Tea Gardens Being Sold Off in North Bengal – Why the Government is Adept at Killing Government-Owned Enterprises

February 1, 2015

teaphoto

By Samik Chakraborty. Translated by Debarshi Das.

(Written in December 2014, published in Shramikshakti, 15 January 2015)

Towards the end of November the media was abuzz with the murder of the manager of Sonali tea garden. At that very time, the state government started the process of privatisation of five government-owned tea gardens. The bidders were asked to submit new bids. For the entire month of December frantic activity was noticed. It was a happy hunting time for prospective garden owners.

Apparently there is no link between the murder at Sonali tea garden and the hawking of five gardens. But at a deeper level there is. Sonali tea garden was earlier under the management of West Bengal Tea Development Corporation for some time, as these five gardens are now. The way in which all these gardens were gradually turned into loss making enterprises could be the matter of an interesting inquiry.

We may have strong objections to angry workers’ murder of the Sonali manager. But the episode also shows that handing over government gardens to private hands is no solution. Yet, the government is ever eager to shirk responsibility by transferring gardens to private companies. On this the present government is no different from the previous ones. In 2007 (when the Left Front was in power) the chairman of the DP World Group, the sultan of Dubai, Ahmed Bin Sulaiman, was toured on helicopters to make an inspection of these gardens. The so called Left leaders wanted to entice the sultan to build seven star hotels in tea gardens. This was given a fancy name: tea tourism. Fortunately that Left dream of seven stars was soon covered in darkness. After the change of government, there has been a revival of auctioning off plan of gardens. More on that later.

Let us briefly look at the history of the Tea Development Corporation (TDC) first, which has been spearheading the move to sell gardens. In 1976 TDC was formed to revive sick and closed down gardens. From the hills Rungmook-Cedars, Rageroong, Pandam gardens and from the Dooars Hila and Mahua were taken over by TDC. Following the Supreme Court orders it became the receiver of Sonali garden (which was once run by workers’ cooperative) too. Who have been running the TDC? They are IAS officers who do not have an inkling of how tea gardens function. People say even a garden sardar (low ranking labour supervisor) knows more than these top officials. Take the following example to illustrate how they ruined the gardens. One Mr. Brijmohan was the chairman of TDC at that time. Mr. Brijmohan had a family business of tea. First, the managing director of TDC was brought to his side. Then Brijmohan started making bio-tea in the gardens. He got some buyers from Germany. Through his family firm he started to sell bio-tea to Germany. When the TDC bio-tea would enter the Kolkata tea auction they would be considered as ordinary Darjeeling or Dooars tea, for the invoice would not have bio-tea written there. Suppose the highest bid is Rs. 200, the export firm of Brijmohan would outbid and buy the tea at Rs. 225. By buying bio-tea at the price of ordinary tea and selling it to Germany at three to four times that buying price the Brijmohan family made crores of rupees of profits. On the other hand, the gardens accumulated huge burden of loss.

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Before this episode, TDC had bought the Singel Tea Company at Kurseong. After the sick garden was revived and made profitable the garden was transferred to the old owner, for the government lost a court case. TDC spent crores to revive the garden, and on the day of final hearing in the court, there was no one to argue from the side of the government. The court gave a one-sided judgment. The old owner sold it to someone else, from whom Brijmohan bought the garden. Brijmohan owned as many as seven garden at that point of time, all under fake names. He was the TDC chairman for seven years. No inquiry was ever instituted on his unscrupulous functioning.

At different points of time different firms entered into business deals with TDC, and these transactions went on smoothly even although the deals suffered from patent lack of transparency. It has been shown that TDC has bought goods worth crores of rupees from the firms in credit. How is that possible? Without any other arrangement how can a firm supply so many crores of rupees worth of goods in credit? No scrutiny of the accounts was ever done. The managing directors, finance directors have remained indifferent to the marketing prospects of the tea produced by the gardens. Posts have remained vacant year after year. There was a clause that if someone remains absent for three successive meetings, he can no longer remain the TDC director. But directors have actually ruled on after being absent in numerous meetings. Gardens in the meanwhile languished due to unaccounted for neglect. The farce reached to an extent that the TDC started splurging money to cultivate tea in the dry, rain-deficient Ajodhya Pahar of Purulia. This white elephant cost the TDC hugely.

The government of our country masters in the art of slowly killing government enterprises so that privatising them becomes easy. It knows how to sow false arguments in people’s mind to support this process. Without this art, it would be difficult to distribute goodies to the business class. And without this distribution the business houses would not return the favour by installing the pliant political parties in government. In short, the government cannot afford to be ungenerous to capitatlists.

