Agartala: Term it red tape or alleged political interference, over 1,000 tea garden workers in Tripura are heading for an uncertain future. Having not received their wages for weeks now, workers and their family members in five cooperative tea estates (TEs) of Dhalai and West Tripura districts are living at the mercy of god.
Their financial crises have reached such an extent that they have had to pass several nights without food. Because of rising debts, owners of the local shops have also stopped giving them food items on credit.
To get respite from the situation, some tea garden labourers have been forced to work outside the tea gardens to earn their bread and butter.
In Daring Tilla tea estate alone, as many as 180 people are dependent on daily wages. “Since the wages have not been provided to us for the past one month or so, we have been left with no other option but to go out and earn money,” said Satyaban, who works in Mohanpur tea estate.
Wages in tea gardens are paid on a weekly basis. Workers in the five cooperative tea estates of the state receive a meagre amount of Rs 105 per day. At the Daring Tilla, Aichuk, Mayang Tuku, Mohanpur and Kalacherra tea estates, workers have not got their wages for the past four weeks.
The situation arose after Tapas Guha, the administrator of the five cooperative TEs, retired from service on December 31 last year. Due to various reasons, his successor is yet to take charge. The process relating to the disbursement of wages has been allegedly hanging in balance due to this.
Legally, without an administrator, these TEs are not in a position to take some important decisions, including disbursement of wages to their respective labourers.
Earlier, the authorities concerned ordered these TEs to appoint an administrator. But due to various reasons, primarily because of alleged political interference, appointment of a new administrator could not be done so far. According to the standing rules, TEs have to appoint an administrator on or before the retirement of the existing administrator.
It is broadly alleged that the workers’ pay was stopped after non-completion of elections to elect the tea-garden cooperative body due to interference by local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA.
Before his retirement, former administrator Guha had ordered to reinstall the tea-garden cooperative body to manage the financial and administrative affair in the tea gardens.
Guha’s attempt to revive the tea garden cooperative body system, which attracted much appreciation from the tea garden community, got initiated and all preparation for polls was completed. Rules to conduct polls say that the contestant must be a stakeholder at the TEs. The election was scheduled to take place before Guha’s retirement.
The TEs are supposed to hold elections prior to the retirement of the administrator. But following the election process were completed, some local leaders of the ruling government tried to take over the garden by forcefully postponing the election with the help of Surma constituencies BJP MLA Asish Das, alleged Bhanu Tatti, a TE labourer.
“On the day of the polls, some of the members of the BJP with the help of Surma MLA Asish Das had created ruckus and, ultimately, the polls had to be postponed,” alleged.
Talking to EastMojo, some of the labourers of the TEs alleged that the BJP workers also threatened to shut down the gardens if its local leaders were not inducted in the tea garden cooperative body.
Urging the state government to take immediate steps to solve the problem, Tatti said, “It is the responsibility of the state government to appoint a new administrator. They should take up the issue on urgent basis. It’s not possible for us to continue like this”.
Earlier, the labourers met the chairman of Tripura Tea Development Corporation (TTDC) Santosh Saha twice in Agartala in this regard. However, the aggrieved labourers had to return with a promise that a new administrator in these TEs would be appointed within a week, but that never happened.
Meanwhile, talking to EastMojo, Rahul Ghosh, manager, Daring Tilla Tea Garden, said, “Payment to labourers of these TEs couldn’t be made as the authorities concerned have not appointed a new administrator so far. The payments can only be made after we get proper approval from the administrator concerned only.”
It is also alleged that the TTDC chairman doesn’t have any legal power to appoint or remove any person from the cooperative TEs. However, some senior-level political leaders are allegedly trying to take control in various government departments of the state to gain their vested interest.
Sources in the state government informed the EastMojo that the file for the approval of funds and for appointment of new administrator in the TEs is yet to reach the table of the chief minister Biplab Deb, who is also holding the portfolio of industry minister.
Expressing serious concern over the issue, Satyaban, a TE labour, said that the labourers of the TEs are vehemently opposing the entry of political parties in the affairs of the cooperative tea gardens in Tripura. “That is why politicians are delaying the process so that we give up our demands following the massive financial constraints,” he said.
At present, there are eight tea gardens in the state which are running under the supervision of administrators, appointed by the government. The administrators were appointed by the government decades back following the breakdown of the cooperative tea gardens due to financial crisis.
This year, the gardens were supposed to go on elections and form their own bodies as the financial condition of these gardens have improved gradually.
Meanwhile, the labourers of the TEs have threatened the state government to release their wages as soon as possible, failing which they will launch a state-wide agitation covering all the tea estates of the state.