How are you Chandmani, after the ‘Change’?

An Eyewitness Report on the present state of Chandmani Tea Estate by Samik Chakraborty
Translated by Suvarup Saha, Sanhati

Do you recall the ‘Chandmani’ saga? It was the year 2003. We were introduced to new jargon by our ‘proletarian’ Left Front government – Satellite Township. A modern township in close proximity to a big city. This project of usurping the land of Chandmani Tea Estate to build a lavish township in the outskirts of Siliguri (in the northern part of West Bengal) and the events that followed soon exposed the true identity of the LF once more. An echo of the recent euphoria of ‘industrialization-development’ that is now centered around ‘Singur-Nandigram’ and the corresponding ‘inevitability’ of forceful land acquisition can in fact be heard four years back in history when Chandmani was ‘CHANGED’.

If you take the road to Matigada from Siliguri, it won’t be long before you reach Chandmani. About 551 workers earned their livelihood from this tea-estate built in 1929 covering a huge tract of land. This tea-estate had the same story to tell as the others in the area. During the British rule, the ‘adivasis’ from Bengal-Bihar-Orissa were made to work in these gardens as bonded labourers. Contemporary law, however, made this work hereditary. In 1998, Jyoti Basu entered into an agreement to scrap the garden and set up a satellite township instead. The owner of Chandmani had another garden in Subalbhita. The workers fought hard to save Chandmani and their livelihood; but ultimately some of them took alternate jobs offered to them in remote Subalbhita. At different points of time, the CPI(M) as well as the Congress did promise to fight on behalf of the struggling workers, but eventually each one of them started singing the tune of the garden-owners. The workers finally launched their struggle under one common united banner. It was 26th of June, 2003 when a huge armed police force came to take possession of the garden. The workers from their colonies also gathered and put up a brave face against the police aggression. Police first fired tear gas shells and then bullets, indiscriminately. Two of the protesters, Ranjit Jaiswal and Ram Bhagat were killed in police firing. Thus, the Buddhadev government achieved its first milestone in its quest of development at the cost of the lives and livelihood of the ‘disposable’ workers.

So we wonder how Chandmani is now, after four years of ‘development’? It is to find the answer to this question that we landed in the ‘changing’ Chandmani. The sign board reading ‘Chandmani Tea-Estate’ still flanks the road from Siliguri to Matigada. All along the right hand side of the road the glittering township – the Uttarayan Housing Complex can be seen to expand. On the left hand side one can locate new sign boards heralding the enigma of ‘Software Technology Park’. Leaving all the shine behind, we went on along the earthen trail towards the workers’ colony. Along that ‘kuchcha’ road, huge tracts of land of the Chandmani tea-garden lay guarded by barbed fences. Some one told us that during the acquisition in 2003, the government under police supervision had employed hundreds of labourers from outside to weed out the tea-plants from that vast stretch of land.

Just at the entry of the workers’ colony, some women were found selling haria (a kind of local liquor). They were erstwhile tea-pickers in the garden. In a voice of repentance they explained that they don’t really have an alternate livelihood. At the time of taking over, a lot was talked about compensation, alternate land, job in the construction activity of Uttarayan. A large number did not receive any compensation. The ones who did, exhausted it all in renovating their dilapidated dwellings or in similar such emergency activities. A few did get land too, but soon the garden-owner declared it to be impossible for him to provide any more land; he pointed towards Siliguri-Jalpaiguri development authority to arrange for rest of the required land. It’s redundant to mention here that such land transfers have not even been processed, forget about registration and other legal stuff. And how many tea-workers did manage a job in the construction work? Out of the hundred plus workers who are still alive or have stayed back in Chandmani, only 5-7 did actually get a job. In the mammoth construction activity of Bengal Ambuja, the majority of the contractors are from outside the region, and so are the workers they employ – local tea-garden workers are not welcome here. There is no standard rate of wage labour. It varies from 70-90 rupees a day, and there is a maximum of 20-22 days of work in a month. We talked to a lot of people out there who had themselves worked in the garden in various capacities as tea-pickers, factory workers and grass-cutters, or had parents that had done so. Once they were all permanent workers, but now the future is bleak. Word is out that soon their colonies will also be devoured by the ever-growing township.

In a local tea-stall we asked the evening crowd what the established political parties has done for them. The retort was unanimous. ‘All those pimps had finally declared that the garden had to go. Uttarayan is for the ‘big people’, and that is now their only concern.’

With the setting sun on our shoulders we passed the tea-garden office and the factory ruins to come up to the main road. There we met the son of ‘Shaheed’ Ram Bhagat. Luckily, the chap had managed to secure the job of a peon at Uttarayan at a monthly remuneration of 800 rupees. Before we left, we thought of for once witnessing the great show of development – ‘Uttarayan’ itself. A few construction workers accompanied us. At the very entrance, security stopped us. Maybe they realized that we were not really in tune. We were asked to get permission from the ‘office’. Who knows where the search of the office will lead us to. Office to Ashok Bhattacharya… Ashok Bhattacharya to Buddhadev Bhattacharya… Buddhadev Bhattacharya to Harsh Neotia…. The glowing neon lights summarized it all. ‘Uttarayan…… Siliguri is Changing’. True, it is changing. We feel it in our blood.

This article originally appeared in ShramikShakti, August 2007