The tea gardens of Darjeeling and neighbouring districts in North Bengal have seen sporadic roadblocks, demonstrations and simmering tension in the weeks following the government’s move to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes. The wages of 450,000 workers are stuck with the cash crunch drying up the gardens’ finances.

Banks, under instructions from the Reserve Bank of India, have told garden managements that money will be disbursed only to those workers who have bank accounts. This figure, according to one estimate, stands at just 30%. Estate managers are, therefore, working overtime to arrange for bank accounts for the remaining employees.

But in the face of this crisis, the tea workers have shown a stoic resilience. There have been loud protests against the non-payment of wages in this tea heartland, but there is also silent acceptance of this huge transition from a centuries-old system of manual payments to a digital one. Digitisation and demonetisation may have brought unprecedented chaos to the tea industry here, but the mood on the ground is all for change.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been at the forefront of the Opposition charge against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s demonetisation move, leading protest marches and addressing rallies in Delhi and other states. On Thursday, Trinamool Congress trade union leaders from North Bengal marched to the Tea Board in Kolkata to lodge a protest against the hardships brought by demonetisation.

The same noise, however, is missing in the tea gardens. Here, a large section of workers believe the pain will bring gain – a slogan the Centre has been harping on as it defends its demonetisation decision.

Tea garden staff look at the guidelines for bank enrolment for their next payment of wages.

Running on no cash

In the 300 tea estates in Darjeeling and the Terai and Dooars areas, workers have gone without pay for about a month now as a result of the demonetisation decision early last month. Arrears are slowly being cleared, but the next payment cycle is due and the gardens don’t know how they will deal with this.

Sumri Asur, who plucks tea leaves at the Simulbarie Tea Estate in the Darjeeling foothills, has been starved of cash for a month. But on Thursday, relief came in the form of a mobile cash van arranged by the State Bank of India in nearby Siliguri town. The cash van dispensed money to people with bank accounts and Asur, luckily, had opened one recently as a result of the government’s insistence that tea garden managements provide workers with banking cover for their provident fund deposits and payments. “I was going almost hungry and had nothing left after four weeks of no payments,” said a relieved Asur.

A cash van distributes money to tea workers.

Sanam Chhetri, a representative of Asthana Business Corresponding – a service provider with the State Bank of India – said such vans had serviced about a dozen gardens and given small amounts of cash to the needy. The vans come with biometric devices for those who use their thumb impressions to operate their bank accounts.

Standing in the queue with Asur was her estate manager Ali Hasan. He, too, needed cash. Not just for himself but for the garden too. He held a bunch of photo copies of workers’ identity documents – Aadhaar, voter IDs and permanent account numbers – that he had to certify and send to the bank, so it could send the next tranche of cash for wage payments. “If the next allotment does not come in time, the management will be facing trouble,” he said.

According to a Trinamool Congress leader and member of the garden’s trade union, most of the workers support demonetisation as they believe it is a step against the rich and the corrupt. “It somehow corresponds to their idea of the management being powerful and moneyed, and an adversary,” the leader added. “So, notebandi is going to teach them a lesson, they feel and are happy about it.”

Tea garden workers at Bagrakote in North Bengal.

The hard life

Fifty kilometres away, at the Bagrakote tea garden in the Dooars, Tara Pradhan is busy plucking leaf. “We live in a zone of bhukhamari [dying of hunger], so the hardship that demonetisation has brought is not new for us,” she said, taking a break. “For a month now, I am working without pay. And I have a family of five, including two sons, a daughter and a daughter-in-law, to look after.”

Her husband died last year for want of medical treatment, as the garden had not paid its workers. The uproar over the non-payment of wages forced a shutdown of the estate for a short while.

The Bagrakote estate belongs to the Duncans Group, which has been in crisis even before demonetisation. Six of its 13 gardens are shut and the company in being investigated for non-payment of wages by the state’s Criminal Investigation Department.

But the employees at Bagrakote, including supervisor Bimal Pradan and tea worker Sabita Chhetri, are all for demonetisation. “[Prime Minister Narendra] Modiji has done the right thing,” said Bimal Pradhan. “These crook managements should be taught a lesson. We were in distress before notebandi, we are in distress now as well. We have no choice.”

Tea garden workers at Bagrakote in North Bengal.

Recently, two surveys were carried out on the status of tea gardens in the North Bengal region and starvation among workers – one was done by human rights organisation Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, and the other by a forum of trade unions. The latter listed names, house numbers and other details to come up with a list of 367 tea workers who had died of hunger in this belt in a span of 10 months in 2015.