A sense of despondency afflicts the workers of gardens which the government is selling. Let us take a tour of them.

On the way to Darjeeling, near Sonada, is the Rungmook garden. Nearby is Cedars garden. Jointly the two gardens command a huge area and a large work force. In as many 350 posts, after the workers have retired, the posts have not been filled. Gratuity of workers and staff has stopped for last few years. There are other miscellaneous arrears. Except for stray cases, provisions of ration and provident fund have been maintained however. It is to be noted that compared to private gardens, the workers’ benefits are larger here (for example, payment rate for plucking extra leaves). Many of the workers, staff are against privatisation. But opposing views were also heard from some workers. They say, the indifferent ways of government ownership can be treated with the strict control under private ownership. They do not perhaps know the difficult conditions that are created by private firm management. Private management takes profits as the only bench mark. It does not flinch from sucking the last bit of profit from workers’ toil.

The other two gardens of the hills are not so large. Keeping a mountain stream in between the two gardens of Rageroong and Pandam stretch on two sides of mountain slope. There was a time when the garden (Rageroong) produced export-quality tea. But it has fallen to bad times. There is no scope for planting new tea plants, but there is an urgent need to uproot the old plants to replace them with the new. There is a population of seven hundred people in the garden. There have been many ups and downs in its history. Management has been changed frequently, for 14 years it remained closed, sometime a workers’ committee (not a registered cooperative) has run the garden. Workers have spent days receiving only money wage (without the other usual provisions). They faced police harassments when the garden was shut down. Workers think that the pathetic state of TDC management has been exposed by its lack of planning, inefficiency of management, red tapism, lack of urgent steps for the development of garden such as irrigation. There are allegations that the management has evaded tax payment by hiding land records. Because of management neglect tea of the garden was returned back from the auction. At the same time workers feel that because it is a government garden they get their due even though it takes time. Will those dues be safeguarded if the garden is sold off? If an unknown firm buys the garden they would get a bad deal, they fear. The garden has no factory. Tea leaves are ferried to the factory at Pandam.

A metallic road is being constructed from Rageroong to Pandam. It raises an apprehension: instead of developing the gardens are they being forced on the way of tea tourism? The sorry state of tea plants at Pandam bolsters that apprehension. As you look at Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling, the garden which would be below you on the mountain slope is Pandam. It’s a 100 year old garden. Like Rageroong, the workers here complained about the inefficiency of management. The manager is seldom seen in the garden. Worryingly, workers have no idea about the negotiations between government, union and the management. Nobody has bothered to take the opinion of the workers or consult with them. Fearing uncertainty in the near future, many workers are looking for work in other places, in different occupations.

Now, let us come down to the Dooars gardens. Hila garden is located near Nagrakata. The same picture of neglect can be found here. No arrangement for irrigation or manuring has been made for last three years. Workers say, in spite of this production of leaves has not fallen. But the broken state of the factory, the drier is compelling them to throw away plucked leaves. All the leaves of the garden are not even plucked. When one Mr. Sharma was the manager some steps were taken to develop the garden. Things have stopped since then. Workers believe that if the garden is run properly the government can earn crores of rupees. They are coming up with suggestions also. But who is there to listen? The garden showed profits even some years ago. Workers think, if a big company runs it that would be good. But how can the firms which have gardens in debt can run this new garden? Generally they say, let the government run it, but it should run it well. Union leaders of the ruling party say, “We did not expect this from Didi’s government.”

On the way from Hasimara to Bhutan border is the small garden Mahua. In 1979 it was founded on the farm land of local residents. They did not receive any compensation or land price. But many got jobs. The soil is sandy, tea plants do not do well here. In the initial years of the abovementioned Mr. Sharma’s tenure here, there were positive steps which raised production in some sections. But these have stopped since then. For last three years no irrigation or manuring has come its way. Leaf production is indifferent. There is no factory, leaves are sent to Hila which is 110 kilometres away. High transport cost gets added. Workers say, there is plenty of unused land. Workers are few compared to land. But TDC is taking no initiative. Workers are clear, no private company will come forward to run this garden. They are profit-driven. They will build resorts, housing. Joygan of Bhutan is nearby. TDC itself has started the tea tourism story. The main demand of workers is unequivocal: if the government is not ready to run it let it return our land. We shall resume farming. The workers’ union of the ruling party is strong in this garden, too. But their leaders said, Didi has occupied the government after Singur movement. And now Didi’s government itself is doing this…it’s going to turn into another Singur!

In 2002 the police opened fire in Chandmoni tea garden near Siliguri to evict protesters, in order to build shopping malls there. Tea garden workers were killed in the firing. Will there be a repeat?

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