Siliguri, March 29: Stakeholders of the tea industry are keeping their fingers crossed over the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s demand that the Centre hand over the legislative powers of 124 subjects, including tea, to a proposed interim regional authority.
“It is too early to comment and it is better to wait and see what shape the proposed authority finally takes,” said Rajah Banerjee, the owner of Makaibari Tea Estate in Darjeeling. “We are aware that discussions are on but unless some concrete development occurs, we cannot comment.”
Although Banerjee refused to speak further, other planters said the Morcha demand did not hold much rationale.
“The tea industry throughout India is governed by a specific set of rules and regulations with some norms being controlled jointly by the Centre and the respective state governments,” a planter said.
“The Morcha leaders are yet to clarify what exactly they are demanding — whether they want the portion that is at present controlled by the state, or the industry as a whole, which includes several aspects, from exports to excise duty to central sales tax.”
North Bengal produces about one-fourth of the country’s total tea. “It is not feasible to apply a different set of rules to the industry in the region — even if we consider that the interim authority will comprise the Terai and the Dooars — unlike the rest of the country,” the planter said. “If the interim set-up is formed only with the three hill subdivisions of Darjeeling district, the scope (of the interim set-up) narrows down as Darjeeling Tea, even though it has a USP of its own, is only three per cent of the total national tea production.”
Political analysts believe that as tea is the apex industry in north Bengal, particularly in the districts of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri, where it yields major revenue and provides employment to thousands of people, the Morcha leadership has been insisting that the sector be transferred to the regional authority which it plans to control.
Like the planters, the trade union leaders, too, sounded wary. “It is too premature to comment as the Centre has not yet clarified as to whether tea will be with the proposed regional authority or not,” said Prabhat Mukherjee, the general secretary of the Intuc-affiliated National Union of Plantation Workers.
Others, who refused to be quoted, said the handover of the sector to the new set-up might deteriorate the condition of the industry.
“We are not sure but if the regional authority carries the right to levy charges and additional taxes to garner revenue from the industry, there are chances that the sector will suffer. Further, the state government, which is now responsible for the workers as well as the industry, will not listen to our demands any more if its control is transferred to the proposed authority,” a trade union leader said.
“Initially, we feel this issue can trigger tension and violence in the brew belts of the Terai and the Dooars. This will ultimately affect the industry and the workers,” he added.