28 March 2021

'Na Pati Tippenge , Na Choron Ko Tipne Denge' ( We Will Not Pluck The Leaves Ourselves, Nor Will We Let Thieves Pluck)

An interesting development took place in the dispute between the workers of Jateswar division of Birpara Teas Garden and the so-called new owners, Merico Agro Industries Limited on 26th March 2020. The magistrate, ACJM 2, in Alipurduar Court expressed doubts about the legality of Merico’s ownership of the garden. She was hearing the bail petition of Parmeswar Oraon and Sagar Munda, two workers of the Jateswar division in Birpara Case No 47/2021, where the workers have been accused of “stealing green leaf” by a Shri Prasun Chakrobroty, purportedly the manager of Merico Agro Industries Limited.

The arrested worker Parmeswar Oraon is the petitioner in a case filed at the Jalpaiguri circuit bench of the Calcutta High Court (case no. 751/2021), where he has questioned the validity of Merico’s ownership and has complained of police harassment. He and Sagar Munda were returning from Jalpaiguri after the first hearing of the case on the 25th when they were arrested by the Birpara police at 7.30 PM. On the same day at 3 PM their fellow worker Dinesh Sharma, who had been arrested the previous day on the same charges in Case No 25/2021, was granted bail by the same ACJM on the assurance that no further plucking of green leaf would take place. She was therefore surprised to find that another case on the very same complaint had again been filed within an hour of her giving bail. Suspecting connivance and illegality, she therefore asked the two police IOs (investigating officers) to produce documents showing that the complainant (Merico ) was actually an owner and therefore could accuse others of stealing green leaf. The IOs produced a hand written document signed by some supposed trade union leaders . She was extremely angry and told the police that they were in connivance with an illegal owner. She gave specific instructions that her order which questioned the legality of the owner should be placed in the circuit bench on the next date.

In the circuit bench, the connivance between illegal owners , administration and vested trade unions became even clearer. Merico Agro Industries Limited did not produce any documents proving ownership. Incidentally Birpara tea garden which was earlier owned by Duncans is now being dismantled and sold under the supervision of a Resolution Professional by an order of the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) dated 5 th March 2021. (Duncans Industries Limited Vs Sangita Fiscal Services Pvt Ltd.) It was without the permission of the NCLT and the Resolution Professional that Merico took over the garden, and now has no documents to prove ownership. They keep showing an agreement with 4 trade unions, none of whom have the authority to hand over the garden to new owner. Also, on 25th March, at the High Court , 4 trade unions showed great “unity of purpose” in safe guarding the illegal owner’s interest . Cutting across party lines and in the midst of one of the most bitterly fought elections in West Bengal, unions belonging to BJP, TMC CPI (M) and an Adivasi union (PTWU) in one voice said there was no problem in the garden and they wanted the new owner.

The Superintendent of Police, despite dharnas in the police station by Jateswar workers, arrests and police raids claimed in court that there was “total peace” in the area . As a result the judge did not give any interim relief to the workers and has asked for the case to heard again on the 19th of April.

Birpara is a typical example of the misery of workers with gardens changing hands between fly-by-night operators. It was abandoned by the Duncans Pvt Ltd in 2015 and then temporarily opened in 2017 by Duncans , but was again abandoned in September 2019. After this, the Jateshwar Division of Birpara garden formed an informal co-operative to run the garden. 1300 workers started working on 1700 bighas or 567 acres. Since then, the workers have earned around Rs 250-300 per day during the season. The collective also started saving right from September 2019, so that it was able to give Rs 11280 to each worker as bonus on October 7,2020. They have also recently distributed money in January for the traditional paid leave (“saal chutti”) during the off season. Workers feel the past year has been better for them than even when Duncans was there. 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, the unions 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. They are also concerned about the legality of the ownership because despite repeated requests by the workers to the Labour Department, the police and the owner, no documents proving ownership have been shown. Nor is there any assurance about the payment of past workers’ dues, including unpaid wages, gratuity and provident fund , which according to the Tea Board stands at Rupees 6 crores and 97 lakhs . Workers of Jateswar division have decided to continue the struggle. They are now accusing Merico of theft. 'Na pati tippenge , na choron ko tipne denge' is their slogan (we will not pluck the leaves ourselves, nor will we let thieves pluck).