As a reporter with The Telegraph in Siliguri, tea was one of my “beats”. I still remember my first “tea story”, the annual general meeting of the Terai Indian Planters Association in Matigara, Siliguri, more than 10 years ago. How confused I was! One gentleman, who still continues to be one of my faithful sources, had sat me down and explained to me the nitty-gritty of the industry. He understood the plight of a 20 something newbie trying to cover something as complex as the tea industry.
I did countless tea stories since then (being in a small town, you get to juggle between many beats). The dominant theme, all through my career there in Siliguri, my hometown, was the “worst-ever recession” in the tea industry. The workers, not surprisingly, were the ones to be worst hit. Their wages became irregular, less or stagnant and their perks vanished. Many gardens shut down, relegating the workers and their families to a life of extreme poverty, starvation and malnutrition. Children got trafficked, girls landed in brothels and boys at construction sites. Some committed suicide.
It’s been almost six years since I quit that job, and moved to Calcutta. The prospects of tea industry have reportedly improved since then. Yet, when I attended the press conference called by the United Tea Workers Front (UTWF) at the Kolkata Press Club yesterday, it seemed like I had never left. The story of tea workers was just the same. The more the world around them changed, the more their worlds remained unchanged. Uncared.
“The tea industry is a study in contrasts–on the one hand it is highly profitable, an export earning sector, and on the other, it has resulted in 3,500 starvation deaths,” UTWF convenor Anuradha Talwar told reporters. The organisation is a joint body of five trade unions which have come together to press for a hike in the minimum wages of tea garden workers.
The UTWF has asked the wages to be hiked to Rs 322 per day. The figure was arrived at after calculations based on the 15th Indian Labour Conference (ILC) norms and the subsequent court judgements.
The minimum daily wage is still as low as Rs 65-90 in some estates. Prolonged struggles end in meagre hikes. “It’s humiliating! It’s making a mockery of our situation,” union leader from Darjeeling, Suraj Subba said.
Union leaders from north Bengal, including Darjeeling which produces the world’s best teas, had come to Calcutta to meet the labour minister Purnendu Basu. The minister has apparently assured that tripartite negotiations would be initiated in March.
Another promise, another ray of hope, another 20 something journalist–this time in capital Calcutta. A city reporter, she’d come to cover the tea story on her way to another assignment nearby. Her paper may not carry the story, she tells me later. “If they do, maybe a small single.” She’s very likely to be spared of a career in tea journalism. Good for her!