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Ray Of Hope

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For the newly-elected West Bengal government headed by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and its chief minister Mamata Banerjee, the recent tripartite agreement providing tea industry workers a wage rise of over 25 per cent has come as a feather in their caps. It is however not clear whether the weaker tea gardens will be able to give the benefits agreed upon; and whether the West Bengal government has the stomach to see through some of the more fiercely debated pending issues like Dearness Allowance.

The recent agreement signed between 37 trade unions, 5 planters' organisations and the West Bengal government, covers the tea gardens in the Dooars and Terai regions, and provides for a rise in daily wages of Rs 18 to Rs 85 per day from the earlier Rs 67. The 3-year agreement effective from 1 April, this year, also provides step-ups in daily wages to Rs 90 and Rs 95 in the second and third year, respectively. With a massive 2.5 lakh workers spread over 278 tea gardens standing to gain from the agreement, the settlement is being keenly monitored.
Subal Biswas, Additional Labour Commissioner, a key negotiator for the West Bengal government, told BW that the wage demands for the monthly-rated employees is yet to be settled. The prickly issue of variable Dearness Allowance, which could not be resolved even after months of bargaining, has also been left to the government to work out over a 6 month period, he said
The state-wide tea industry agreement was spurred by an earlier agreement in April for the more prosperous Darjeeling tea gardens that gave workers a daily wage of Rs 90 per day. Interestingly, though a slew of central trade unions were signatories to the agreement, a crucial role was played by the militant, Adivasi-backed Progressive Tea Workers Union (PTWU). With over 60 per cent of the workers in the tea gardens of Adivasi origin, the Akhil Bhartiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad had called on its members to quit the central TUs and promote the more aggressive PTWU.

"The Adivasi union played a crucial role. Bonus negotiations that normally drag on for weeks, was settled this year in a day. The central trade unions had discredited themselves. In the last agreement in 2008, they managed a bare Rs 2 rise in daily wages and that too after a 15-day strike, says Anuradha Talwar, the Supreme Court-appointed advisor for implementation of Right-to-Food Programme in West Bengal.

On a wider level, the wage agreement has once again brought to the fore the woes of the Indian tea industry. Though it accounts for more than a quarter of the world output of tea, and directly employs as many as 1.26 million workers, the Indian tea industry has been recording an abysmal 2 per cent growth rate over the last three years. Many of the Dooars and Assam tea gardens are sick industries today or functioning with losses. Among the south Indian plantations, Tea Board executive director R. Ambalavanam estimates about 15-16 gardens have turned sick.
"Some gardens like the Darjeeling plantations that produce high quality tea for export will not feel the pinch. However, for most gardens the stagnant price of tea in the domestic market coupled with declining exports, has created a desperate situation," Ambalavanam told BW.
A recent study of the tea industry by Prashant Relwani showed average tea prices after peaking at Rs 76 per kg in 1998 actually declined to Rs 58 per Kg in 2005, before rising marginally to Rs 86 per Kg in 2008. Meanwhile, input costs including fertilizer have risen sharply.

Ambalavanam sees a huge labour shortage looming in this industry and points out that in the South Indian gardens, even after wages being pegged at Rs 150 a day, workers are deserting the industry. "At the same time, higher wages will have to be linked to productivity if the industry is to survive," he says. As it is, some of the gardens in the south including Ooty and Kodaikanal have been transiting to real estate development, a dangerous trend, he acknowledges, for the long-term future of the industry.

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