Digital India initiative 'flops' in Assam tea gardens

Digital India initiative 'flops' in Assam tea gardens

Workers pluck tea leaves at a tea-estate in Dibrugarh district of Assam. PTI file photo

Nearly four lakh workers in Assam's 800-odd big tea gardens were forced to open bank accounts in 2017 to switch from cash to banking system for payment of their wages under Narendra Modi government's Digital India initiative.

The initiative, however, is yet meet success even after two years with most tea gardens still either lacks ATMs or banks are unable to do so due to poor internet connectivity.

"Almost all garden workers have their bank accounts now but most gardens have not been able to pay the wages through banks due to lack of sufficient number ATMs. We have taken up the matter with State Bank of India authorities, but poor internet connectivity has perhpas stopped them from opening new ATMs. Workers now press us for cash payment of their wages as the gardens still lacks ATMs for withdrawal of money," adviser of North East Tea Association, Bidyananda Borkakoty said.

According to information tabled in the state Assembly on July 31 this year, there are 841 registerer tea gardens having 3,85,612 permanent workers and 2,91,223 temporary workers in Assam. Citing the data provided by the state labour department, it said only 28 gardens were paying the wages through bank accounts. Of these, one garden belongs to Sonitpur district, two in Sivasagar, eight in Dibrugarh, seven in Jorhat, three each in Charaideo, Darrang, Kokrajhar and one in Bongaigaon district.

It said the state level bankers committee had informed the state government that 493 ATMs were opened inside tea gardens since the demonitization carried out by Narendra Modi government in 2017.

However, Borkotoky said tea gardens needed at least 1,000 ATMs for payment of wages through banks.

Vivek Goenka, chairman of Indian Tea Association and president of Warren Tea Limited having gardens in Assam said the Centre's recent order to impose 2% additional tax on employers paying wages in cash put the tea gardens in a spot. "This has created an additional problem for the tea industry, which is already grappling with a severe crisis due to over supply and no significant hike in auction prices and exports since 2014. The garden owners wants to pay the wages through banks but how will the workers withdraw their money without ATMs?" he asked.

The state government document said over 6.5 lakh workers in tea gardens have been provided cash incentive of Rs 5,000 each in two installments through banks since 2017 to encourage digital payments. But workers' union said they could not withdraw the money due to lack of ATMs inside their gardens. "Digital India programme has flopped in the tea gardens. It has remained limited only in TV channels and newspapers," said a leader of a workers' union.