– Ghatak: No closed estates & no deaths
Opposition trade union leaders in north Bengal’s tea gardens have joined their legislators in rejecting state labour minister Malay Ghatak’s statement in the Assembly today that there are “no closed tea gardens, no deaths due to malnutrition and no suicides in the gardens of north Bengal”.
The minister gave the reply in response to a written question by Biswanath Choudhuri of the RSP. Choudhuri asked Ghatak about the number of closed tea gardens in the state at present, what assistance was being given to the affected labourers, how many deaths had occurred till April 30, 2016, because of malnutrition, and how many labourers had committed suicides in the gardens.
In response, Ghatak said: “There are no closed tea gardens, no deaths due to malnutrition and no suicides have occurred.”
He, however, added that six gardens were under lockout for one to three years and they were being given assistance under various state and central schemes.
The minister later named the six gardens under lockout. They are Redbank, Surendranagar, Dharanipur, Bandapani, Dheklapara and Madhu.
While Redbank, Surendranagar and Dharanipur were abandoned by the management without notice, orders suspending work were issued in the other three gardens. While the work was suspended in Bandapani in 2013, in Dheklapara and Madhu, the orders were issued in 2005 and 2014, respectively.
So, the minister’s statement is not completely correct. For lockout, the management of the respective garden has to issue an order to the effect and inform the administration.
Opposition trade unions said the minister “was misleading the House”.
The Intuc-affiliated National Union for Plantation Workers’ joint general secretary, Manikumar Darnal, said the minister should have done his homework. “The minister apparently does not know that the state government is giving rice and wheat to closed and inoperative tea gardens. The food minister recently visited the inoperative Duncan gardens…the minister (Ghatak) has insulted the workers of the closed gardens. We strongly protest the statement.”
John Barla, a tribal leader and a representative of the Joint Forum, an umbrella organisation of 24 tea trade unions, except INTTUC, said he should seek forgiveness from the workers of the closed gardens. “How can the labour minister say that not a single garden is closed? He should seek forgiveness from the workers. Seven gardens in Alipurduar of the Duncan Group are inoperative. There are two more in Jalpaiguri (other than the estates mentioned as locked out ones by the minister) that are inactive – Manabari and Kumlai.”
Jiaur Alam, Citu leader and joint action committee member, sought to refute Ghatak’s claim that there were no deaths from malnutrition in tea gardens. “According to a survey by the joint action committee, 313 workers of gardens in Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar have died in the last one year and 123 of them passed away because of malnutrition and starvation,” Alam said.
Minister Ghatak, however, claimed that a scrutiny of the cases had revealed that the deaths were because of “natural causes, like cerebral attack, cirrhosis, asthma, heart attack and pneumonia”.
RSP MLA Choudhuri later said: “We cannot accept the minister’s statement. At one time, tea production was the highest in Bengal. But now, the lackadaisical attitude of the state government has not helped in opening the gardens.”