02 August 2016

Court Acts On Tea Workers' Plight

After a wait of six months, the Kolkata High Court finally decided to take action on a petition filed by Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity on the plight of tea workers. A division bench of the Kolkata High Court headed by the Chief Justice on 29th July 2016 ordered the State Government, the Tea Board and the Central Government to submit action taken reports by August 12, 2016, clearly stating what they had done to relieve the misery of tea workers.

The Chief Justice expressed extreme displeasure on hunger deaths and the continuing distress of tea plantation workers, especially the plight of workers in the Duncans gardens. Incidentally, Duncans Industries Limited, one of the largest and seemingly most prosperous plantation owners in West Bengal, had abandoned 16 gardens in the Doars and Darjeeling areas in early 2015. The Central Government took over 7 of these gardens through a special notification on January 29, 2016. The Tea Board was subsequently to run these gardens, but it has taken practically no steps to re-open the gardens or to relieve the distress of the workers. The Chief Justice questioned the Tea Board, the Duncans management and the State and Central Government about the predicament of the workers, only to be informed that none of these authorities were willing to say that they were responsible for the workers.

PBKMS had filed a writ petition (WP-4225W/2016) in February 2016 before the High Court highlighting the problems of tea garden workers, arising from the present crisis in the industry as well as long term issues. Mr Bikash Bhattacharya, senior advocate, intervened on behalf of PBKMS.

The petition focused on the non-compliance by employers, State and Central Governments of the provisions of the Tea Act, Plantation Labour Act, Employees Provident Fund Act and Minimum Wages Act. It asked the court to ensure that conditions are created to ensure each tea worker gets a food intake of at least 2400 calories per day. It also asked for immediate relief for tea garden population in the form of Antodaya Anna Yojana, MGNREGA work and wages, health facilities, drinking water and electricity. Respondents were State and Central Governments, the Tea Board and employers such as Duncans India Limited.

In her first verbal order on March 12, 2016 , the Chief Justice had asked PBKMS to seek the intervention of the State Legal Services Authority through Lok Adalats to mitigate the problems of tea workers. The Chief Justice had given a time of two weeks for the petitioner to seek and receive help from the Lok Adalat process. If such relief is not received, the case was to be heard once again by the division bench at the end of the month.

PBKMS had immediately tried to get the Lok Adalat process functioning, submitting 53 complaints from over 500 complainants from 7 gardens in April 2016. However, the District Legal Services Authority is still to respond.

PBKMS’s petition is being heard together with another petition filed by the Darjeeling District Legal Aid Forum.

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