The tea industry of Assam is fuming as the state government has decided to stop bulk allocation of food grains at subsidised rates to it as the government plans to bring tea garden workers under the National Food Security Act (NFSA).
As it would take at least another three months for Assam to roll out NFSA, the tea industry till then will have to procure food grains from open market, which would mean procuring at around three times the cost it now pays in procuring from Food Corporation of India (FCI).
A December 23 letter, addressed to the tea industry associations, by the Assam government stated: "In view of the implementation of NFSA, sub-allocation of food grains in bulk to tea industry will be stopped. Under NFSA, the tea garden labourer will be provided food grains, if found eligible as per norms,"
However, minutes of a meeting, held under the chairmanship of the chief minister on December 20 (a copy of which has been accessed by Business Standard) clearly states that distribution of food grains would not start before March 2014. The meeting decided to finish distribution of cards to beneficiaries by February 15.
Presently there are around 8 lakh tea garden workers in Assam, including permanent and casual workers, who are provided with subsidised food grains (rice and wheat) by the tea industry.
"If the government will roll out NFSA only in March, I don't understand what's the point in stopping food grain allocation now. Furthermore, I am doubtful if they will be able to roll out NFSA by March. Do you think our state government has become so efficient," said Dipanjol Deka, secretary of Tea Association of India (TAI). He also cast doubt that the government will be able complete its task of providing beneficiary cards to all the 8 lakh tea garden workers by the month of February.
The tea industry currently procures 7,000 metric tones of rice and 5,000 metric tones of wheat from the government at Rs 830 and Rs 610 per quintal respectively. The prevalent market prices of rice and wheat are around Rs 2,000 and Rs 1,700 respectively.
Deka fears that if supply of subsidised ration is stopped even for a brief period, it will fuel unrest and violence in tea gardens. Switching to a new system of procurement all of a sudden for such huge quantities would not be practically feasible.
Also, paying the tea garden labourers in cash will not be the solution as then they will have to devote time to travel to towns to procure food grains.
A meeting of Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations (CCPA), a conglomeration of all tea industry bodies, will be soon convened, said Deka, to chart out the future course of action.