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September 4, 2021, marks the 47th anniversary of a possibility that was squandered. In a nondescript corner of North Bengal, abandoned tea workers proved that an alternative future was possible. This is the story of a certain past that still holds the key to the present.
It has been pieced together thanks to the accounts of Mattu Oraon, one of the three surviving members of the original cooperative, professor Sharit Bhowmick, and others including Tapan Deb, Ram Avatar Sharma, and Chandan Sengupta. I am especially grateful to the July-September 1995 edition of Bartika, edited by Mahashweta Devi.
The Dooars, literally meaning ‘doors’, are the piedmont areas in North Bengal at the edge of the mighty Himalayas. They are carpeted with tea gardens for miles at a stretch. One such tea garden is the Sonali garden.
To the south of Sonali flows the Teesta. Its eastward perimeter is flanked by the Gheesh river and the west by Leesh. Both are dry riverbeds except in the monsoons, when they turn into raging torrents. Moving past an Army camp, we enter Sonali, a garden without an operational factory.
Birenchandra Ghosh of Jalpaiguri took over the garden in 1955, naming it after his daughter Sonali. Before that, it was the out division of the Bagrakote Tea Company and was called the Shaogaon tea estate.
Apart from a few, the workers are all of Oraon origin. The tribe settled in the Dooars in the last quarter of the 19th century.
Bleeding from heavy debt, Biren Ghosh sold the estate to one Khemka ostensibly concentrated on financially draining the garden of what remained. On September 24, 1973, Khemka fled, leaving behind Rs 3 lakhs as payment for the non-plucking season and Rs 1 lakh more as provident fund.
When the garden workers went to Khemka’s address in Calcutta, he wrote to them, “I don’t want to run the garden, the workers can run it.” A few days passed until one night the workers sat to figure out their and the garden’s fates. The story goes that a woman worker spoke up at the meeting, saying they must go to Jalpaiguri to seek support.
They acted promptly. On December 10, 1973, they marched barefoot across the Teesta towards Jalpaiguri. They spent the night in the open at Raipur garden and sat for two whole days at the verandah of the Jalpaiguri court. Their slogan was, “Khoon paseena jiska, cha bagan uska” (‘our blood, our sweat, our tea garden’).
Finally the Deputy Commissioner emerged to say that the owner had not renewed the lease for the garden and hence the ownership of the garden technically would be transferred to government. The DM added that the workers could pluck leaves by themselves and sell them – the government would not stand in the way.
Upon their return, the workers formed a committee to pluck and sell produce. The first to purchase from them were Duncan’s, at a meagre 60 paise per kilogram. The wages the committee could afford was a meagre 12 annas instead of the earlier Rs 3. The workers subsisted on roots, leaves, jackfruit, tea flower and whatever they could hunt from the adjacent wilderness – rats, rabbits, or fowl.
But they persisted.
In time they considered the possibility of building a cooperative in place of the committee. In the lead was Chinmay Ghosh of the CPI, workers’ leader Simon Oraon and Professor Sharit Bhawmik.
Additional Labour Commissioners N.C.Kundu and Ramkrishna Saha, along with District Magistrate Dilip Raut were all supportive. The assistant registrar of cooperative societies was a young man, N.K. Maity. The latter facilitated the district-level formalities and got the Cooperative Inspector to the garden for a general assembly to discuss the formation of the cooperative.
Chinmay Ghosh was the promoter and the assembly was presided by the badababu of the garden, Rebati Mohan Saha. By the end of the assembly, the workers unanimously passed the decision to constitute themselves as a cooperative. Thirty two of them signed on the document and submitted the application on August 10, 1974. And finally on September 4, 1974 they formed the cooperative under the ownership of the workers.
They chose not to use the earlier name. Thus the Saongaon Tea and Allied Plantation Workers Cooperative Society Limited was born. However, nationally, it would be forever known as the “Sonali cooperative”.
There were many challenges. To start with, how would the work be organised?
In the past there was a hierarchical system of manager, assistant manager, garden babu, munshi, dafadar, and under them the “coolies”. This was inherited from the British. But as soon as the cooperative was born in the hands of the workers, the morning whistle fell silent and so did the coarse orders of the dafadars. Workers started on their own, early in the morning. While the committee was preparing to transition into a cooperative, women workers had already decided on the division of labour and how the work would be organised. The decisions were passed on to the men to follow.
The owner had fled with all available vehicles, so they started with bullock carts and cycles. This soon picked pace, and the workers did not turn back. Leaving behind the ‘garden babu-garden sardar’ model, for the first time in independent India, both male and female workers were paid equal wages.
This was a couple of years before even the Union government made a legislation to that effect. Impressed at this effort, the All India Women’s Federation gifted 10,000 multivitamin tablets to the workers.
In the plucking season, a worker would usually get a 7 paise incentive for every extra kilogram above their usual work. The cooperative, however, gave 10 paise, and in some time raised it to 15 paise per kilogram – double the amount any other garden gave at the time.
While other gardens faltered even with the stipulated Rs 3 wage, the cooperative did not fail. It also gave, as per the Plantation Labour Act, umbrellas, aprons, sweaters, quilts and handkerchiefs. The cooperative members, it is said, even came to buy samples of umbrellas from Siliguri to take them back and let the workers decide which ones they would like. By then, the cooperative had acquired quite a bit of fame and the shop owner treated them with cold drinks and paan.
