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Guwahati: On the morning of May 12, the workers of the Lalbagh division of Silchar’s Doloo tea estate woke up to the news of hundreds of bulldozers approaching their division to clear the tea plantation from that area in order to acquire the land for a proposed greenfield airport.
As the news spread like wildfire, hundreds of tea garden workers rushed to the site, drenched in heavy rain, ignoring the restrictions under Section 144 imposed in the area a day earlier.
However, a heavy deployment of security personnel ensured none of them were able to enter the site of eviction. Those who dared to approach the eviction site were reportedly heckled and pushed away by armed security personnel.
With utter helplessness, some of them even bowed down to the feet of police personnel, pleading with them not to destroy their tea garden; their only source of their livelihood. Some of them even protested with slogans saying they will not allow the construction of an airport, destroying the plantation.
Visuals from the day showed tea garden workers begging before the police personnel, saying, “If the tea garden is being taken away, there will be nothing left with us, we only know to work in the plantation. We don’t even have that much education to do other jobs.”
But their cries fell flat on the deaf ears of the administration and the eviction drive was carried out anyway. Reportedly, the administration had fielded 150 bulldozers and excavators to clear the site where the Assam government intends to acquire 2,600 bighas of land to build a proposed greenfield airport.
Situated around 330 kilometres from Assam’s capital city, Guwahati, the Doloo tea estate has a total area of 9,965 bighas of land. As per reports, around 1,900 tea garden workers – including both regular and non-regular employees– work in the tea garden. The eviction drive is likely to uproot around 3 million tea plants across 21 sections of the tea garden.
The present site of the Doloo tea estate was reportedly selected by the Airports Authority of India, out of two other sites earmarked for the airport, in consultation with the state government. The other two sites were reportedly the Kharail tea estate in Doloo and Silcoorie tea estate.
However, the tea garden workers of the Doloo tea estate have been vehemently opposing the acquisition of plantation land for the airport which they fear would mean the loss of their livelihood. They have been demanding that the airport be built in some other place as the tea garden is their only source of income.
“We cannot accept the airport as it will take away our livelihood. Where will we work if the government destroys the tea plantation and constructs an airport? We don’t have the required skill set or education to work in an airport or any other place. The tea garden is the only place where we can work and earn something. This is why we have been protesting. But the tone-deaf government is not ready to listen,” Bishnu Sirdar, a tea garden worker from the Lalbagh division, told The Wire. Sirdar also informed that the eviction was still ongoing and there had been a heavy deployment of police in the area.
“There are at least 12 or 13 trucks of police and security forces still deployed here. Furthermore, Section 144 has been implemented here since Tuesday evening. So, we are not allowed to gather or even talk in a group. Public transportation to our area is also stopped. We are almost trapped,” Sirdar exclaimed with a sign of helplessness.
When The Wire spoke to Silchar’s Superintendent of Police, Ramandeep Kaur, she refused to use the term “eviction” and said it was an exercise of “clearing of tea bushes” to hand over the land. She also claimed that workers themselves were now helping in the work of “clearing the tea bushes,” and that there was no law and order situation.
When asked about the heavy presence of police and security forces in the area, she said that this was to ensure they could carry out their work without any disturbance. On incidents of May 12, Kaur held that there was some misunderstanding, and the workers had now understood and have no qualms with the airport.
However, Kaur’s claims were refuted by Kamaljit Teli, a worker from the Moinagarh division of Doloo Tea Estate.
While daily wage in our tea garden area was around Rs 180 per day, now the administration is providing Rs 500 to Rs 600 to help them in the eviction. So, there might be some people who are helping the administration. But that doesn’t mean the resistance against the airport has ended,” Teli told The Wire.
Teli said workers were not being able to come out openly like earlier as the administration was using all its might to suppress the movement. “Over 300 police and security personnel are here along with Section 144. In such a situation what can we do?” Teli added.
Notably, Kaur’s statement corroborates what Assam’s chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said on Sunday.
Addressing the media, Sarma rubbished the reports that there was any “eviction”. Sarma said the decision to build the airport was taken after consultation with trade unions and tea garden management.
