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Morcha ‘bonus’ for closed garden

Posted by Ramesh Khati on September 22, 2009

Ringtang tea garden (Sonada), Sept. 21(The Telegraph): Rita Gurung had stopped dreaming of a puja “bonus” for the past 12 years ever since the garden was abandoned by the management. Today, a bubbly Rita climbed up the makeshift dais to receive her “bonus” from Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leaders.

The party distributed Rs 10.8 lakh as puja bonus among workers. “As directed by our president Bimal Gurung, we are distributing Rs 1,200 to each of the 874 families of the garden. While the rest of the gardens across the hills are receiving puja bonus, the workers live here on a hand-to-mouth existence,” said Raju Pradhan, the assistant general secretary of the Morcha.

Neatly dressed workers, both men and women, could not hide their joy when the bonus was announced. “We are so happy. We had not even thought of such money,” said Rita.

Connectivity to the garden, situated 7km from Sonada, is a problem. Only a vehicle with a four-wheel drive can reach the place. “There are problems of education, employment and health. Is it not enough,” said J. Lama, who was the acting manager of the garden before the management abandoned it in 1997.

The garden factory had been razed to the ground on December 19, 1997 following labour unrest. Since then, the owner, Sushil Chowdhury, has neither constructed the factory nor has been running the garden. For the past one decade, the workers have not been receiving their salaries nor any statutory benefits like PF, rations and healthcare facilities from the management.

A workers’ committee had been formed soon after, which paid the 944 workers Rs 10 — Re 1 was deducted as transportation charge — for every kg of green leaves plucked.

Chowdhury had remained himself out of the committee but claimed that he was providing “technical knowhow” to it. However, there were allegations that he had been running the committee and raking in profits by selling the leaves to other gardens at a higher price.

Dorjee Lama, the president of the Morcha’s unit-level trade union, said: “Once our party came into prominence, the committee became defunct as the people were fed up with the oppression. The joint labour commissioner has called a meeting in Siliguri on October 14 and we will be sitting for the meeting along with representatives of the management.”

The workers said they would demand employment for all, payment of PF and gratuity from the management if it wants to run the garden. “Or else, we will start agitation,” said Lama. Since the garden has not been officially declared closed, the workers are not getting any aid for locked out estates from the government.

“Most of the youths have left the village to work in towns. Those who are here cultivate whatever is possible and sell it in the local market. Life is difficult and the bonus is a big help,” said Suren Poudyal, a garden resident.


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