Financial packages for tea garden workers brew a poll issue in Darjeeling

Financial packages for tea garden workers brew a poll issue in Darjeeling

Days after the Centre and the West Bengal government announced financial packages for tea garden workers in their respective budgets, political parties in Bengal’s Darjeeling and adjoining districts have turned this into a major issue ahead of the assembly polls due in March-April.


On February 1, Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced in her budget speech that the Centre will spend 1000 crore for the welfare of tea garden workers of West Bengal and Assam. Since both states are going to the polls, opposition parties said this was part of the sops to woo voters.

On Friday, while presenting the state budget, chief minister Mamata Banerjee announced a 150 crore package for the state’s tea garden workers.

The north Bengal region has 54 assembly seats. Of these, tea garden workers and their families comprise a sizeable section of voters in around 15 seats. These are located in Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar districts.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged as a major challenger to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) by winning seven of the north Bengal region’s eight seats, including the one in Darjeeling.


The 283 tea gardens in north Bengal employ three hundred thousand permanent workers, according to garden owners and trade unions. The tea gardens have always witnessed trade union movement over demands of the workers. The Congress, Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), and the latter’s partner, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), still have influence on these workers. Many of the workers are tribal people and Gorkhas.

Against this backdrop, the Central and state budgets have become election issues in the hills with the BJP and the TMC making all efforts to woo tea garden workers in their campaigns. While the main contenders are flaunting their budgets, the Congress and the CPI (M) are calling the packages indirect bribe for voters before the polls.


Saman Pathak, former CPI(M) Rajya Sabha member and state committee member of the party’s trade union front, said, “Action speaks louder than words. Had the Centre and the state been serious about welfare of the workers, they would have fixed minimum wages, given them land rights and taken action against owners of tea gardens that have not paid provident fund and gratuity to employees.”

A resident of north Bengal, Pathak said, “The daily wage of 202 at local tea gardens is among the lowest in the country. The state government is not serious about implementing minimum wages for which a committee was formed more than five years ago.”

Mani Kumar Darnal, general secretary of National Union of Plantation Workers, which is affiliated to the Congress, said, “The state and the Centre are making cosmetic moves. Healthcare and housing facilities in local tea gardens are pathetic.”


Both Pathak and Darnal said the workers and their families, who have been sweating for more than hundred years, have no right on the land where they reside.

Kisan Kalyani, TMC’s Jalpaiguri district committee president and also a tea plantation owner, denied the charges.

“Chief minister Mamata Banerjee is deeply attached to the tea garden workers. Her Chaa Sundari scheme, a free housing project for those without home, bears testimony to that,” said Kalyani.

“The state government has allocated 500 crore for Chaa Sundari and those who have no houses will get one in three years,” Banerjee had said during her recent north Bengal tour. She also announced that more than 4,600 workers have been given allotment letters for houses at 12 tea garden areas in Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar districts.


Darnal said, “Workers who will get houses under Chaa Sundari have been given conditional land rights. This is a gimmick before the election.”

A tea planter, who requested anonymity, said, “Since Assam has more than 600 gardens, a large chunk of the 1000 crore announced by the Centre will go to that state. The same thing has been happening with disbursement of the Tea Board of India’s subsidy to planters.”

Pathak and Darnal demanded a white paper on the expenditure the state claims to have made since the TMC came to power in 2011.

Raju Bista, BJP Lok Sabha member from Darjeeling and the party’s national spokesperson, said, “Both planters and workers have suffered during the TMC regime. Mamata Banerjee should name one scheme that her government has launched for the industry between 2011 and 2019. For 10 years, her government has ignored the plight of workers and planters. She announced the Chaa Sundari scheme in 2020. But so far it remains only on paper.”

Days after the Centre and the West Bengal government announced financial packages for tea garden workers in their respective budgets, political partie

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