Bengal begins probe into closure of tea gardens

Bengal begins probe into closure of tea gardens

Probe agency summons company chairman and son

Bengal begins probe into closure of tea gardens

In a move that is unprecedented in the history of the Darjeeling-Dooars tea industry, the West Bengal government on Monday initiated a probe into the closure of 13 tea gardens owned by Duncan.

 The state CID, which is probing the case, summoned company chairman G P Goenka and his son, Srivardhan, for questioning on why the gardens in Dooars have remained closed for more than seven months.

The CID on Sunday sent summons to Goenka and his son, asking them to depose before the agency on Monday. H M Sinha, a director of Duncan, met CID officials at its south Kolkata headquarters and said that both Goenka and his son were out of town. State CID chief Vineet Goyal is reported to have asked Sinha to ensure that the two men depose before CID on Tuesday. Senior officials admitted that while tea garden owners have closed gardens from time to time, never before has the government started a case against them.

Goenka, a top industrialist, owns 15 tea gardens, including two in Darjeeling. Duncan is one of the largest producers of tea for the domestic market, yielding around 15 million tonne annually. While his two gardens in Darjeeling produce the export quality premium brands of Runglee Rungliot and Marybong, his gardens at Dooars produce CTC tea, primarily for the domestic market. His production for the ongoing year, however, has gone down to less than three million tonne, sources said.

Government sources said that with reports trickling in from his Dooars gardens that several workers have died in the last few months due to malnutrition, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee asked the CID to begin proceedings against the Duncan owner. Following her instructions, the Jalpaiguri police lodged an FIR on Sunday and handed over the case to CID. The complaint has been lodged under Indian Penal Code’s sections, 420 for cheating and 406 for criminal breach of trust, sources said.

Sources pointed out that Mamata, currently on a tour of Dooars, is expected to visit Bagrakote and some of the other gardens owned by Goenka, which have remained closed since June. “The CM had called Srivardhan few days back and asked him to pass on the message to his father. She asked them to ensure the gardens are open soon. She had said that in case Duncan is unable to do so the state government is ready to take over running of the gardens,” a source said. “The CM is furious,” he added.

Sources further said that with Assembly elections scheduled in Bengal during April-May next year, Mamata is firm about sorting out the crisis soon. She has received ground-level reports that while workers were last paid in February, Duncan management also did not provide ration and medical services for months. While all 13 Duncan gardens in Dooars have remained closed during the period of June to September, the peak leaf-plucking season, the condition at Bagrakote is most serious.

Besides the impending polls, a report by a platform of NGOs and activists in September also triggered strong reaction. The report pointed out that Duncan’s closed gardens could trigger a humanitarian crisis since nearly a lakh people are dependent on the tea gardens. Although the workers’ unions have come together and formed a joint committee, which is currently keeping the workers employed by selling tea leaves to other tea manufacturers, the condition continues to remain grim. Union leaders agree that the worse is yet to come.

“The workers hardly have any money to tide over the winter months, which are usually the worst. Most of the men are looking for jobs elsewhere so that they can keep feeding their families,” committee leader Anisur Haque said.