land even though the law suggests using only non-plantation land for tourism purposes. Because of this labour retrenchment is bound to happen.
One staggering RTI from 2022 shows large tea plantations like Matigara and Gulma tea estates of Darjeeling district, both of which encircle the city of Siliguri, have respectively applied for 80 acres, and 146 acres of land. This could not possibly mean that these lands be used totally for tourism purposes and not for township planning just like the Chandmuni tea garden, where the Uttorayon township project stands as a messy reminder of the tea garden land politics practised by the previous West Bengal government.
Right after the state government’s announcement of granting land rights to the tea garden workers, the Consultative Committee of the Plantation Association wrote a 19-page letter to the secretary and land reform commissioner of West Bengal. At first, the letter zeroes in on the low profitability and the ongoing crisis in the tea industry. It also stresses that the labour housing quarters stand on the land the ownership of which is vested in the management, and counted as a fixed asset of the company.
It states the committee’s concern regarding the state government’s decision on granting land patta to the workers which will prove detrimental to the tea estate. Their major concern is that there is no guarantee that the landholders would continue to work in their estates after they gain the heritable land rights. Additionally, the letter states that they would not be able to provide housing facilities to the workers as there would be a scarcity of land post-land grant and that the land would be susceptible to the ‘encroachers’. Furthermore, the letter states that the land patta grant would affect the ‘management’s control over the use of roads and water bodies’ that are privately controlled by the management.
On August 1 too, the district magistrates of Alipurduar, Coochbehar, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and North Dinajpur districts got a letter from the deputy secretary of government of West Bengal. The subject of the letter was as follows: “proposal for granting homestead patta on surplus/ unutilised resumed land of tea garden to the eligible beneficiaries through a scheme.”
It was mentioned to identify the unutilised lands of the garden which will be given to the retired employees as informed earlier. First, the long pending demand of tea garden workers for patta against their residential land in the garden was not mentioned in the given notice. There was also no mention of patta to be allotted for the tea garden workers which has created a significant amount of dissatisfaction among the workers of the garden.
The TMC government is banking on giving the right to patta to the workers for good results in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, but on the contrary, they too are entangled with questions regarding the rights to patta for the workers. Lok Sabha MP John Barla from Alipurduar has already mentioned the issue of patta as a complete bluff.
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A local TMC leader, unwilling to mention his name, informed us that there should have been a discussion with the local leaders regarding patta before sending letters from Kolkata. We are trying to communicate with the senior leaders so that the workers will get the patta on their residential land.
For now, it is clear that even in 2023, small victories aside, the tea workers are likely to continue their struggle for years in their quest to get land rights.
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