15 February 2021

Tea Garden Workers Collective Resolves To Stop Illegal Takeover

About 1300 workers of the Jateswar Division of Birpara Tea Garden have begun a struggle to prevent the illegal and unjust takeover of their garden by Merico Agro Industries Ltd.

The workers have read from the newspapers that a meeting has been organised by the West Bengal Labour Department between trade union leaders and the management of Merico Agro Industries Ltd. They received no information of this meeting. Nor were they consulted in any way. Also present at this illegal meeting was local MLA, Manoj Tigga. On 13 February 2021, in a workers’ meeting in the garden, the tea garden workers came up with the following 3 demands:-
  1. As per Supreme Court order, the dues which are remaining should be paid immediately before opening of garden.
  2. All the Provident Fund dues which have not been paid by the management should be paid before opening of garden.
  3. The new management should directly come to the garden and make agreement with the workers of the garden before opening the garden.
According to the Tea Board, the total dues which needs to be paid to the workers are ₹6,33,83,000 (till 2016- gratuity not included). If gratuity and interest is included this amount would be more than ₹10 crores. The workers have been only paid an interim relief of  ₹1,76,44,000 by the government of West Bengal due to a Supreme Court order. The 2623 workers of the Birpara garden have not been paid their Provident Fund dues since the last 20 years. They have also not been paid their gratuity since 2007.

Birpara tea garden (GP - Shishujhumra, Dist – Alipurduar) was abandoned by the Duncans Pvt Ltd in 2015. It was temporarily opened in 2017 by Duncans , but was again abandoned in September 2019. After this, the Jateshwar Division of Birpara garden made a collective of their own to run the garden. 1300 workers started working on 405 acres. Since then, the workers have received ₹10 per kg for plucking leaves. Thus, many workers were able to earn around ₹250-300 per day during the season. The collective started saving right from September 2019 and has now successfully saved so much by selling green leaves that each tea garden worker of Birpara Jateshwar division received ₹11280 as bonus from the surplus savings on October 7,2020. They have also recently received money for their paid leave (“saal chutti”) during the off season. Workers feel the past year has been better for them than even when Duncans was there.

The workers are especially upset about the agreement that took place between so called trade union leaders and Merico Agro India Limited in the presence of the Labour Department because this is in contravention of both High Court and Supreme Court orders. On 20 September 2016, in a case filed by Duncans Industries Limited (MAT 562 of 2016), the High Court gave an interim order that states as follows:-
In that view of the matter, subject to result of the appeals, the following interim arrangement has been made by us after hearing the learned advocates for the parties:– (a) the appellants-writ petitioners shall take over management of all the seven tea gardens; (b) the appellants-writ petitioners shall pay both the current and arrear dues of the workers; (c) the appellants-writ petitioners shall run the gardens in a prudent businessman like manner; and (d) the appellants-writ petitioners shall keep the Tea Board informed by fortnightly returns as to the steps taken by them. It is clarified that the interim order has been passed only for the purpose of improving the lot of the workers as also that of the gardens. The appellants shall not be entitled to alienate or encumber any of the fixed assets except in the usual course of business.

The 7 gardens (Lankapara, Gairganda, Tulsipara, Hantapara, Dumchipara,Birpara and Dimdima)  thus belong to Duncans and they are not allowed by Court Order to give these gardens to any other owner. They are to run the gardens and return dues to workers.There is also a Supreme Court order (CONMT.PET.(C) No. 16/2012 In W.P.(C) No. 365/2006), in which the Supreme Court had ordered that workers in over 50 closed and abandoned tea gardens (including the 7 Duncans gardens) in 4 states to receive all their dues, including Provident Fund and gratuity. Also, each tea garden owner was ordered on 11.12. 2019 to deposit an amount of Rs.2 Crores which to this date have not been deposited by Duncans , Merico or any other of the tea garden owners.

According to the workers of Jateswar division, they have put a lot of effort to turn the garden into a paying venture ,after it was deserted by Duncans. Now that it is in profitable condition a new greedy owner is wanting to take over. The workers are angry with the management as well as the government, and do not have any faith in the new employer who didn't even consult with them before taking this decision.

Tea Garden workers converging at the office of the Deputy Labour Commissioner in Birpara, Alipurduar

So, the workers have decided that they will not allow any company to enter the garden unless and until all their demands are fulfilled. Today, the workers have met the MLA, Manoj Tigga and informed him about their intentions. They have also sent a letter to the Labour Minister Shri Moloy Ghatak, and to the Additional Labour Commissioner. and have given a deputation to the Assistant Labour Commissioner at Birpara. 15 women workers are meeting the police and teams of workers are going to the BDO and DM.
Our members posing with the receipted copy of the deputation in Birpara, Alipurduar

Workers preparing to stage a protest near the office of the Deputy Labour Commissioner in Birpara, Alipurduar

Workers during the submission of deputation in Birpara, Alipurduar                           

The receipted copy of the submitted deputation

Media articles published on our ongoing struggle:
https://www.groundxero.in/2021/02/15/tea-garden-workers-collective-resolves-to-stop-illegal-takeover/
https://theasianindependent.co.uk/tea-garden-workers-collective-resolves-to-stop-illegal-takeover/
https://www.samajweekly.com/tea-garden-workers-collective-resolves-to-stop-illegal-takeover/
https://7star-tv-news.blogspot.com/2021/02/tea-garden-workers-collective-resolves.html

06 February 2021

PBKMS enforces 'Chakka Jam' in West Bengal

PBKMS extends solidarity to our protesting farmers and responds enthusiastically to the call given to enforce road blockades across the nation

Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS) along with members of Shramajivee Mahila Samity (SMS) took to the streets in various places of West Bengal and blocked important thoroughfares to protest against the central government's draconian measures to smother the opposition to the new farm laws. Despite braving the water cannons in the harsh winter of North India, the protesting farmers are yet to receive a positive response from the central government on their demand of repealing the three farm laws. Authorities have not hesitated to vilify the popular movement of the working class led by farmers against the blatant attempt to expose our food security to the whims of the apathetic market. Coordinated efforts were made to sabotage the farmer's movement and twist the narrative to enable the central government to use force in vacating the protest sites. With concrete barriers, spiked nails, concertina wires and arrangements to use water cannons, tear gas shells and other seemingly non-lethal weapons the Delhi Police is painting a grim picture of a democracy which once took pride in the slogan of 'Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan'.

