Mamata Banerjee-led West Bengal government has ordered a Criminal Investigation Department (CID) probe against Gouri Prasad Goenka-controlled Duncans Industries in the wake of worker deaths at its tea estates in North Bengal.
After meeting CID officials on Monday, the company’s whole-time director M H Chinoy said: “There was some misunderstanding regarding the payment outstanding to workers. We have presented some papers; more papers will be presented tomorrow (on Tuesday).” Goenka did not respond to calls.
Duncans has 14 estates across Dooars, Terai and Darjeeling in North Bengal, producing 14 million kg of tea. Around 25,000 workers are associated with the estates. The state government’s tough stand on the issue comes ahead of the Assembly elections next year.
“We had repeatedly asked the management to clear workers' dues, but there has been no positive indication from their side. Hence, we have ordered a CID inquiry,” said agriculture minister Purnendu Basu.
Over the past few months, 11 deaths have been reported from the estates. “We are very sensitive to workers' rights. It is evident from the images that they were malnourished. We are going to explore all options,” said Basu.
In April, the state government had auctioned five tea gardens under the West Bengal Tea Development Corporation. “If it was a matter of one or two gardens, we could have taken it over, but we can't take over so many gardens. Our group of ministers will meet to discuss an overall policy for tea gardens because the management in many gardens is abusing powers,” the minister added.
Gardens in North Bengal have been under pressure with the double whammy of subdued tea prices and rising costs.
“Over a three-year period, tea prices have increased 3-4 per cent per annum, while wage costs have increased 42 per cent and input costs 10 per cent. That said, most of the gardens in North Bengal are still functional. Duncans apart, only 4-5 gardens must be closed right now," an industry representative said. West Bengal accounts for 27 per cent of India's tea production.