One recent evening, tea leaf plucker Maya Bhuniya, her two children and mother huddled by the chullah as they prepared their evening meal at Malnudy tea garden in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal.

Bhuniya was relieved that the food grain rations given to her household by the tea estate management has seen them through this difficult time, when the wage payment cycle has been upset by demonetisation and the scarcity of valid currency notes it has engendered.

She received one tranche of her wages for October in the first week of December, after a delay of about a month. But the monthly rations supplied by the tea estate helped her feed her household: they get 20 kg of rice and 15 kg of wheat.

Next door, at the home of Sabina Begum and Sajid Ansari, there was satisfaction that the food allotments were coming through even though wages were not. It isn’t as if the food, which is calculated to feed a family of four, is adequate for Sabina Begum’s household, which is larger. However, she is relieved that it meets at least part of her family’s requirements.

In the adjoining Alipurduar district, in the Bhutan foothills, Amar Bhujel, a tea garden worker and a trade union leader, has not received his wages since the tea estate that employed him shut shop 20 months ago.

“The only silver lining is that the food grain ration has not been discontinued in the garden till now,” said Bhujel, who works at the Garganda Tea estate, owned by Duncan Industries.

What none of these workers realises is that since February, the food grains tea garden workers receive from their employers, for which they are so grateful, is their rightful entitlement under the National Food Security Act, 2013. It is part of a rationing system that replaced an earlier system followed in these plantations.

Ever since the new system started, tea estate managements have been saving lakhs of rupees a month. Despite this, workers are not being paid their wages on time.

Tea leaf plucker Maya Bhuniya at a tea garden in West Bengal. (Photo credit: Subrata Nagchoudhury).

How tea estates benefit

In February, ahead of the Assembly polls in West Bengal, the ruling Trinamool Congress finally implemented the National Food Security Act in the form of the Khadya Sathi scheme.

This scheme provides fixed quantities of rice and wheat at Rs 2 per kg to almost 80% of the state population, including tea garden plantation workers.

It replaced an earlier system followed in tea gardens. Previously, according to wage agreements between tea gardens and workers, the estate managements provided a portion of wages to their workers in kind – in the form of subsidised food grains. Under this arrangement, tea estates bought grain from the Food Corporation of India at approximately Rs 21 per kg and provided it at a nominal price of .40 paise per kg to their workers. Each tea worker’s family was entitled to 32 kg of grain a month on an average. The subsidy per worker paid for by the tea estate stood at approximately Rs 660 a month.

When the National Food Security Act was implemented in West Bengal, tea estate managements were also made ration dealers with regard to their employees.

The West Bengal government’s Food and Supplies Department now provides the tea estate management with subsidised food grains at the rate of Rs 2 per kg (the monthly quota for this scheme is 35 kg per family per month). This is distributed to workers by the tea garden management at the same nominal rate of 0.40 paise per kg.

However, the tea garden management is now relieved of its earlier obligations: it does not need to buy food grains from the market any more. Thus, since February, each estate began to save Rs 660 per worker per month. This roughly works out to Rs 80 lakh a year for a tea garden with 1,000 workers.

Considering that of the 360 tea gardens in the Doors, Terai and Darjeeling regions of the state, about 250 have over 1,000 workers, a conservative estimate puts the annual savings for tea estates at Rs 200 crores. This is the money tea garden managements are saving at the cost of their workers.

‘Blatant wage loot’

A member of the management of a tea estate near Chalsa in Jalpaiguri in North Bengal admitted that tea estate managements had benefitted from the new system.

“Yes, it is indeed true,” said the official, who requested anonymity. “For a workforce of about 190 families in our garden who have family ration cards, the management is making a clean savings of Rs 12 lakh per year due to the new procurement price from the government. Bigger gardens would have bigger gains.”

The manager confirmed that under the earlier system, the ration supply was a component of workers’ wages. “Now the subsidised ration to the workers is coming [to them] under the National Food Security Act safety net,” said the official.

A number of non-governmental organisations working with tea garden workers, including the Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity and Terai Sangrami Cha Sramik Union, have alleged that tea garden managements have become the biggest beneficiaries of the new ration system, more than the workers. They demand that tea estate managements start paying Rs 660 a month to every worker to offset the losses workers are incurring under the new system.

In August, describing the new system as “blatant wage loot”, some organisations wrote to Union minister of state for commerce and industry, Nirmala Sitharaman, the state labour department, the state food and supplies department and others, and demanded corrective steps.

“The ignorance of tea workers about the intricate calculations of wages and their entitlements had helped the scam remain under wraps,” said Abhijit Mazumdar, an activist working with tea garden workers. “But it is out in the open now. Neither the central government nor the state government has responded to our memorandum.”

Court redressal?

When the Trinamool Congress retained power in the Assembly polls held earlier this year, the results showed that it had made deep inroads in North Bengal, tea estate country. This area was with the Left and the Congress for years, eluding Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Activists are astounded at how a government scheme has been allowed to enrich tea estates over their impoverished employees.

They say the ideal situation would have been if tea garden workers were given the National Food Security Act entitlement in addition to the rations provided by the tea estates.

“It would have really helped the highly-malnourished plantation workers,” said Anuradha Talwar of the Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity. “Instead of subsidising the poor plantation workers, the state government is actually subsidising the garden management.”

She added: “We would have to seek judicial redress if things do not change immediately.”

Jyotipriyo Mullick, West Bengal’s food and supplies minister said that the state government undertook the massive responsibility of providing ration at the rate of Rs 2 per kg under the Khadya Sathi scheme only at the chief minister’s initiative.

“We have not looked at the profit angle to the owners,” said Mullick. “Our single objective was to ensure a supply of food grains to the workers and I am sure the supply had saved many lives in the tea gardens in the pre- and post- demonetisation crisis. If there is any anomaly in the system, it will be set right.”