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Tea planters in a pickle

The tea gardens of Assam are faced with an unexpected and severe labour crunch. This is affecting their operations this plucking season that started in April. The reason: the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). BT's Ritwik Mukherjee reports from the Martycherra tea plantation in the Cachar district.

Ritwik Mukherjee        Print Edition: June 1, 2008

May 6, 2008
Martycherra Tea Estate, Cachar,
55 km off Silchar, Assam


It’s little after 8.00 in the morning as we (BT photographer Debashish Paul and I) drive down the bumpy roads (that often degenerate into dirt tracks) bisecting picturesque tea gardens.

Workers at tea garden
Workers at tea garden
We get the whiff of tea leaves (the most crucial second flush—the April-May picking season—has already started) as we proceed towards Martycherra Tea Estate. This plantation is one of the 116 registered tea gardens in the Barak Valley and the last in the Cachar district bordering North Cachar Hills, once a hotbed of insurgency activities.

But for now, these tea gardens are faced with another severe crisis—the non-availability of tea garden workers; this is affecting their operations this plucking season that started in April. The reason: an apparently “kind” gesture by the Centre: the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS).

As per NREGS, the local panchayats are supposed to provide at least 100 days of work to the rural unemployed. However, across Cachar, even permanent workers at the tea gardens are getting hold of NREGS job cards, allege tea owners.

The workers are missing: Martycherra’s Gogoi
Anil Gogoi
Claims Anil Gogoi, Manager, Martycherra Tea Estate: “We have lost around 100 workers this season to NREGS.” The total number of workers (permanent and casual) at the tea estate is 750-plus. “Even some of our regular workers who are on the permanent rolls and get housing, ration, PF, gratuity and what not, have got these job cards,” he adds.

And how do these workers manage to get these job cards? “There is hardly any village in the vicinity. These garden workers contest panchayat polls and some of them get elected. So, it’s very easy for them to get these cards,” says Gogoi. He is not alone; R.K. Mishra, Senior Manager of the Jayashree Tea Industries-owned Kallain Tea Estate, by far the largest in the region and Ishvar Ubadhia, Manager of Rose Kandy Tea Estate, are facing the same problem.

explains mishra of kallain tea estate: “at the gardens, they (workers) get rs 48.65 per day. that’s their cash salary. but if one takes into account other facilities they are being offered, their cost to company comes to more than rs 100 per day.”

Where’s the money? Munda has a NREGS job card but does not get paid
Asim Munda
Talk to Nani Bhattacharya, leader of the INTUC-affiliated Cachar Cha Shramik Union, and he adds a twist to the NREGS story in the tea gardens. He rattles off the names of permanent workers at Kallain Tea Estate, who are getting Rs 77 per day for having enlisted their names under NREGS, while there are others like Asim Munda who have not been paid at all despite working. Munda says he has an NREGS job card but has not been paid any money for the last two months.

Some of the ongoing NREGS projects near the tea gardens are construction of water tanks near Padma Jhil at Kallain Tea Estate, construction of drainage systems at Baikanthapur and construction of a water reservoir at Mejenta Colony, among others.

Needed more hands on the job: Women workers bundling tea leaves
Workers bundling tea leaves
For their part, the Tea Association of India (TAI) and the Indian Tea Association, the two bodies of planters, have already taken up the issue with the district administration. When contacted, district administration officials maintained that they could only react to official and specific complaints relating to permanent tea garden workers being brought under NREGS. They refused to comment further when BT pointed out that several gardens claim to have filed such complaints.

Says Jameel Ahmad, Secretary (Barak Valley Chapter), TAI: “We have asked the district administration to first obtain a ‘no objection certificate’ from the garden management and then issue job cards, otherwise the fate of the tea industry in Cachar or Barak Valley will be sealed.”

For the new generation tea garden owners, who are spending large amounts on turning the plantations around, NREGS has come as a body blow. “The cost of production has been higher than the selling price of tea for the last 10 years or so. This year looked bright before introduction of NREGS. But if we don’t get the required workforce for plucking and pruning, our entire investment will go down the drain,” says Vijay Garodia, Chairman, Garodia Group, which bought Martycherra Tea Estate and took Dollu Tea Estate on lease last year.

For now, there is no fortune in the tea cup for him.


Coffee travails

Never in the past did S. Caverappa, 52, a planter in Napoklu village of Coorg district in Karnataka, struggle as much to get his coffee harvested as this year. In the recent coffee picking season (December-February), Caverappa offered a daily wage of Rs 150—50 per cent more than what he paid last year. But the offer excited few workers. By the time he somehow managed to get coffee in his 25-acre plantation harvested, it was late by almost a month.“We could manage higher wages because of good coffee prices this year,” says Caverappa, Vice Chairman of the Coffee Board.

Strong brew: Spoilt by labour crisis
Spoilt by labour crisis
Coorg requires 20,000-plus labourers during the season, but the attendance last season was very thin. Earlier, it was among the favourite places for labourers from backward districts like Gulbarga, Raichur and Chamarajnagar. But not anymore.

The road and real estate projects in Mysore and Bangalore have weaned them all away. Even the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme is a big failure in Coorg as the plantation wages are far higher.

Another reason for the sudden drop in the availability of workers, many of whom are small agriculturists in the plains, was robust production of crops as a result of a good monsoon. As a result, they did not find the need to earn in plantations.

“The labour crisis was equally acute in Chikmagalur and Hassan districts,” says Caverappa. Karnataka grows coffee on 2.05 lakh hectares, accounting for about 60 per cent of the total area under coffee in India. In 2007-08, India produced 292,000 tonnes of coffee, of which Karnataka contributed 72 per cent.

K.R. Balasubramanyam

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