Guest post by Samik

The word “Alchemist” comes from the word “alchemy”, which, during the Middle Ages, was understood as the art of transforming metals into gold. Spinning dreams of gold, alchemists pursued this goal relentlessly.

The “Alchemist” with which we have recently become acquainted is a company worth ten thousand crore rupees. Previously known as Toubro Industries, and headed by a man named K D Singh, a Trinamool Congress MP. Much was heard of the Alchemist Group during the recent chit fund scam. Among their diverse business interests, they also have a hand in the tea gardens of Darjeeling.

The Alchemist Group has controlled three tea gardens in West Bengal over the last decade or so. One is the Peshok Tea Garden near Tista Bazaar. The Kalej Valley Tea Garden comes first when you take the downhill road from Rangbul, beyond Sonada, and further along that road comes the Dooteriah Tea Garden, on either banks of the Balasun river. Spread over a combined 2075 hectares of land, the three tea gardens employ 2544 permanent workers in eight divisions, as well as around 3000 casual workers.

While the gardens remain open today, a majority of the permanent workers, let alone the casual labour, are not working. They are not receiving a salary or the benefits that form a part of their wage package. The delays with bonuses that had started from the Durga Pujas last year have reached their crescendo. Over 1.72 crore rupees are owed to the workers. And If one adds the medicine bills, money for firewood, gumboot, umbrella, blankets and gratuities owed to retired workers, the figure reaches 5 crores. A couple of months ago, some negligible payments were trickling in; now even that has stopped.

Around 25-30% of the workers are still going to pluck leaves, while the rest are working on roads as labourers, or are employed by the 100 Days Work scheme. Some are breaking stones by the rivers, while many others have migrated to far away places in search of work.
The State Labour Department, during its tripartite meetings, had set deadlines for returning all owed amounts to the workers in two installments. Needless to say, the owners have paid no heed to these deadlines, and, in fact, have recently stopped attending these meetings or picking up the phone. The workers do not know where to go for a settlement. The Labour Department officials have informed them that they cannot help in the matter!

Before the State elections, the workers had threatened to boycott voting. They received some promises of compensation then. But pressures from various quarters forced them to move away from their stand of boycotting the elections, and they did not receive their dues.
Whatever be the equations of electoral politics and the calculations of the upper echelons of the workers unions, the garden workers have unitedly built up Joint Action Committees. Various programs for the movement are being relentlessly pursued, as the workers run from pillar to post in search of their alchemist’s stone!

The Alchemist Group produces Orthodox Tea and China Tea which it exports to Germany, Austria, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and the US. The tea leaves that are picked during March to May, in the first flush right after winter, bring the highest prices in the international market. 15-20 days after that leaves from the second flush are picked. The workers have been reassuring themselves that the owners would certainly take care of the second flush, even if the first flush has been wasted by their negligence. But these hopes are yet to materialize.

One common and loud refrain, generally heard from owners, is that the industry is not profitable. That is certainly not the case. Of the 277 tea gardens, it is only a few that are closed. Some tea gardens are shut during the winter when owners close things down in search of higher profits, even as they squeeze workers by denying them their dues, and reduce the tea gardens to an abject state of apathy by refusing to invest in their upkeep.

The tea gardens belonging to the Alchemist Group present a clear example of this trend, as do the gardens belonging to the Duncan-Goenka group, as we saw last year. After mismanaging these estates for a long time, the owners finally stopped making payments to the workers. Managers left the garden without any lockout notice! Time passed, drenched in the blood and sweat of the workers, and finally the government-administration-judiciary paid a little bit of attention to their plight. Some gardens have opened again, although most of their factories remain closed. There continue to be delays in paying dues to the workers. Seven gardens remain closed.

And how are the workers of the seven tea gardens in the so-called “Duncan City” surviving? The takeover by the Central government, the cases in the High Court, the negligence of the government, death from lack of medicine, worry over the education of their children, the total lack for drinking water, the terrible state of the ration system, lawlessness in plucking leaves, and flickering hopes that the aftermath of the elections will bring a measure of certainty – this is their lived existence, from day to day.

We were discussing the tea gardens of the Alchemist Group. And we have digressed into the topic of the Duncan group. Why? Because this new model of exploitation, in which the garden remains open but the workers do not get their dues – this model, hovering halfway between open and closed – may very well become the norm. This strategy, starting from the Duncan group and now being used by the Alchemist Group, will wreak havoc on the lives of the workers, since they neither get their salaries and benefits, nor do they receive the allowance earmarked for closed industries.

An initial evaluation of the Alchemist Group gardens reveals that most bushes in it are old (bush over fifty years old have reduced productivity). Badly needed are investments in planting new trees, filling open spaces in the garden, pesticides and irrigation. All this is in a sorry state of affairs. Out of the 2075 hectares of land, the plantation area occupies 995.23 hectares. Uprooting and re-plantation have been done in 20.45 hectares, infilling in 2.27 hectares, irrigation in 180.07 hectares, and drainage in 150 hectares. As a result, the average productivity is low. The average productivity is supposed to be 500 kg/hectare in the area. Although the productivity is 540 kg/hectare in Kalej Valley, it is 406 kg/hectare in Dooteriah and 335 kg/hectare in Peshok. This data is culled from a government report from three years ago, and conditions have deteriorated since.

Workers from Dooteriah or Kalej Valley cannot recall a time when the activities in the garden had reached such a state of affairs. But hidden in the statistics above lies today’s secret recipe. Peshok garden had been closed for twelve years, even up to a decade ago. During the closure, the factory, hospital, godown – everything was ruined. Now all the leaves collected here are transported to the faraway Tumsung factory of Dooteriah. Only one factory remains functional for the three gardens. Most trees are over a hundred years old. Pesticides have not been applied for over three years. This is how the gardens of the Alchemist Group are limping along.

An unprecedented loot is being perpetrated by the owners, who are obtaining loans in the name of the gardens only to siphon off the profits into other businesses, sidestepping the auction markets to sell tea leaves in other ways and perpetrating accounting fraud. After the economic liberalization in India, the number of fraudulent and speculative tea garden owners increased astronomically. These owners are in the business of buying gardens and extracting the life out of them before abandoning them. On the other hand, there is a rapid growth of new gardens and bought-leaf factory arrangements, which might be called the unorganised sector in the tea plantation industry. Farmland is being converted to factory-less gardens on the one hand and tea leaves brought from outside to garden-less bought-leaf factories on the other, these arrangements are being used to run up high profits.The huge and unprecedented demand for tea in India’s domestic market has spawned this model.

The older estate gardens are seeing an increased number of casual workers, as the investment in their maintenance and workers compensation is reduced. An organized sector like the tea industry doesn’t have an estalished minimum wage! Although workers are supposed to be given ration, healthcare, firewood, and creches for their children, none of these are being provided. Will the government sit and watch this gross violation of the laws? When workers protest, the whole world comes crashing down. When they migrate for work because of the conditions in the gardens, we hear the cry that “absentism” is dangerously adding to the crisis…. But can’t the government set up an appropriate monitoring system to stop the transgression of laws by the owners?

A long time ago, tea workers were brought in with the promise of “chiyako botma sun falchha” (gold blossoms on tea trees). The Alchemists who are in the business of spinning dreams have sucked out the gold from the green leaves of the tea gardens, over the sweat and blood of workers. All that remain are the deprivation and the cries for help.