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Wages and Ethnic Conflicts in Bengal's Tea Industry

The recent wage agreement for tea labour in Darjeeling, that raised the daily wage to Rs 100 has increased ethnic tension among the workers of Nepali origin and the adivasis in the tea districts. This article looks at the ethnic tensions fostered by the separate Gorkhaland agitation among the tea workers and how it has affected the wage negotiations.

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Wages and Ethnic Conflicts in Bengal’s Tea Industry

Sharit Bhowmik

The recent wage agreement for tea labour in Darjeeling, that raised the daily wage to Rs 100 has increased ethnic tension among the workers of Nepali origin and the adivasis in the tea districts. This article looks at the ethnic tensions fostered by the separate Gorkhaland agitation among the tea workers and how it has affected the wage negotiations.

Sharit Bhowmik (sharitb@tiss.edu) teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

T
he unrest in Darjeeling has been in the news for long. It started in the mid-1980s with the formation of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) led by Subhash Ghising, a former soldier in the Indian army. Initially, the issue was of giving Indian citizenship to people of Nepali origin. Alongside, the GNLF also demanded statehood for Darjeeling as the area was ethnically and linguistically different from West Bengal. In order to have a separate identity for the people of Nepali origin in Darjeeling he renamed them Gorkha and the language was also labelled Gorkha. This was done to distinguish them from the Nepalis of Nepal.

The GNLF managed to get an autonomous hill council for Darjeeling Hills comprising three subdivisions in the district (Darjeeling Sadar, Kalimpong and Kurseong). The union and state governments pumped a lot of funds into the council. Some construction activities were noticed in the area. The former summer palace of the princely family of Burdhaman was turned into the residence of Ghising. It was redecorated into a grand residence for the ruler of half a district.

The media has covered most of these events and these are known to most people interested in the happenings in this hill district. What has not been covered in the news is the reaction of another group residing in the neighbourhood. These are the adivasi tea labour and they, in fact, number higher than the Gorkha population of the Darjeeling Hills.

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Tea is cultivated in two districts of West Bengal, namely, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. The two districts produce 20% of India’s tea with Jalpaiguri producing around 15. The tea growing area of Jalpaiguri is known as Dooars while Darjee ling has two areas known as Darjeeling Hills and Terai

in the plains of the district. Labour in Dooars and Terai are mainly adivasis while Darjeeling Hills have Gorkha workers. GNLF had demanded that besides Darjeeling Hills, Terai and a part of Dooars (having Gorkha workers) should be included in the new state. The adivasis in Dooars and Terai were opposed to this move as they felt that they would be dominated by the Gorkhas. They were not able to articulate their opposition at that time because of a lack of forum. GNLF, however, gave up this demand after the hill council was conceded.

Rise of GJMM

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJMM) sprang up in 2008 and was most likely a result of inter-regional conflict. Bimal Gurung, its leader, is from Kalimpong which is not a tea growing area. Ghising and most GNLF leaders were from the tea growing areas of Darjeeling and Kurseong. The movement was primarily directed against Ghising and articulated the public anger against the GNLF for failure to improve the lives of the poor in the hills. Tea garden labour, which makes up a major section of the population and had been the backbone of GNLF, got disillusioned on various counts. The tea industry in the hills was in shambles. Though Darjeeling produces high quality tea which fetches high prices, the wages of the workers were lower than those of the plains. By 2008, GNLF and its trade union, Himalayan Plantation Workers’ Union, were disbanded and Ghising had to seek refuge in Jalpaiguri.

GJMM is more aggressive in demanding a separate state. It has organised a number

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of bandhs in the hills. Gurung moves around Darjeeling in a convoy of 50 or more cars and jeeps with his supporters. They organise impromptu meetings in different places. His followers in the convoy form a large part of the audience and they encourage/intimidate the locals to take part in the agitation. Here again the media has played an important role in overplaying the activities of GJMM. The fact that Gurung’s convoy was stopped at Ghoom by local women on 27 May 2010 was hardly reported. These women wanted to prevent him from entering Darjeeling and holding a meeting there. The local population was furious because a few days earlier, Madan Tamang, a senior leader of the Gorkha League was murdered in broad daylight very close to where the GJMM was holding a public meeting. The Gorkha League is the oldest political party in the hills. It fought for recognition of the Nepali language but it did not take part in the movement for a separate state.