“Labour associations informed the government in writing that they have no objection if the government wants to take over the tea garden. In return, the tea garden owner assured the unions that they will not lay off any workers even if the government takes over the tea garden. The owner also assured they would clear all pending Provident Fund and Gratuity to the labours before handing over the land to the government,” Sarma added.
The controversial MoU
What Sarma perhaps was talking about was the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between three trade unions – Barak Shah Sramik Union, Akhil Bharatiya Chah Mazdoor Sangha and Barak Valley Cha Mazdoor Sangh – and the Doloo Tea Company India Limited.
However, what Sarma did not acknowledge is the fact that this very MoU is the issue and tea garden workers have rejected the MoU in two public hearings held earlier this month in the Moinagarh and Lalbagh divisions of the Doloo estate.
“We had been kept in the dark about the MoU. They agreed to hand over our land for the airport without even consulting us,” Sirdar said. Arindam Deb, Cachar district’s assistant general secretary of the Asom Majuri Shramik Union – the organisation that has been spearheading the protest against the airport – told The Wire that the MoU was only made public after repeated demands by the tea garden workers.
“It was only on April 19, when the workers came to know about the acquisition when the government officials, along with security personnel, came for the demarcation of the earmarked land in the tea garden. The workers resisted the officials peacefully following which the officials left without any conflict. After that incident, we staged multiple protests inside the tea garden demanding the authority to make the MoU public. It was only on April 25 that the MoU was made public,” Deb said. Notably, the MoU was signed on March 7, 2022.
After the MoU was made public, AMSU pressed the administration to hold public hearings on the acquisition as per law. Accordingly, two public hearings were held on April 29 and May 2 at the Moinagarh division and Lalbagh division of the tea garden, respectively.
“In both of these hearings, workers unequivocally rejected the MoU, saying it was signed without consulting the real stakeholders, the tea garden workers,” Deb added.
The videos of these two public hearings, accessed by The Wire, confirm Deb’s claim. The videos showed tea workers sloganeering against the construction of the airport while rejecting the MoU.
Why workers are opposing the MoU
The main contention against the MoU is a clause under which the company ensures that on receipt of the compensation from the state government it will clear all the outstanding Provident Fund (PF) contributions “deducted from the workers along with matching contribution from the employer”. In its ‘Obligation of the company’ section, it is also said that it will clear all “pending past gratuity claims of retired and deceased workers of the tea estate”.
A provident fund is an investment fund that is jointly established by the employer and employee to serve as a long term saving to support an employee upon retirement. Both workers and the employer contribute to the PF. While workers give a portion of their salaries to the provident fund, the employer also contributes on behalf of their employees. Notably, both these contributions to the worker’s PF had not been paid by the Doloo tea estate’s management for the last several years.
The tea garden workers with whom The Wire spoke strongly opposed these two clauses, saying PF and gratuity are their rights which the tea garden administration is bound to pay from the tea garden’s profits and not from the government’s compensation.
“The administration had cut it from our weekly wage. Thus, it is our own money. If the company says they are in loss and thus, could not pay their contribution to PF, we would have accepted. But how can we accept that the management will pay our own contribution to PF by selling the tea garden land to the government,” Teli said.
Mrinal Kanti Shome, President of AMSU, termed the clause “illegal,” saying the worker’s contribution to the PF account is “directly cut from their wages and cannot be transferred to other head of account” to meet other expenditures of the tea garden management.
Claiming that the Doloo Tea Estate is a profit-making company, AMSU questioned why the management had not deposited the PF amount on time and was now willing to pay it from the government’s compensation amount. Default in payment of PF is a punishable offence under the provisions of Assam Tea Plantation Provident Fund Scheme Act, 1955, Shome added.
However, Doloo Tea Estate’s Deputy General Manager Supriya Sikdar blamed the issue of outstanding PF and gratuity on the erstwhile management of the tea garden, the Patel Group.
