Duncan Industries Limited, owner of several ailing tea gardens at Dooars in North Bengal, has been asked by the Calcutta High Court to deposit a sum of Rs 4 crore with a nationalised bank, which is to be set aside for payment of wages and other dues to workers.
The court has also put an interim stay on the Centre’s decision to take over management of some of the companies’ sick gardens.
While hearing a plea by Duncan which challenged the Commerce & Industry Ministry’s decision to take over seven of its tea estates, the Calcutta High Court stayed the process of acquisition, at the same time directing the company to open an account with a nationalised bank and deposit Rs 4 crore from which wages and other dues of workers will be paid off. Most of the group’s 15 gardens in Dooars have been dysfunctional since May last year, when the group stopped paying its estate workers.
While a number of garden workers have been reported dead, allegedly due to malnutrition and lack of money to afford healthcare, the Centre issued a notification on January 28, instructing Tea Board of India to take over seven Duncan gardens, looking at their deteriorating conditions. Earlier, in November 2015, the state government started a formal investigation against group owner, industrialist G P Goenka, for non-payment of dues after reports of workers’ deaths surfaced.
Besides asking Duncan to set up the corpus, the Calcutta High Court on Friday also barred the group, among the largest tea producers for the domestic market, from selling tea without the court’s permission. While the court has appointed the Tea Board’s Director (Tea Development) as a special officer in the case, sources within Duncan informed that the group is likely to challenge the court’s clampdown order on sales.
Elaborating on his written judgment, Justice Sanjib Banerjee of Calcutta High Court noted that Rs 2.19 crore of the Rs 4 crore will have to be “spent on giving a portion of due salaries to garden workers and the remaining amount would be kept with the special officer.”