The locals suspected GJMM’s involvement in the murder. Surprisingly, the police have not been able to arrest anyone so far. Madan Tamang was under police protection at the time of his murder but the policemen fled when they saw the crowd approaching him. The director general of West Bengal Police had announced that Tamang’s murderers would be caught in a few days since the crime was committed in public. However, none have been arrested in the one year since then. Instead Gurung has become even more aggressive and even addressed another meeting in Darjeeling in May this year. The women who tried to stop him were lathi-charged by the police. While the police did not protect Tamang, they were enthusiastic in beating up women who tried to block Gurung’s convoy.

Adivasi Vikas Parishad as Opposition

Another aspect that has not been reported is the reaction of the adivasis in Dooars and Terai. Gurung has made the inclusion of Dooars and Terai mandatory to the separate state demand. He has said that he would not attend any meeting with the union government unless it agrees to include these two areas. This seems wishful thinking because the adivasis are equally

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adamant on preventing the two areas from being included in any hill state.

The lead for resistance was given by the Adivasi Vikas Parishad (AVP) whose membership has grown by leaps and bounds during the past five years. This is a Delhibased NGO which was formed for the social and cultural uplift of the adivasis in the country. Till the last decade no one had heard of this organisation though it has an office in Malbazar town of the Dooars. Tej Kumar Toppo is its general secretary. The adivasis in Dooars and Terai started becoming aware of the need for unity because they had been for long deprived of their rights and were marginalised from leadership of their trade unions. The leadership of every trade union in this region is in the control of middle-class Bengalis who have served for long in the tea labour movement.

There were other factors too. The formation of the GNLF was seen as an antiadivasi step. The GNLF too had demanded the inclusion of Terai and parts of Dooars in its proposed hill state. There is a railway line running across Dooars and the GNLF had demanded the area north of this line. Most tea gardens there had some concentration of Nepali workers if not the majority. It did not pursue this demand with the formation of the hill council. The emergence of GJMM has increased the fears of the adivasis. They feel that if the two tribal majority regions are merged with the hill state they will be swamped by people of Nepali origin.

The AVP finds its base among the educated adivasis in the region. Most of these youth are unemployed. This new generation is conscious of its identity and wants to maintain it. Further, they are angered by the way adivasis are treated in Assam. These people are not recognised as tribals (though the same communities of plantation workers are recognised as tribals in West Bengal and Tripura). The Adivasi Students Union in Assam had organised a demonstration in Dispur to demand their inclusion under the Schedule of Tribes. This demonstration was attacked not by the police but by the local people who mercilessly beat up the participants and even stripped a woman naked. The adivasis in the Dooars had organised large demonstrations to protest against what had happened in Dispur.

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The youth of Nepali origin have also become conscious of their identity after the GNLF and later GJMM gave them the lead. A large section of Nepalis in the tea gardens in Dooars supported the GJMM though they did not leave their respective trade unions to join the GJMM sponsored union. On the other hand, a section of the adivasis left their traditional unions to join a union formed by the AVP – Progressive Tea Workers Union (PTWU). This union is not affiliated to either one of the associations of tea labour unions, namely, Central Committee of Tea Plantation Workers (CCTPW) and Committee for Defence of Rights of Tea workers. The former is the larger federation as its unions collectively represent 90% of tea labour. It includes trade unions affiliated to central unions such as the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), the All India Trade Union Congress, or the Hind Mazdoor Sabha.

The AVP has been aggressively opposing the spread of the GJMM in Dooars and Terai. Its cadres have resisted the GJMM from holding public meetings in the area. On the other hand the AVP has held meetings in tea gardens with majority of Nepali origin workers as a show of defiance. Gurung and his convoy tried to enter Dooars twice in the past but on both occasions the AVP cadres came out armed with bows and arrows to prevent their entry. Hence, though Tamang has been adamant in including Dooars and Terai regions in the proposed hill state, the adivasis, who form the majority, have been actively resisting this proposal.

Politics of Wages

The PTWU caused a major tremor among the unions when it announced in May 2010 that the minimum daily wage of a tea worker should be Rs 250. The daily wage in cash at that time was Rs 67. This was a very steep rise. The PTWU has not given any reasons for demanding such a high wage nor has it justified why this figure was chosen. The fact is that though tea plantations are in the formal/organised sector, the wages of workers in West Bengal and Assam are the lowest in this sector. The minimum wage of a tea worker comprises components of cash and kind. The workers get an average cash wage of

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Rs 70 a day in both states and they are provided 3.25 kg of cereals per week foodgrains at 40 p a kg. They are also provided free wood for fuel. All these could not add to more than Rs 20 a day. Hence the total wage is not more than Rs 90 a day. This is far below a need-based minimum wage but the employers do not think so.

