Brewing discontent, resentment over low wages and lack of land rights for tea garden workers, whose votes are decisive in four Lok Sabha constituencies in North Bengal, could emerge as hurdles to the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress in the upcoming polls.
About 4.5 lakh direct and indirect workers and their dependents, staying in about 300 estates - organised and unorganised - spread across Darjeeling, the Dooars and the Terai in these constituencies present a picture of deprivation and want though the tea plantations are touted as India's second largest employer, union leaders say.
"Organised tea garden workers and their dependents form about 50 per cent of the electorate in Alipurduar and about 40 per cent in Jalpaiguri. In Darjeeling constituency, including the hills and the plains, they have a share of around 50 per cent. They form a sizeable chunk of voters in Coochbehar.
"Since their distress has multiplied manifold during the rule of the Trinamool (in the state) and the BJP (at the centre), they will vote against dwindling socio-economic infrastructure, including declining medical facilities and non-implementation of Minimum Wages Act," Zia-Ul-Alam, Convenor of the Joint Forum of Trade Unions, an umbrella organisation of trade unions working in tea sector and CITU General Secretary (Tea Industry), told IANS.
The Trinamool had won the Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri and the Coochbehar Lok Sabha constituencies in 2014 while the BJP's S.S. Ahluwalia, now a Union Minister, backed by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), defeated Trinamool candidate and soccer star Bhaichung Bhutia in Darjeeling.
Trinamool's Dasrath Tirkey, who had humbled the Revolutionary Socialist Party's Manohar Tirkey in 2014, would seek re-election from Alipurduar, fighting against the RSP's Mili Oraon this time.
In Jalpaiguri, incumbent MP Bijoy Chandra Barman, who bested Mahendra Kumar Roy of the CPI-M the last time, will contest against Bhagirath Roy of the same party.
In Coochbehar, Trinamool nominee Paresh Chandra Adhikary has replaced incumbent MP Partha Pratim Ray, who won a bye-election in 2016, humbling the BJP's Hem Chandra Barman.
The BJP, yet to announce its candidates, has been emerging as a formidable alternative force in the tea-growing region.
Apart from then Union Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman's repeated visits to the tea gardens, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's trip to Jalpaiguri in February indicates the priority the saffron leadership is giving to the region as part of its focus on West Bengal.
Taking a jibe at the Trinamool, Congress and Left-backed unions, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh state Vice President Shankar Das told IANS: "The plight of the tea workers is not new. The BJP is coming up as a formidable alternative in the region, as the Congress, Left Front and Trinamool have failed to address their issues."
Crippled by malnourishment, low wages and inadequate medical facilities, the plantation workers are in misery, say union activists.
"Neither the BJP (at the Centre) nor the Trinamool (in the state) is listening to our demands. Trinamool alleges that the Left failed to do anything for us but the present government's declared minimum wage has sparked anger among workers," Rafique Ansari, a worker at the Palashbari tea garden in Alipurduar, told IANS.
Usually, a wage agreement for tea workers is executed for a three-year period. The last agreement expired on March 31, 2017. The state government then announced an interim daily wage hike of Rs 17.50 but has been allegedly "dilly-dallying in enforcing the Minimum Wages Act".
In Jalpaiguri constituency, Banarhat tea estate worker Jitbahan Shaw told IANS: "We are getting a daily wage of Rs 176 and many labourers working in unorganised and small gardens do accept even Rs 120-130 as daily wage. We are the lowest paid plantation workers. How can we run families with such paltry amounts?"
Workers accused the owners of not giving ration as a part of wage but as part of the Food Security Mission Programme.
"Plantation Labour Act and the Plantation Labour Rules are being grossly violated. They are landless workers and live in tea estates like captive population. They will vote for land rights. Both the BJP and Trinamool will pay a price in the elections for not solving the issue," INTUC backed National Union of Plantation Workers General Secretary Mani Kumar Darnal told IANS.
Not less than Rs 150 crore of gratuity remains unpaid and many workers were also deprived of their legitimate Provident Fund dues, he added.
Despite announcement of formation of a Tea Directorate to liaison between the tea gardens and the state government, the Trinamool government "did not formulate any concrete step" to reopen about 15-20 defunct gardens, Darnal said.
Admitting the issues raised by workers and unions, Amar Singh Rai, the sitting GJM legislator from Darjeeling, who will contest from the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency, backed by the pro-Banerjee faction of the GJM, has promised to deliver in favour of the workers if elected.
"We are going to take forward the issue of implementing the minimum wages because it is a long-pending demand for them. In the GJM manifesto, we mentioned that the wage issue would be our top priority," Rai told IANS on the phone.
(Bappaditya Chatterjee can be contacted at email@example.com)
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