“Our management had to bear a huge outstanding PF and other liabilities of Patel group to save the garden. In the process of clearing this liability of Patel Group, the current liability was created,” Sikdar said, adding, “Whatever the margins that we have earned so far, all this money has been paid to clear the outstanding of previous management and to run the garden like paying wages and ration etc.”
Sikdar also told The Wire that the management had already cleared all the outstanding PF amount to workers, and the outstanding gratuity money to 170 workers. According to Sikdar, the management has received a compensation amount of Rs 2.37 crore out of the total Rs 50 crore from the state government. Of this amount, Rs 1.57 crore was paid to clear all the outstanding PF amount, while around Rs 80 lakh was paid to clear the gratuity, Sikdar added.
“We have used this money to clear the outstanding gratuity amount of 170 workers and cleared all the outstanding PF amount. We will also clear the gratuity payment of deceased workers once their next of kin submits the succession certificate,” Sikdar said. Citing other clauses in the MoU, Sikdar said apart from clearing all these dues, the management is also committed to spending money from the compensation on various welfare projects for the workers.
There is “no harm” or “illegality” in providing pending PF dues from the compensation amount, said Supriyo Bhattacharya, General Secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU. Notably, Akhil Bharatiya Chah Mazdoor Sangha, an affiliated organisation of CITU, was one of the signatories of the MoU).
“You can say management should pay all these pending dues from the owner’s profits. But this will only delay the whole thing. In MoU, management has ensured that they will clear the dues as soon as they get the compensation. So, it will ensure that they will get it fast,” Bhattacharya told The Wire.
Supporting the MoU, Bhattacharya said it was signed to ensure the rights of the workers, so that management cannot go back on its word. He also alleged that it was the leaders of AMSU who were spreading misinformation about the MoU and instigating workers.
“The workers don’t even understand the MoU. Then how can they oppose it!” he added. However, he took a position of middle ground when asked whether CITU supported the construction of the airport, saying, “CITU neither supports nor opposes the airport.”
Dolu’s airport finds no mention in the Union government’s 21 approved greenfield airports
Notably, the proposed greenfield airport in Cachar’s Doloo tea estate found no mention in the list of 21 greenfield airports that have received “in-principle” approval from the Union government so far.
In a written reply to a question in Lok Sabha on March 17, 2022, the Ministry of Civil Aviation provided a list of 21 sites which received “in-principle” approval from the Union government to set up a Greenfield airport in the last three years.
“Then why did the government carry out the eviction drive in Doloo?” asked Subrat Talukdar, a Guwahati-based social activist. “BJP had promised to protect the right of tea garden workers during the campaigning of Assam assembly election in 2021. Then, why are they now trying to evict tea plantation for a greenfield airport which isn’t even approved by the Centre!” Talukdar asked.
Highlighting the privatisation of airports across the country, he asked, “Is the government acquiring the land of Doloo tea estate to hand over to a private enterprise?”
Meanwhile, the Opposition, too, has reacted sharply to the eviction drive at the Doloo tea estate. Congress’ Leader of Opposition in the state Devabrat Saikia condemned the eviction drive and demanded the intervention of the chief minister to stop it immediately.
“While BJP promised to give employment to lakhs of unemployed if it comes to power in Assam, it is now doing the opposite by destroying the tea plants which have been the only source of income for the tea garden workers,” Saikia said.
Congress’ Deputy Leader of Opposition, Kamalakhya Dey Purukayestha smelt a rat behind the government’s move and alleged that the eviction was carried out due to some personal interest of local MP and MLAs of the ruling party.
“Is there no other place than Doloo to build the airport? There was a tea estate named Kharail tea estate, adjoining Doloo, which is almost non-functioning. The management of the tea estate had shown interest in handing over their land to build the airport. But Silchar’s DC, some MPs and MLAs of the ruling party rejected this site saying it doesn’t have feasibility,” he said while addressing the media. He further alleged that there was a huge “scam” ongoing to sell off the evicted tea plants to a Kolkata-based company at a good price.
Pratyush Deep Kotoky is an Assam-based freelance writer.
Note: An earlier version of this story erroneously said that the clearance of the tea garden took place on May 11 instead of May 12.