The 15th Indian Labour Conference held in 1957 had raised the issue of needbased minimum wages for all industrial workers. It was agreed that this wage would cover the food and living requirements of three units of consumption. Subsequently, the government appointed central wage boards in 22 industries. These were tripartite bodies having representatives of employers’ associations, trade unions and government. The Central Wage Board for the Tea Plantation Industry took over five years to submit its report. The bone of contention was the number of units to be covered. All industries had agreed that the wage would be determined on the basis of the requirements of three units of consumption.

The employers’ association set up a strong resistance to three units. They argued that since there was equal employment of male and female workers it implied that there were two earners in the family, hence the units should be 1.5 and not three. Despite ample evidence being provided to the contrary by the representatives of government and labour they remained adamant. Meanwhile the union government had announced that if there was unanimity in decisions in any wage board the recommendations would be implemented immediately. If there was no unanimity in a wage board, the government would not implement any of the awards even if they were fair or legally correct. This put most workers in a vulnerable position because if they opposed unreasonable suggestions of the employers they would not get anything. Hence in most cases the wage boards tried to reach unanimity in their decisions. This invariably put the management in a strong bargaining position. The representatives of labour gave in to their demands with the justification that “something was better than nothing”. This is exactly what happened in the wage board for the tea plantation industry. Since the employers refused to budge from their demand of including 1.5 units it was reluctantly accepted and the need-based minimum wage in the tea plantations was half of that of the other industries. Low wages were built into the system and the workers were helpless in this regard. The tea plantation labour has the distinction of being in the formal sector as they come under all the laws enforced in this sector but they earn wages that are lower than informal sector workers!

Reaction of Other Unions to PTWU Demands

After submitting its claim for a minimum wage of Rs 250, the PTWU wrote to the associations of the employees and the state government that it would not be a part of the negations with the other unions. It wanted a separate audience for discussing wages. The AVP’s demand has put the other trade unions in a tight spot. The amount demanded is too high a jump but if the trade unions oppose it, they would be construed as being anti-working class. If the trade unions support the demand it would send the message that it was the AVP and its union that were the leaders and not the traditional unions.

The existing trade unions held a meeting in Siliguri on 26 May 2010 and after

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debating this issue decided that they would not put forth a minimum wage. Instead, they demanded the constitution of a wage committee to examine the anomalies.

The three-year wage agreement for workers in West Bengal ended on 31 March 2011. In February 2011, the CCTPW demanded that a tripartite wage committee be set up to review wages. In a memorandum dated 21 February 2011, it argued that given the current economic situation the minimum daily wage should be revised to Rs 165. It has also suggested, for the first time, that wage increases should also factor in the length of service. This is important because whenever the minimum wage is revised, all workers, irrespective of their seniority, get the same wage. This system goes against the interests of the senior workers as they draw the same wage as the younger workers. The monthly wage for an unskilled worker is proposed at Rs 4,300.

The sudden agreement of the Darjeeling unions to Rs 100 as the minimum wage has caused ethnic tensions. It was signed on 31 March 2011. The agreement was initiated by the union supported by the GJMM and they claim that this is the highest increment granted to tea workers. It is surprising that the Darjeeling branch of the INTUC is also a signatory to the agreement. INTUC

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is the second largest union in the Dooars (the largest being the CITU). Its cadre in Dooars are upset with the Darjeeling agreement. This would more or less mean that wages in Dooars too will be Rs 100.

The most vociferous critique of the Darjeeling award is understandably from the PTWU of the AVP. The agreed wage is far below its demand for Rs 250. This has led to ethnic tensions in Dooars with the adivasi workers labelling the Nepali origin workers as “traitors”. The GJMM supporters in the Dooars too are in a fix. They cannot support the decision of the Darjeeling unions, at the same time they cannot support the demands of either the CCTPW or the PTWU as it would appear anti-GJMM. These tensions have been created by the GJMM whose union went ahead with the agreement without consulting other tea workers’ unions. GJMM obviously thought that this move would go in

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-its favour because it was a comparatively high increase.

The negotiations for wage revision in Dooars have not begun. It is unlikely that the workers can achieve more than what has been achieved in the Darjeeling Hills. In case negations do not take place or the employers’ associations feel that they are unnecessary because the Darjeeling model can be followed, it will lead to further divisions among the tea workers.

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