Our members have enforced road blockades in our field areas spread across West Bengal to express our solidarity with our protesting farmers whose right to dissent is being infringed upon by the political leadership. Revolutionary songs were presented and slogans calling out the anti-working class policies of the central government were raised during the long blockades, primarily led by our women activists.   
Sharamjivee Mahila Samity members in Raidighi, South 24 Parganas
   
Members singing revolutionary songs against the backdrop of red PBKMS flags during a road blockade programme in South 24 Parganas

Blockade at a State Highway being enforced by our members in Bankura 

PBKMS and SMS have participated in large numbers in the ongoing agitations organized in various parts of West Bengal by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha and All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee. We have consistently put up the following demands during our movements and social media campaigns:
  • Immediate repeal of all the three central farm acts
  • Legal guarantee of Minimum Support Price (MSP) for all food crops
  • Strengthening of the Public Distribution System (PDS)
  • Provision of distribution of pulses and edible vegetable oil through the PDS

02 February 2021

PBKMS observes 15th NREGA Day

District units of PBKMS submit memorandums and take out road shows to commemorate a historical day in our struggle to establish one of the world's largest public works programme

Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS) commemorated the beginning of our public works programme under the provisions of MGNREGA, 2005. The historical rights based legislation was enacted due to the organized struggle of our union and our allies across the nation to highlight the importance of 'right to work' to effectively establish the 'right to life' as enshrined in our constitution under article 21. A long struggle spanning 19 years mobilized the rural working class to successfully demand a rights based legislation guaranteeing work for adult members of a household. The cycle rally led by our activists from West Bengal to Delhi marked a decisive phase in the struggle to convince the state of the popular support behind the struggle. The 15th NREGA day was observed by our district units against the backdrop of rising demand for NREGA work in the aftermath of the pandemic and the systemic denial of work and other entitlements to workers by an apathetic bureaucracy.

On this day, our district units have submitted memorandums to the panchayat and block offices in the respective field areas to demand the proper implementation of the landmark piece of legislation. The Purulia district unit was further able to successfully demand the immediate release of new job cards to 80 households in the Hura block after an advocacy campaign. Our members also submitted work demand applications and took out small rallies in villages to remind us of the success of people's organizations in successfully advocating for NREGA and the challenges which need to be confronted to ensure the proper implementation of the same.  
A rally taken out by our members in Chhatna block, Bankura

Our members with the PBKMS flag and charter of demands in Chhatna block, Bankura

Members after submission of deputation in a panchayat in Harirampur block, South Dinajpur

Despite the enactment of the MGNREGA, 2005 we are yet to witness the implementation of the same in its true spirits. We are also in need of a employment guarantee programme for the urban areas. The following demands have been raised by us to bolster the public works programme to secure a regular dignified income for rural households:
  • Provision of job cards for every adult member of a rural household
  • 200 days of wage labour for every adult member of a rural household
  • Minimum daily wage of ₹600
  • Priority of individual schemes for households
  • Provision of alternatives to earth work for women

28 January 2021

Women demand proper functioning of self help groups

SMS leads a demonstration in South 24 Parganas demanding adherence to guidelines in the functioning of self help groups

Shramajivee Mahila Samity (SMS) and Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS) organized a demonstration in front of the Kultuli block office in the district of South 24 Parganas office and a blockade to protest against the irregularities in the functioning of self help groups nurtured by the block administration. Grievances of our members were not redressed despite repeated submission of deputations and letters. The block administration has failed to honour its commitment to the people and has refused to act on the complaints submitted time and again by the whistleblowers of self help groups who had to bear the brunt of corrupt practices perpetuated by the elected committee(s) in connivance with the circle coordinator of the block. 'Sanghas' or village organizations are not following the guidelines in their transactions and the committee(s) are taking unilateral decisions without informing the members. We have written to the district administration and also to the Dept. of Panchayats and Rural Development, Govt. of West Bengal but no administrative action could be noticed to address our concerns. The women have finally decided to display their strength and resolve to the apathetic block administration and will be relentless in their efforts to ensure that justice is delivered to the scores of women who have been denied their rightful share in the decision making process(s) of these women led bodies.   
Women activists leading the demonstration in Kultuli, South 24 Parganas

We demand the assurance of accepting the following demands:
  • Immediate elections to the 'sanghas' should be called in the gram panchayats of Bhubaneshwari, Gopalganj, Maipith and Meriganj.
  • Accounts of the 'sanghas' from 2016 to the present day should be made available to the SHG members and the public at large
  • Organizing periodic Annual General Meetings (AGMs) with proper dissemination of information concerning the venue and time of the same.
  • Suitable action against the circle coordinator and CSP-Bank Linkage for non adherence to guidelines and indulging in corrupt practices
  • Enquiry into the practice of extorting money to accept loan applications from SHG(s)

 Women raising slogans during the 'gherao' of the block office

After demonstrating for the whole day, the concerned Block Development Officer has promised a follow-up meeting on 30th January, 2021 with himself as mediator with five women from the cooperative board (whom the women accuse of corruption) and five members of SMS.