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A parliamentary panel on Commerce has expressed anguish on the abject working and inhumane living conditions of tea labourers which is “reminiscent of the indentured labour introduced in colonial times by British planters”.

The department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Commerce headed by Rajya Sabha MP V. Vijayasai Reddy presented its 171st report on the subject ‘Issues Affecting the Indian Tea Industry, especially in Darjeeling Region’ to the Chairman, Rajya Sabha, on June 15.

The report has examined some prominent issues plaguing the tea sector in general and Darjeeling Tea in particular, such as dumping of cheap and substandard-quality tea from neighbouring countries especially Nepal; pendency in disbursing subsidies; issues of land rights (parja patta); working conditions of tea labourers and extending decent living wages to tea workers, especially in Darjeeling district.

The committee was informed about the dire straits of tea workers in tea plantation areas who are facing a very vulnerable existence with no proper basic facilities and working conditions. It was stated that more than 50 per cent of labourers are women, mainly employed for plucking and pruning tea bushes.

However, social security and welfare measures such as maternity benefits, child care support, quality health and education entitlements, provident fund, etc., are lacking for women workers in tea plantations. With poor hygiene and sanitation conditions and no workplace safety, the tea workers, especially women labourers, are leading a subjugated and inhumane life.

The Committee notes with distress the blatant violation of socio-economic justice wherein the labourers of the tea sector, with a high prevalence of female workers, have to endure an abysmal and dismal life with no access to basic amenities and living standards.

It further views that inadequacy and absence of political will in executing the Plantations Labour Act, 1951 has led to the deterioration of working standards of tea labourers.

The committee was informed that non-compliance with the Plantation Labour Act, 1951, by tea companies which ensures ‘in-kind’ components of wages which compensate for the monetised value of facilities, had been a major concern for the labourers. The Act mandates facilities to be extended by tea companies to workers such as ration, housing, education, firewood and medical benefits. However, failure to implement Plantations Labour Act has led to deterioration in the conditions of tea workers.

The committee recommends the government earnestly endeavour for ensuring welfare measures, health and housing benefits and decent working conditions for labourers in the tea sector.

The committee said the unhampered and easy influx of substandard tea from neighbouring countries, especially Nepal, is jeopardizing the tea industry of India. It is further appalling to observe that the imports of inferior quality teas from Nepal are being sold and re-exported as premium Darjeeling Tea, which not only is diluting the global brand image of India, but also affecting domestic tea prices.

The committee also recommended the department undertake strong and vigilant measures to counter the import of low-quality and cheap tea from neighbouring countries, especially Nepal.

It has urged the department to establish a NABL accredited Quality Control Lab in Darjeeling district for checking the conformity of quality standards of each consignment of imported teas. It also recommends an investigation by the Directorate General of Trade Remedies (DGTR) on the dumping of teas from Nepal for suggesting remedial measures and imposition of anti-dumping duty on imported tea.

The committee expressed dismay at the plight and deprivation of the tea workers of Darjeeling, Dooars and Terai region for not being conferred ‘Parja-Patta’ or land rights on their ancestral lands which they have toiled for generations. It is deplorable to note the feudalistic set-up in the region alienated tea workers from their basic land rights despite seven decades of independence which starkly undermines the claims of successful land reform movements in the country.

It says the tea produced by small tea growers in the Darjeeling district should also be recognized as GI registered product at par with 87 tea estates to ensure a better price premium. The committee also recommends mobilising STGs into producers’ organisations and producers’ companies for improving the access of tea growers to various schemes, investments, technology and inputs.

Also read: Tea Board of India limits addition of only 5% flavour to tea

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