A house of cards: West Bengal scheme for tea workers gives a roof over heads but not land rights

A house of cards: West Bengal scheme for tea workers gives a roof over heads but not land rights

A house of cards: West Bengal scheme for tea workers gives a roof over heads but not land rights

As construction of houses for permanent workers under Chaa Sundari Scheme progresses, there is all-round ambiguity on what kind of legal ownership the beneficiaries will get, if at all any

Alipurduar & Jalpaiguri, West Bengal: Ashik Munda’s family realised the importance of owning land when his 11-year-old nephew was diagnosed with blood cancer in 2018. “We moved him from Siliguri government hospital to a private one in Kolkata. But before we could arrange money, he left us,” lamented Munda, a resident of Dima Tea Estate in Alipurduar district of West Bengal.

Munda runs a petty shop, while other family members work in the tea plantation. “If we had land, we could have sold a portion for his timely treatment, and maybe the boy would have been 15 today,” he continued.

Majority of the tea workers are tribals who migrated to West Bengal before Independence. They include Khariyas from Odisha; Munda, Oraon/Kurukh and Sadan from Chota Nagpur; Gadiya Lohars from Rajasthan; Tirkey from Jharkhand; Mahali from Bihar; Dorji/Dorjee from Tibet; Pradhan, Lama and Chhetri from Nepal.

In a measure seemingly beneficial to them, the 2020 State Budget introduced the Chaa Sundari Scheme to fund house construction for all permanent tea garden workers. The houses they currently live in are also not theirs as the tea garden managements had provided those generations ago. Nevertheless, the workers have been demanding land rights for the same.

The consistant demands of tea plantation workers have been land rights and minimum wage (Photo sourced by Purnima Sah)

According to the Budget announcement, the State has three lakh permanent workers on rolls of 370 tea gardens. Almost 50% of the workers are women and a majority belongs to Scheduled Tribes. The fund allocations in the three Budgets starting FY 2020-21 till FY 2022-23 for the first phase of the project were Rs 0.55 crore, 39.60 crore and 49 crore, respectively. A total allocation of Rs 500 crore was announced for the scheme.    

The housing department will implement the scheme, for which the district magistrates will identify and prepare a list of permanent tea garden workers, which the labour department will authenticate. The beneficiaries will have the right to dwell, observing the terms and conditions as laid down in the allotment letters.

Each dwelling unit (house) in an area of 394 sq ft will cost ₹5.43 lakh. The first phase target is 4,022 units (2,969 in Alipurduar and 1,053 in Jalpaiguri districts), of which 1,171 are in various stages of completion in Dheklapara, Mujnai, Torsa and Manabari tea gardens. Other line departments will make provisions for drinking water, power, internal roads and markets in the dwellings.

The fine line

Sabita Jha (69), a temporary tea worker from Atiabari tea garden in Kalchini, absolutely nailed the ambiguity when she said, “The government notification clearly says Chaa Sundari homes are only for permanent workers. There is no mention of legal ownership. What will happen to our current homes? Where will the rest of our family, who are not permanent workers, live?”

(Above) Homes of tea workers in Naxalbari; (Below) Amrita Ekka, a tea worker from Belgachi tea estates in Naxalbari, doesnt want to move to a Chaa Sundari house because she worries there wouldn't be adequate space (Photos - Purnima Sah/101Reporters)

The management/tea company holding the garden’s lease recruits permanent workers who are entitled to basic facilities, including healthcare, schools for children, proper working conditions, houses, provident fund, gratuity, etc., as per the Plantations Labour Act, 1951.

Temporary workers get regular labour only during tea-plucking season, but are paid Rs 232 per day like permanent workers. Bigha workers, on the other hand, are daily wage workers with no guarantee of labour. Both temporary and bigha workers are not entitled to other benefits. There used to be at least one permanent worker in a family of seven or eight, but now they have only two or three temporary ones as the last permanent worker recruitment happened in 1999.

The condition in closed/sick tea gardens where Phase-I of the project is implemented is worse as there is no work in the gardens and the availability of work outside the estates is negligible as the location is away from towns.

Forget work, even the houses they presently live in can be taken away from them. “In two years, my father will retire and if I do not take up his job in Nagaisuree Tea Garden, we will have to vacate our house where four generations have lived. The retirement letter clearly states this,” Christian Khariya, the first in his family to get a college education, told 101Reporters.  

“Pushing generations to stay in a certain labour, thereby keeping them poor and uneducated, is no less than bonded labour," reasoned Khariya, the president of Uttar Bangal Chai Shramik Sanghthan, which has organised Navjagran Yatras seeking land rights in the last two years.

Sabita Jha’s son Rahul Kumar Jha is against the intergenerational cycle of labour. “When tea workers enquired about land ownership in Duare Sarkar camps, the official present told the land was never ours and can never be ours,” said Rahul, who along with Ashik Munda walked for 65 days from Dima Tea Garden to New Delhi in 2018 to make their demands heard. 

Munda felt Chaa Sundari homes would not solve the real issues. “In our present homes, we grow vegetables, and rear cattle and poultry in the open space. How can a tea worker’s wages alone raise a family of eight,” he asked.

Tribal ethos & sustenance issue

According to Khariya, Chaa Sundari houses are not designed keeping the tribal lifestyle in mind. They do not have a porch or backyard, which restricts prakriti pooja (nature worship), karam pooja (harvest festival), gaon pooja (village worship) and sarhul (spring festival). “Even our weddings happen in open space,” he said.

In association with Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS), architect Debasmita Ghosh launched a survey last May to analyse how mindfully Chaa Sundari homes were constructed. “The layout is small, and there is hardly any space between houses. The kitchen design favours use of LPG stove, which the community cannot afford. Attached bathrooms are also against their cultural practices," she attested.

(Above) Locally grown greens in the kitchen garden of a tea worker. The families here depend on produce like squash and mushrooms to complement their diet (Photo - Purnima Sah/101Reporters); (Below) Tea plantation workers in Birpara tea garden rear cattle for self consumption and added income (Photo sourced by Purnima Sah/101Reporters)

“One can imagine how impoverished they already are, and if they are moved to Chaa Sundari homes, their situation will get worse. This is a sustenance issue,” highlighted Ghosh.

Though PBKMS coordinator Tapojay Mukherjee filed a Right to Information application last May seeking clarity on the scheme, nothing concrete came forth. “We wanted to know what will happen to their present dwellings, and whether workers will get land rights.”

The legal tangle

“The question of land ownership in tea plantations is fairly complex as nobody has ownership documents. As the land is on lease from the government, the rights that people have are limited,” Tripti Poddar, a Delhi-based advocate who has worked with NGOs in Bengal, told 101Reporters.

“There is no clarity over land ownership even within the policy circles as only house allotment letters are given now. My understanding is that there will be restrictions on how workers use these houses and whether they can be sold or not,” Poddar continued. Incidentally, no beneficiary has received the house keys under the scheme so far.

Women tea workers in Naxalbari. Women make up nearly 50 percent of all tea workers (Photo - Purnima Sah)

It is a very grey area of law, but the Secretary of West Bengal Housing Board (who refused to be named) said, “The land belongs to the State government, and the question of land rights does not even arise.” Asked about the protests seeking land ownership, he claimed the government was not messing up with people’s rights in any way.  

Cover Photo: Chaa Sunsari houses almost ready for occupancy in Dheklapara Tea Garden, Alipurduar district, West Bengal (Photo - Purnima Sah) 

Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli


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