Jorhat, Dec. 27: The occupation of labour quarters in tea gardens by non-garden workers across the state may trigger more unrest as estates serve quit notices on illegal residents.
Yesterday's incident at Konapathar tea estate in Tinsukia district was also a fallout, among other reasons, of the management serving quit notices on some such occupiers of labour quarters or those who have built themselves homes despite not being garden workers.
If captains of the Rs 7,500 crore turnover-generating tea industry in Assam are to be believed, the labour lines in the gardens are over-crowded with non-workers and their family members, who work in nearby areas but reap the benefits of the garden management.
The developments come at a time when financially the industry has been going through a good phase for the past three to four years vis-�-vis price realisation. But owing to pest attack in recent times, productivity has gone down by 12 to 13 per cent. The industry has grown about 1.8 to two per cent annually over the past 10 years.
"Most of these non-workers are engaged in various government schemes like NREGA, road construction and other activities but stay in the garden quarters. In many instances we have to provide them with free medicines as we do to our workers. This has become a big problem for the garden management," the chairman of Assam Tea Planters' Association, Rajib Barooah, told The Telegraph today. "A majority of the gardens all over the state have been facing this problem except for may be estates owned by large corporate houses."
Sources in the industry said despite a burgeoning labour population, tea gardens had a shortage of labourers in recent times with most workers opting for NREGA and other activities, where the daily wage is much higher than that of a garden worker. Hence, the serving of notices to vacate the quarters is a move to pressure them to work in the gardens.
A tea garden labourer is paid a daily wage of Rs 84 apart from free ration, medicine, housing and other benefits vis-�-vis bonus, provident fund and gratuity.
Not only Konapathar, the management of several gardens have issued notices to the non-workers in recent times to vacate their quarters, resulting in bad blood between the management and the labour force.
Recently, the management of Borbheta Field Experimental tea estate, popularly known as Neemona tea estate here, had also served notices to 22 labour families to vacate their quarters. A similar incident came to light at Dholi tea estate near Titabor here.
Garden labourers, who were brought to Assam by British planters from various parts of the country, have been staying in the gardens since then. Their children usually replace them in the jobs.
The owner of a tea estate here said although the management has been carrying out recruitment regularly, "young" labourers shy away from garden jobs and are more attracted to jobs which are easily available near the garden these days.
"Earlier there were no other option for the workforce but to continue work at the garden generation after generation since there was not much of other activities near a tea estate. But there are several options for a garden labourer these days," he said.
Dhiraj Gowala, an office-bearer of the Assam Tea Tribes Students Association (ATTSA), said the garden management serving notices to labourers cannot be tolerated as this kind of attitude from the management would snowball into a conflict zone in future.
"Our forefathers came here more than a hundred years back. We have made the gardens our home. We have nowhere to go now," he said.
He said the association has been demanding that the state government issue permanent land pattas to the labourers so that such a situation, where a garden labourer has nowhere to go, does not arise in future.