Bengal Tea Cooperatives Face Government's Policy Fix Hurdle

Four cooperatives formed by workers of closed tea gardens in Bengal as a desperate measure in the absence of bidders have hit a roadblock of policy fix of the Mamata Banerjee government that cannot decide whether to lease out the land of the gardens to these cooperatives. The lease is crucial to the operation of these gardens as it is used as collateral to raise funds.
Never earlier did workers form so many cooperatives in the tea sector that has been passing through difficult times for the past few decades. The state government, however, appears to be indecisive over allowing this model.
Workers of four gardens Dharanipur, Surendranagar, Redbank and Bundapani gardens are waiting for land lease. The land of all four gardens are in possession of the state government since 2014.
Presently, 16 tea gardens are closed in north Bengal. More than 100 tea garden workers of closed tea gardens in north Bengal died between 2013 and 2015 allegedly from malnutrition-related reasons. More than 3,500 workers are involved in the four cooperatives.
“Forming the cooperative society was a desperate bid by the workers to save the garden, as the owners had fled, abandoning the garden, and workers’ dues worth about Rs 6 crore pending. The government, however, is not responding to our applications for lease of land,” said Sanu Kherwal, a worker and the chairman of the board of directors of Dooars Plantation Workers Service Cooperative Credit Society Ltd that is running the Dharanipur garden.
In the absence of a policy, the cooperative at Dharanipur garden is actually functioning in an illegal way with the administration conniving at it.
The cooperative society has no legal right on the land and the garden but the government, acknowledging that the garden is functioning, has stopped paying its workers the monthly allowance of Rs 1,500 under the FAWLOI (Financial Assistance to the Workers in Locked-Out Industrial Units) since the second half of 2016.
India’s first workers’ cooperative in the tea sector was formed at Sonali tea garden in north Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district in 1974 but the initiative, despite initial success in increasing yield and making profits, faced roadblocks in 1979 following a litigation over land ownership and the Left Front government’s alleged apathy towards the initiative.
Workers at Dharanipur garden said that their application for lease of land is pending for more than two years. They first applied for lease before the land department on March 9, 2015 and sent a reminder on May 26 the same year. “We are preparing to send the department another reminder,” Kherwal said.
While the societies at Surendranagar and Redbank gardens have not yet submitted application for lease of land, the newly formed society at Bundapani garden has submitted an application in early May. According to sources in Jalpaiguri district administration, the application has been sent to the state land and land reforms department, headed by chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Dharanipur garden’s application is lying before the same department.
“Without the land in our possession, we cannot apply for loan, start plantation or do proper marketing. We have so far managed to keep the garden running for more than a year and workers have not missed out on a single day’s wage. The initiative, however, may suffer without getting the rights for plantation and administering,” Silu Mandi, worker and member of the board of directors at Dharanipur, told HT.
The society is meeting its expenses through money collected against the promise of paying with tea produces.
The hesitation of the state government in allowing the cooperative model in the tea industry was evident from contradictory statements made by crucial personalities in the ruling party and the government.
Sourav Chakraborty, Trinamool Congress MLA and the chairman of Jalpaiguri district central cooperative bank, announced in September 2016 that the state government has approved the plan of running Dharanipur, Surendranagar and Redbank gardens through workers’ cooperatives.
He had also said that the bank has decided to provide the societies with loans on the condition that societies’ governing body will compromise representatives from the bank and the district administration. His plan did not materialise as the government did not grant lease of land.
“There are some legal problems. The central Tea Act of 1953 bars granting lease of land to cooperative societies. Without land in their possession, the societies cannot avail bank loans,” Chakraborty told HT.
However, there is no such provision in the Tea Act prohibiting lease of land to cooperative societies. Rather, it is the state land department’s jurisdiction.
“West Bengal Government Land (Regulation of Transfer) Act, 1993, clearly mentions that “lessee” includes an ‘individual, a family, a firm, a company, or an association or body of individuals, whether incorporated or not’. Therefore, there should be no legal hurdle,” said social activist Rupam Deb, who is associated with the initiative at Bandapani.
While state minister of cooperation Arup Roy too had no idea about the status of Dharanipur and Bundapani gardens’ applications, agriculture minister Purnendu Basu – who is also a member of the state’s Group of Ministers on tea – said that the government was not enthusiastic about the cooperative model.
“Bengal’s experience in running industries through the cooperative model has not been good. The government is concerned about the long-term future of the gardens and the workers. The government will sincerely evaluate the viability of proposals made by cooperative societies but does not plan to proactively push the model,” Basu said, adding that the government’s priority for closed gardens is to find new owners.
Workers at Bundapani tea estate, however, do not want to pursue to semi-legal course. In August last year, they paid a visit to Tripura’s Durgabari tea garden, which is being run by workers’cooperative since the 1980s.
“We have learnt thorough lessons during our visit to Durgabari and have drawn detailed plans about running the garden professionally. We will wait for the lease of land so that we can operate properly,” said Ashok Toppo, vice-chairman of the society.

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