West Bengal – A report on hopelessness and desperation in the Hills and Dooars

August 4, 2012

August 4, 2012

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On the current situation in Darjeeling

(Source : ShramikShakti June 2012)

About an year ago, there was a historic change of regime in West Bengal. Along with this historic change came a promise of solving the problem of the Darjeeling Hills within three months of coming to power. Miraculously, within seventeen days of swearing in, the government, by signing the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) agreement, announced the resolution of a problem of decades. The beaming Chief Minister might not have realized then that reality does not work like magic. And within one year, both the Hills and the Dooars are ablaze again.

Only a while back there was a violent confrontation between the supporters of the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) and the Adivasi Bikash Parishad (ABP) regarding the bandh call made by the former. The GJM has demanded inclusion of 398 maujas of Tarai and Dooars region into the GTA. It has threatened a widespread movement if their demands are not met. The ABP has vowed to oppose this proposal.

The people in the Hills have been fuming for a while now. On the one hand there is the sense of betrayal in converting the just demand of separate Gorkhaland into just the GTA, on the other hand they have started to see the reflection of the erstwhile GNLF and its supremo Subhash Ghising in the activities of the GJM – corruption, embezzlement, profiteering. The promises regarding new jobs and recruitment that the state government made during signing of the GTA agreement have also not been met. The slogan of “..have fulfilled 100% of our electoral promises within 90 days…” has yet again proven to be just a shameless lie. It seems likely that to channelize this general sense of frustration of the people of Darjeeling hills that the issue of inclusion of Dooars-Tarai in the GTA is being used as a focal point by the Hill leadership.

The political environment in Dooars has changed in the last year. Though Dooars is inhabited by people of various origins and culture, it is mostly the Nepalis and the Adivasis who have been agitated for and against the inclusion of the Dooars in the GTA. If we look at the results of the byelections in Kalchini Assembly constituency of the Jalpaiguri district we shall see that the winner is the GJM supported independent candidate Wilson Champramari while the ABP candidate Sandeep Ekka came second. Main stream parties like the RSP and the Congress came third and fourth respectively. Thus the political equation in Dooars has been re-written. During the 5 year long agitation for Gorkhaland starting from 2007, Dooars has also seen considerable flux in terms of political polarization. In the beginning, the established parties like the CPI(M), RSP or even Congress had fueled agitation by ABP or other anti-GJM parties to show existence of opposition to the Gorkhaland movement. However, they failed to reap any benefits. What transpired after a while is that a section of the ABP led by John Barla came together with Bimal Gurung led GJM and supported the inclusion of Dooars in the GTA. But there remained opposition to this from the national leadership of the ABP led by Birsa Tirke and Rajesh Lakra. And this standoff has led to a spate of incidents involving local meetings, bandhs etc. The government, meanwhile, has chosen to remain dysfunctional.

Hidden from this so called territorial dispute is something that is actually of utmost significance to the toiling workers of the region. Both the Hills as well as the Tari-Dooars region houses numerous tea-estates and related industries. The deplorable living condition of the workers in these industries including the meager wages and the absence of any legal right to their housing, widespread malnutrition and hunger-deaths have been discussed ample times, but this has resulted in zero improvement of the state of affairs. Though the question of repressed ethnic identity has been addressed by the Gorkhaland movement, the struggle of the workers has somehow always been side-tracked.

A few months back there was a huge upheaval featuring a demand of enhanced wages. But the resultant gains have been too incremental. The daily wage of a tea-worker in the hills increased from INR 67 to INR 90, while that of a Dooars tea-worker became INR 85. Interestingly, all the unions involved in the wage-hike movement had a much higher demand – to the tune of INR 154 to INR 250. It is obvious that in a region that densely populated by workers it is difficult for any political party to find a base amongst them without raising the demand of a wage hike. Once upon a time, the trade unions of CPI(M), RSP or Congress would dominate the worker scene in the Hills Dooars. Now in their place the GJM or ABP led unions have emerged. But still in the negotiating table, they haven’t behaved much differently. The state of industries apart from tea isn’t very different.

Another dangerous trend is a new demand made by the tea-garden owners for a 9-hour work day. This kind of violation of labor laws and the constitution is not new in these areas. Once before the tea-owners had campaigned for not letting the tea-workers get the government sponsored 100 day work. Right now there seems to be a rising demand for tea grown in this region. But the tea-garden owners are solely interesting in enhancing their profit. And this is evident in their audacity to go to a 9 hour work day. It is imperative that the workers strongly resist these kind of attacks on their rights. Otherwise, all the gains obtained through a long history of struggle and sacrifice would be easily wasted.

[Translated from Bengali by Suvarup]

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