Throwing Stones From A Glass House: Darjeeling BJP MP Calls For Land Rights For Tea Workers

The BJP’s Raju Bista recently wrote an article lambasting the Bengal government for failing to provide land rights to tea garden workers in North Bengal, all while remaining silent on the party’s handling of the same issue in Assam and Tripura.

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In a rather uncommon yet admirable sight, an Indian MP was seen speaking up for the people of his constituency, both from his parliamentary podium as well as in the media, through an article he wrote. BJP MP from Darjeeling Raju Bista, in a November 29 article for Firstpost, wrote on the landlessness of tea and cinchona plantation workers, forest villagers and others.

In the article, Bista condemns the Bengal government’s apathy in failing to confer land rights to tea garden workers in the Darjeeling Hills, Terai and Dooars regions of North Bengal. This creates hope for the masses; their elected leader is raising a regional issue on a national platform. 

However, his articulation begins to sound duplicitous when seen in the light of what his party has done for tea garden workers in Assam and Tripura, both BJP-ruled states. 

Mere electoral victory does not account for a party’s political credibility. This is determined by how it treats the marginalised communities whose votes it garnered to win. On that note, I attempt to explore whether the interests of these voters are being looked after in states where Bista’s party has formed the government.

Pitfalls of promises in Assam and Tripura

“Even today, the majority of the people living in the Darjeeling hills, Terai and Dooars do not have the parja patta rights i.e. their ancestral lands registered in their names (sic),” laments the BJP MP from Darjeeling. All the while in Assam, his party remains mute on the same issue.

BJP MLA from Darjeeling Raju Bista. Photo: Facebook/Raju Bista

In 2016, the BJP in Assam had not only promised to grant land rights to the landless tea workers but had also vowed to raise their daily wages to Rs 351.33. Five years have passed yet there are no talks on the same. What these workers actually got in terms of wages was close to Rs 217 and Rs 183 in the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys respectively. The previous Assam government under Sarbananda Sonowal did grant land rights to 471 small tea growers, however, no large tea plantation workers benefitted from the move.

In Tripura too, the BJP government had promised minimum wages to all tea garden workers when it came to power in 2018. The previous Left Front Alliance government had also issued a notification fixing wage rates at Rs 176, but this could not be implemented due to the elections. The owners of tea estates had even moved the high court against the minimum wage decision, but in January 2020, the court rejected the plea and maintained that the minimum wage must be paid.

The 17% wage hike was supposed to be paid in arrears until March 2022, however, the workers still receive wages below Rs 130.

The “tea promises” made by the party do not end here. Adivasis comprise 17% of Assam’s total population and are mostly employed in the tea gardens. While campaigning for elections, the BJP had made promises to grant the Adivasis, along with five other communities, the status of Scheduled Tribe (ST). Adivasis are considered STs in several other parts of the country, including North Bengal. However, these promises remain unfulfilled and the dreams of these six communities to be considered STs remain suspended.

In his article, Bista also criticised the Bengal government’s move to allow “tea companies to use 15% of the land in the garden for ‘alternative use purposes’,” fretting over the idea of tea tourism. “Today, five-star hotels are being constructed in the tea gardens, but the workers continue to be deprived of their basic rights,” he wrote. This statement, again, runs contrary to the BJP’s actions in other states since the party’s ‘Vision Document’ for Assam (2016-2025) talks about the party’s intention to promote tea estate tourism in the state in a similar manner in which it is being done in Bengal.

Would tea tourism in Assam not serve to not deprive tea garden workers of their basic rights in the same way that Bista claims is happening in North Bengal? In the case of Assam (and Tripura as well), what will come first – estate tourism or the workers’ right to land?

Regional political organisations in Tripura – the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) and Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA) – who had earlier been the BJP’s political allies, have now refuelled their separatist demand for Tipraland. A similar demand for Gorkhaland has dominated the hills of Darjeeling for decades, however, this dream does not seem to be on the Prime Minister’s agenda any longer.

A supporter of the ‘Greater Tipraland’ hanging a map of the proposed state from his neck. Photo: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty/The Wire

Also read: In Photos: A Three-Day Mass Sit-In Demonstration at Jantar Mantar for ‘Greater Tripraland’

Forest villages and the Union government’s attitude

In his article, Bista takes a strong stand on the issue of landlessness of forest villagers in Bengal’s hill districts. He chastises the Bengal government for not taking any steps to implement the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (which requires all forest villages to be converted to revenue villages) in the districts of Kalimpong and Darjeeling, despite issuing a gazette notification to do so across the state in 2013. The Bengal government has long since neglected many areas in North Bengal; the same political hubris which cost it important assembly seats in the region.

Here, Bista’s criticism of the state government for its attitude towards the residents of the hills is, indeed, commendable. However, nowhere in his article does he mention the Union government’s attempts to curb the rights of the forest dwellers by proposing to amend the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA) in 2019 and then again in 2021.

The BJP government’s 2019 draft proposal to amend the IFA was met with heavy criticism. Experts believed the recommendations, if implemented, would “undo the gains made by the Forest Rights Act, 2006. In light of the widespread criticism, the draft proposal was withdrawn. In his article, Bista fails to note how his party’s government had thus threatened the Forest Rights Act; a legislation which he calls a “landmark act” in the very same article.

Also read: Unbent Indian Government Trying To Amend the Indian Forest Act 1927 Again

The Union government also sought to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, again, in contrast to the interests of the local forest communities. The proposal seeks to do away with Section 2 (2) of the Act which mandates state governments and other authorities to obtain prior approval from the Union government in order to use forest land for any non-forestry related purpose. If this section is removed, it would clear the legal hurdles for private individuals and corporations to do as they please with the land. Moreover, forest villagers could be held as offenders for carrying out forest-related activities. 

The amendment, if realised, could contribute to enormous risk factors when looked at from the perspectives of forest villagers and the environment. However, Bista addresses the Act only in a fragmented way; only to suit his own political interests.

Also read: Is Environment Ministry Miffed That Forest Conservation Act Isn’t Pro-profit?

Justice still awaits 

Bista concludes his article by (rightly) saying that even as the country opulently celebrates 75 years of Independence, the people of the Darjeeling hills, Terai and Dooars do not have much to celebrate. No matter which government was in power at the Union or state level, hardly any justice has been done to the people of this region. When these people voted for Modi, they thought they were voting for justice that they have been denied for decades. Ironically, wherever Modi has shown his political presence, justice appears to be waning.

The BJP’s 2021 election manifesto for Bengal had promised tea garden workers their parja pattas, wages of Rs 350 and the status of ST to the eleven Indian Gorkha sub-tribes in the state. These promises resulted in the party receiving an overwhelming vote share in Kurseong and Darjeeling. Yet, winning votes does not determine whether or not justice has been delivered; if it did, then the aspirations for justice of the people of Darjeeling would have been met many times over, voting as they have for the BJP in three consecutive Lok Sabha elections since 2014.

While the TMC, the ruling party in Bengal, has been undoubtedly apathetic towards the people of North Bengal, the BJP-ruled Union government has been no different.

Nevertheless, the people of the region hope that their socio-economic, political, cultural and environmental aspirations do not remain relegated only to parliamentary discussions and articles in newspapers; they hope for some concrete realisation of these aspirations. 

Hopefully, our leaders come to realise political goals beyond tourism, paper-tiger politics and photo ops at some Union minister’s foyer, which have irreparably injured the political ambience of Darjeeling, Terai and Dooars.

Babika Khawas is a research scholar from North Bengal University in Darjeeling, currently studying tea and cinchona plantation labour in the region.