In 1975, the cooperative took a loan of Rs 40,000 and purchased a vehicle worth Rs 56,000. They also managed to invest in a tractor worth Rs 64,000. The workers themselves repaired the roads that had remained unattended for years.
In 1976, the cooperative planted on an extra 10 acres of land and took annual production to 10,43,000 kilogram by 1977. This was quite the leap from the 8,50,000 kilogram that the garden produced before.
But this was not enough for the Saongaon Cooperative. They started educating women workers and kicked off a cooperative milk production unit, along with plucking activities. In its functioning, the cooperative turned the privately owned tea garden model on its head.
Senior manager of adjacent Lakkhipara garden, one Greemer, arrived at the garden just to witness these momentous developments in Sonali. To his surprise he found that garden ran like clockwork even without any garden sardars. He told the garden leadership, “In my garden, absenteeism is a big issue. But I see it is not an issue here. If you give me a job here, I will happily come here and work.”
But this golden era did not last long.
The first attack descended upon the garden in the garb of legalities.
A case was registered by the United Bank of India against the garden over an outstanding loan. In 1976, the court passed a verdict in favour of UBI and ordered the garden owner, Khemka, to pay UBI Rs 2 lakhs.
But the garden management not only did not comply with the court’s orders but seeing the garden running smoothly under the cooperative society, attempted to take back the tea garden.
In 1977, UBI filed a case in the Calcutta high court, challenging the registration of the workers’ cooperative. With the support of the district administration the garden stayed at the hands of the workers from 1974 till July 9, 1978. The next day by a temporary order of the high court, a receiver, advocate Swapan Kumar Mullick who was also the lawyer of the Khemkas, was appointed at the garden.
The workers still believed that they would emerge victorious, given that a Left Front government had come to rule the state following the election in the previous year. But when the receiver entered the garden with the 10 truckloads of armed police, the so-called “workers’ party” which was now in power, looked the other way.
Swiftly, the garden was turned into a police camp and Section 144 was invoked. In 1976, there were several proposals floated by Cooperative Minister Atish Singh and the Cooperative Secretary, pleading for the cooperative to be allowed to pay back the loan amount to the bank slowly over the years. But those came to use, even under Left rule.
And so, cooperative leaders had to abscond for many years to avoid police. Meanwhile, the receiver appointed one Radheshyam Agarwal, a petrol pump owner from Malbazar, as agent to manage the garden’s affairs. The remaining members of the cooperative society tell this author that behind all of these anti-worker moves was Parimal Mitra, whose beginnings were as a working class leader and who was then the forest minister in the Left Front government.
The final order of the high court on September 13, 1978, went in favour of the workers’ cooperative. But it also gave the receiver a month in his role, within which time he approached the Supreme Court on the matter.
Supreme Court overturned the high court’s order on February 26, 1979, and gave three months to the receiver to continue in his position. Even after the receiver left, the agent Radheshyam stayed on with the former owner’s support and the tussle continued with the cooperative.
Right before the festive season in autumn, a small demonstration by workers led to a severe crackdown on the workers, involving police action with lathicharge, tear gas and bullets. Even though they were booked against bailable charges, bail was denied to the workers. Almost the whole of the cooperative board was put behind bars. Suspensions and retrenchments followed. Each worker had no fewer than seven to eight cases registered against him or her – milk theft, wood theft, tea leaf theft, death threats, dacoity. All were fictitious.
Shortly afterwards, the Supreme Court said that ownership of the land was disputed. The high court was ordered to resolve the case and asked the state government to take over the running of the garden till the matter was disposed.
The West Bengal Tea Development Corporation and its workers thus entered the garden and put in honest effort to bring it back to its feet. Workers once again started getting their wages and provident fund amounts regularly. But Radheshyam’s son Rajesh Agarwal continued in his attempts to usurp the garden, and reportedly was not above using muscle power.
Cut to 2005, and once again, the high court removed the WBTDC and appointed two receivers, who handed over charge to Rajesh Agarwal. Aided by the state government’s apathy and the exhausting length of judicial procedure, the final verdict came in 2007. The management of the garden was passed to Rajesh Agarwal, ending what was once a strong example of labour power.
On November 22, 2014, after not having been paid wages for three months, angry garden workers allegedly brutally murdered Rajesh Agarwal in front of the garden office.
The garden was shut for two years and finally reopened in the hands of a new Siliguri-based owner. At present, workers receive Rs 193 daily instead of the stipulated Rs 202. In several sections, tea plants have been uprooted and sold off. In 2018, through an RTI, this author got to know that the owners have the lease till 2035. The rent and cess value, payable to the West Bengal government, amounts to Rs 6,21,128. Outstanding lease amounts to nearly Rs 15 lakhs.
Only three of the erstwhile members of the original cooperative are alive now. One of them is the then vice-chairman of the Cooperative, Mattu Oraon. Remembering another prominent leader of the cooperative, Simon Oroan, he said, “At the time, CPIM leaders would say that if workers become owners themselves, how will class struggle be sharpened? Actually, they did not want this plan to succeed as a successful cooperative would have inspired similar models across the Dooars.”
Mattu Oraon said that the most influenced would have been the adjacent Rupali garden which was under CPIM leader Parimal Mitra’s influence. “But for as long as the crisis in the gardens continue, the relevance and significance of the Sonali struggle will stay alive.”
Rupam Deb is a ground activist and student based in north Bengal.