Jalpaiguri district in the Dooars area of North Bengal is as picture-perfect as any place can be. Covered with sylvan forests that are home to a wide variety of flora and fauna and dotted with verdant tea gardens, the district lends itself perfectly to an artist’s idyllic pastoral canvas.
The Dooars, called so because it is the gateway (‘dooar’ or ‘duar’ means doorway in Rajbongshi; the area was under the rule of Rajbongshi kings till the British rule) to Bhutan, is crisscrossed by many rivers and is rich in natural resources.
However, this area is steeped in poverty and has remained backward, thanks to the decades of neglect by the rulers of Bengal stationed in faraway Kolkata.
Not only has no effort been made to develop this region and tap the rich resources it is blessed with, nothing has ever been done to promote the tea and tourism sectors that are the mainstays of the economy of Dooars.
The ‘tyranny of distance’ (from Kolkata, the seat of political power in Bengal) has led to the Dooars becoming a textbook case of neglect that has led to this region sinking into the morass of poverty, backwardness, sickness and despair.
The tea gardens of Jalpaiguri best exemplify the overall sorry state of the region. Once thriving enterprises that employed tens of thousands and kept the wheels of the economy of Dooars turning smoothly, they are today deeply in the red and struggling to stay afloat.
Voices On The Ground
Sunita Hembram, 48, has often had to survive on just one meal a day for the past few years. Her brother-in-law died of starvation seven years ago and her husband, afflicted by tuberculosis, can barely get down from bed.
Sunita, and over 600 workers of the Raipur tea garden in Jalpaiguri district, have been living on the edge ever since the garden closed down a few years ago.
Her four children aged between 16 and 27 are among the millions of unemployed young men and women of Bengal who lead dismal lives as daily wage earners.
The past decade has been the worst, says Sunita. The financial assistance of Rs 1,500 a month promised by the Mamata Banerjee government has been, at best, irregular.
“Even odd jobs are hard to come by and the central government’s job-guarantee scheme (NREGA) offers us little benefits because Trinamool leaders at the panchayat level demand a large cut from our earnings,” Sunita complained.
Sunita stays with her family of five (bed-ridden husband and four children) in a one-room hut in the closed tea garden’s labour colony.
Their next-door neighbour, Madhu Oraon (52), suffers from diabetes, hypertension and some liver ailments, but often does not have the money to buy medicines prescribed by doctors of the Belakoba rural hospital about 11 kilometers away.
On the days he feels well, he seeks work as a labourer in a neighbouring garden. “But that does not provide me a steady income,” he says.
His three sons aged between 20 and 27 work as masons in Haryana and Gujarat, while his wife travels to Jalpaiguri town every day to work as a domestic help.
The much-touted free healthcare scheme (Swasthya Sathi) of the Banerjee government has not benefited Madhu and tens of thousands of poor folks like him in the picturesque Dooars.
“I had dreamt once that my sons will get educated and then regular jobs here. And once they start earning, I will retire. But lack of proper schools and colleges and the lack of employment here has forced them to leave home and go so far away to seek employment,” he rued.
There are about half a dozen tea gardens in Jalpaiguri district which have shut down. The reasons range from militant trade unionism, mismanagement, failure of garden owners to invest in their estates and rejuvenate them, poor quality tea produced in many gardens in the Dooars and fly-by-night operators who had bought ailing tea gardens in order to strip them of their assets and abandon them.
While the Trinamool government has undertaken little effort to reopen the closed gardens and address the problems ailing the tea sector, the various welfare schemes it has launched for the poor and marginalised have not touched the lives of tea garden workers.
And while the workers of the closed tea gardens of this district — the seven assembly constituencies here go to the polls on Saturday (17 April) — live on the verge of starvation, the condition of the ones in functional tea gardens is not much better.
The daily wages in the tea gardens are a meagre Rs 202 a day; even a completely unskilled labourer who rolls bidis gets nearly Rs 300 a day.
“A portion of the wages are given in kind as rations, and most of the time the foodgrains and other edibles given to the labourers are inedible. The cash that the labourers get in hand is not enough to meet even their basic needs,” said Samar Pathak, leader of a plantation labourers union affiliated to the CPI(M)-controlled CITU.
Under the Trinamool government, what has added insult to the injury of poverty that afflicts tea garden labourers is the corruption and nepotism that dogs every welfare scheme.
“The panchayat-level Trinamool leaders ask for money to enrol us as beneficiaries under different schemes, even the central government schemes. They want money in advance for putting our names in the beneficiaries list for toilets (under the Swach Bharat Abhiyan), for free LPG connections (under Ujjwala) and for houses (under the PM Awas Yojana),” said Shakti Burman, a sardar (who is in charge of labourers in a tea garden) at the Saili Tea Garden in Malbazar subdivision of the district.
