More at stake than your morning cuppa

More is at stake than your morning cuppa

Roopen Roy

(The columnist is the Founder and CEO of Sumantrana, a Strategy Consulting firm)

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has just kicked off its own Chipko movement to save Dehra Doon's tea gardens. If you go back in history, tea gardens were typically developed on lands leased by the state governments. The gardens were meant for tea plantations only. It not only delivered the popular beverage but also provided livelihood for lacs of Indians.

But the prices of land in urban agglomerations like Dehra Doon and Siliguri have been moving like a hockey stick curve. The rents of leased lands of tea plantations are very modest. Therefore, there is a huge arbitrage opportunity for realtors and land sharks, provided they can manage permissions to uproot the tea bushes and drive the workers out. The land could then be converted into real estate in the garb of smart-cities, tea tourism, organic farming or apartment blocks for the poor or some such fancy project.

In Dehra Doon, the workers, members of the local community and AAP activists joined hands and went in a procession by singing folk songs towards the Harbanswala tea garden. In a symbolic gesture, they then embraced the tea bushes, tied threads around them, held up placards proclaiming their opposition to the smart city project and vowed not to allow the bushes to be uprooted by goons of realtors.

It is important to protect the tea bushes. But it is more than the tea bushes or your morning cuppa that are at stake. The tea garden workers are dying of starvation, hunger and lack of medical treatment. Extreme poverty and complete lack of access to any employment opportunities among labourers have led to suspected starvation deaths of about 70 tea garden workers only in the last 6 months in over 30 closed tea estates across West Bengal.

In the wake of reports of these deaths, an umbrella group of organisations like G-NESEP, NAPM, MASUM, ActionAid, DISHA and a team of academicians, human rights activists and doctors, visited the gardens on November 24 and November 25, 2015 and released their findings.The report says, “Prolonged starvation has caused malnutrition, frail health and abnormal losing of body weight. A considerable number of people are suffering from lack of appetite, vomiting, jaundice and tuberculosis.”

The tea estates in West Bengal constitute a classic case of an industry with prosperous owners of withering enterprises. Some rogue owners have not invested in replanting, irrigation, productivity and quality. They were busy wringing the neck of the golden goose until it laid the last egg. Now they are getting ready to sell the meat of the dead goose.

Some of these owners have not provided the food rations to the workers for months. They have even swindled provident funds of the workers. The condition is so grave that the Calcutta High Court has stepped in to offer redress to the deprived workers. The Chief Justice, Sm. Manjula Chellur, visited the ailing plantations on December 12, 2015 and assured to set up weekly tea courts in the region to hear out grievances of the labourers. Justice Joymalya Bagchi who accompanied the Chief Justice added, “Starvation deaths are stalking tea gardens. Also, tea gardens are closing down one after another, followed by the burgeoning liability of statutory dues. It is thus necessary that remedies of law are made available to these people.”

There are some 377 gardens in West Bengal employing 2.6 lakh workers with an output of around 300 million kg of tea. The fabled Darjeeling tea is produced in West Bengal. If the tea industry is severely damaged, it will significantly impact the economy and unemployment scenario in India. Conscious of this, Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister of State for Commerce, will visit West Bengal from January 4, 2016 to evaluate the problems of the tea industry. She will be visiting two gardens one of which is “sick” and one which is healthy to understand what really needs to be done. All tea gardens are not sick. Well managed tea gardens are making profits and looking after their workers.

But the crisis is real. All stake-holders: the owners, workers, trade unions, the Central government, the state government and banks should work together to create a blue-print of a solution.

In my opinion the blue-print should include the following:

1. 1Deliver food and medical relief to the tea garden workers to prevent more deaths-this should be done immediately and in mission-mode.

2. Cancel the land-leases of rogue owners and take the title back.

3. All agencies should support banks to carry out Strategic Debt Restructuring Programs whereby existing rogue management will be removed immediately and estates should be auctioned to bring in better management

4. There should be a complete ban on conversion of land use for at least two years. In these two years the government should create a thoughtful and sustainable Master Plan for conversion of land use. Existing lessees should not be allowed to play land sharks. They will have to bid along with others in a transparent auction within the framework of the Master Plan and moneys raised should be spent for creating livelihood of displaced workers.

5. Criminal prosecution must be launched against PF defaults so that owners bring back money to deposit the statutory dues or go to prison.

Of all these steps the role of the banks in removing dishonest and inept management is the most crucial one for long-term sustainability. The RBI Governor did not mince his words when he said, “We need a change in mind set, where the wilful or non-cooperative defaulter is not lionized as a captain of industry, but justly chastised as a freeloader on the hardworking people of this country.”

How will this change in mind-set come about? If hundreds of deaths do not change the mind-set of our governments, our banks, our business community and our civil society, what will?