The report was submitted to the Union Commerce and Industries Ministry and to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, said Abhijit Majumdar, who teaches in a college in Siliguri and is involved in welfare activities in the tea gardens. There was no response from either. The state government, in fact, did not accept the findings, as was evident from the statements made by some of its ministers, Majumdar said. “The tea garden workers are perennially in a precarious state and demonetisation has only added to their woes,” he added.

Starvation has been stalking tea estates in North Bengal for years now. There is acute hunger in gardens like Ramjhora, Mujhnai, Red Bank, Kathalguri and Keran to name just a few. According to S Guha Thakurta, secretary of the India Tea Association’s Dooars branch, 10 gardens are still under closure and another 40 irrevocably sick.

After demonetisation, workers have faced more trouble. For instance, the Nageshwari garden clubbed payments for four women workers by giving them a single Rs 2,000 note, telling them to go to the market together and spend the money equally. At the Sukna military station near Siliguri, Army personnel and civilians have been at each other’s throats over the use of ATMs.

Speaking about the Reserve Bank’s guidelines that tea gardens must provide bank accounts for their workers by December 15 in order to receive their next tranche of cash, Thakurta remarked, “It is a stupendous task to be completed.”

How it should be

Long queues outside an ATM at the Sukna military station.

There are some exceptions, though. Just next to the Bagrakote garden is the Leesh River Tea Estate of the Goodricke Group – a rare picture of hope and happiness. Sujita Oraon and Priya Mahali, both in their teens, are in a hurry to fill their sacks with tea leaves. Oraon goes to college in nearby Malbazar while Mahali is a Class 12 student in a school in Bagrakote. “Three days a week, we pluck tea leaves to support our studies and the rest of the days we go to our schools and colleges,” they said. “We have no backlog in wages.”

The manager, D Saikia, is proud of this accomplishment. “We do not have any wage arrears,” he said. “We have a monthly payment mode. Last month’s wages had been paid to all and we are preparing for the next month. Besides, we pay Rs 150 to each worker every week for incidental expenses. This week, we asked them to manage with Rs 100 as there is not enough flow of funds. The workers did not mind.”

Saikia said this was one of the best gardens in the region and the Goodricke Group was the only one to still have a British chairman sitting in Kent in the United Kingdom and an English management.

The group has 12 gardens, two in Darjeeling and 10 in the Dooars. “The secret of our success is a satisfied workforce,” said Saikia. “We look after them and they work for us. We pay 20% bonus every year while the industry squabbles over 8.3% or less elsewhere.”

The garden has asked banks to open ATMs and their request is under consideration, he added.

The cash van has brought relief to tea workers after a month of no wages.

Cool Darjeeling

The situation has been unexpectedly calm in the 103-odd tea gardens under the jurisdiction of the Gorkha Territorial Administration covering the Darjeeling Hills and a part of the Siliguri sub-division in Terai. Here, the BJP is an ally of the ruling Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and BJP leader SS Ahluwalia represents Darjeeling in the Lok Sabha.

Suraj Subbah, secretary of the Darjeeling, Dooars, Terai Plantation Worker’s Union, said demonetisation had upset wage cycles but the hill people still hailed the Modi government’s move. “We have written a letter to the PM through our MP and said that the transition to a cashless system is welcome,” he said. “The hill people will bear with the hardship but the Central government must ensure speedy setting up of infrastructure such as ATMs and mobile banks. The Trinamool Congress is playing politics in the plains over this. We do not support it.”

Long queue for money at Simulbarie tea estate as a mobile cash van arrives.

No solutions

For an immediate solution to the cash crunch, the Indian Tea Association had requested the West Bengal government to disburse wages through district magistrates – on the lines of the Assam government’s post-demonetisation initiative of fortnightly disbursal of salaries in cash to 500,000 tea employees in the state through its disaster management department. At a meeting in Siliguri, state officials verbally promised to implement the plan in the North Bengal tea gardens.

But problems cropped up soon after with the state focusing instead on contesting the central bank’s formula for wage calculations. “The RBI guidelines were faulty on many counts,” said Gautam Deb, a senior leader of the Trinamool Congress in Siliguri. “It did not take into account factors like incentives for workers for plucking extra leaf, medical expenses, casual workers’ payment, maintenance money required for lean season work in factories. We have sent a report to the chief minister highlighting all these factors. If workers were to travel to banks to withdraw their money, it would spell disaster for them and the management too with man days lost, incidents of fraud and workers losing precious money on account of conveyance to the banks and back. It is an absurd proposition without proper infrastructure.”

Speaking about the difficulties of implementing the plan proposed by the Indian Tea Association, West Bengal Chief Secretary Basudeb Banerjee said, “There are private tea estates where wage distribution can only be done by banks in tandem with tea estate owners. We ourselves have written several letters to the Centre about this, the fault isn’t at our end.”

All photos by Subrata Nagchoudhury