Compiled by: Team – East Zone
Alipurduar, West Bengal: The Tea industry in West Bengal is in deep crisis since the last couple of decades with the number of sick, abandoned, closed tea garden on the rise. Those still open are under tremendous financial crisis, due to equal contribution of globalization and the inability to compete in export markets. There have been numerous changes in garden ownership with new owners focusing on maximising profits. The profit earned was further invested on diversification rather than towards the welfare of the tea industry. Every day brings in news of a new closure. Illness, destitution and deaths are being reported regularly.
The closure has resulted in severe violation of the Plantation Labour Act (1951). Facilities such as electricity, drinking water, education, health services, Provident Fund and ration provision were abruptly closed. The families do not have physical ownership of land. Many of the Closed Tea Gardens (CTGs) do not fall under panchayat area. In this region, plucking tea leaves has been their sole occupation for the last 300 years. As a result, generations after generation were engaged in the same job and felt no need for alternative livelihood options or developing alternate skills sets.
The Red Bank tea estate has remained shut since 2013.The long spells of closure meant no regular work and the lack of alternative livelihood options has resulted in poverty, food security and destitution.
Duars Alternative Medical Research Institute (DAMRI), our partner organization based in Alipurduar, West Bengal began working in Shalboni & Surendranagar area of the Red Bank Closed Tea Garden in April 2015. The purpose was to help the unorganized sector workers of closed tea gardens to access their entitlements and help them in increasing their income. Community based organizations were formed to support the tea garden workers to participate in local governance, to raise, represent and redress critical issues from the ground through joint action.
In 2013, at the behest of the District Magistrate, four “Bagan Bachao committees” were reconstituted but were not properly functional. The years of neglect resulted in loss of quality of the tea shrubs. Pruning is essential for quality maintenance. Since the closure, the tea garden workers only managed 120 -135 days work per family. The entire stock of plucked leaves was purchased by these Committees. On an average, one worker could collect 14 – 21 kg of leaves per day and earned a maximum of Rs. 147 for a day’s hard work.
The rest of the year, the families would eke out a living by collecting boulders on the shore of river Diana at on an average of Rs. 150-200/- per person per day during monsoon.
The intervention with the support of the community helped in the revival and creation of 25 SHGs in these two areas. Many members also belonged to the Bagan Bachao Committees. The Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) were also involved during the process. They were sensitized about their roles and responsibilies. The SHG members effectively carried out the learning and experience sharing with the committees. In November 2015, the committees of the two intervention areas of Shalboni and Surendranagar and one adjacent line of Red Bank main invited the Block Development Officer (BDO) to visit the garden. The SHGs led the community to submit a joint application to the BDO of Dhupguri for inclusion of tea shrub pruning under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). This was earlier managed entirely by the garden committees. The request was accepted by the BDO.
Garden workers in Shalboni and Surendranagar got pruning work included under MGNREGA from March 2016 onwards at the daily rate of Rs. 174/-. The entire community is expecting better quality leaf in the next monsoon which will generate additional revenues for them. Earlier the committees sold the leaves for Rs. 14-16/ kg earning a profit of Rs. 7-8/- kg for garden maintenance, pruning and trenching. With the pruning work now included in MGNREGA, more money will be available to the committees for garden maintenance. The workers are happy as they earn an additional 100 days of work. The SHG members shared their enormous relief and elation at this success.