This management of Saili Tea Garden issued a suspension of work notice just before the Durga Pujas last year, leaving about 1,500 workers and employees in the lurch.
“We were asking for a 20 per cent bonus as directed by the state government. But the management was offering us only 15 per cent. We asked Trinamool leaders and even the administration to intervene with the management, but no one did and now we are without work,” said Maya Kujur, a labourer of the closed garden.
Most of the workers of the closed tea gardens are surviving by doing odd jobs or working as casual labourers in the functional gardens. But even casual and odd jobs are hard to come by, and a huge number of workers and their family members have left their homes to get employment outside the state.
The ones remaining behind are too old or too ill to look for greener pastures outside Bengal. Thus, they depend on the meagre remittances from their offspring, or lead a subsistence existence by doing odd jobs and depending on the generosity of their poverty-stricken neighbours, or simply die of hunger and disease.
Fresh Hope For The Miserable Millions
The BJP’s poll promises have come as a ray of hope for the millions of poor and hapless residents of the Dooars.
The primary among these promises is that of awarding parja pattas (land deeds) to all tea garden labourers who have been residing within the tea gardens.
Like in the tea gardens of Darjeeling Hills, the workers in the gardens of Dooars have also been residing in houses they have built on land given to their forefathers by the managements of their respective tea gardens.
However, the workers are not the owners of the plots of land their houses stand on even though they have been residing there for generations.
The BJP’s promise, thus, means a lot to them. “From being landless, we will become owners of the land we stay in. This is nothing short of revolutionary. We can get bank loans to start small businesses and we will, at last, have a stake in the land we have nurtured with our sweat and toil,” said Maya Kujur.
The BJP’s poll promise of enhancing wages of workers to Rs 350 a day also holds the promise of altering the lives of the workers. “That will be a huge jump in the earnings of the workers and is a good move,” said labour leader Shakti Burman.
The BJP has also promised to set up an expert group to study the problems afflicting the tea gardens in the Dooars. The group will be tasked with suggesting ways to improve productivity of the gardens and the quality of the teas they produce.
“This proposed group which will comprise experts from the industry will also suggest marketing strategies for selling teas from the Dooars in the national and international markets at higher prices. The next (BJP) state government will hand-hold the gardens to take them out of the red. The ‘double-engine government’ (BJP governments in the state and at the Centre) will ensure that the tea industry turns into a profitable one at the earliest. That will benefit the workers,” said Cooch Behar Lok Sabha MP Nishith Pramanik. Pramanik is also the BJP candidate from Dinhata Assembly constituency in the neighbouring district of Cooch Behar.
Pramanik says that the BJP (government in Bengal) will ensure that tea garden workers and all other poor and marginalised in the Dooars (Cooch Behar is also a part of the Dooars) will get easy access to all welfare schemes, including PM Kisan Nidhi and Ayushman Bharat, without touts demanding cut-money.
“Eradicating the cut-money menace will be on top of our agenda,” Pramanik told Swarajya.
The BJP has also promised accelerated development of Uttar Banga (North Bengal) through a dedicated ‘Uttar Bongo Development Board’ which will be the nodal agency for the region’s development.
“Banerjee had established a North Bengal Development Department to ensure development of this region. But that got mired in bureaucratic red tape, official shenanigans and became just an avenue to provide employment to party faithfuls and award lucrative contracts to them. It became a den of corruption and nepotism,” said Pramanik.
The ‘Uttor Bongo Development Board’ will have a fixed charter and shall be given strict timelines for completion of development projects, said BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, who is also the party minder for Bengal.
“North Bengal has remained neglected right since Independence and has been wronged. We will correct that wrong and make this region the engine of Bengal’s growth,” said Vijayvargiya.
Sunita Hembran and Madhu Oraon have heard many promises made by politicians and political parties in the past. The Left had promised them a lot, and so had the Trinamool.
But the BJP’s promises have caught their imagination because they are concrete and far-reaching.
“This issue of parja pattas is close to our hearts. We are also hopeful that the BJP will make tea gardens viable and profit-making once again,” said Hembram.
Madhu Oraon says that economic development of this region will lead to creation of jobs. “And then my sons can return home and take care of me,” he says.
“People here had given the Left many chances, and then voted for the Trinamool which promised change (poriborton), but what we got was worse than Left rule. We want to give the BJP a chance to change our lives, and we believe the BJP will do so,” Oraon added.
Widespread disgust with the Trinamool, the memories of Left misrule fresh in people’s minds, and the BJP’s sincere promise to deliver the goods has triggered a wave in favour of the saffron party.
The hopes and aspirations of millions of poor and marginalised people in the Dooars are riding on this wave that has promised, in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s words, ashol poriborton (real or meaningful change).
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