Tea garden workers of North Bengal demand rights over their land

Workers in the tea gardens of North Bengal are opposing the state government’s attempts to deprive them of rights over their land. A vigorous campaign of Gram Sansad meetings is being held to mobilise support for their struggle.

tea-workers-protestAt a meeting convened by the Uttar Banga Chai Shramik Sangathan on March 10, 2024, the tea garden workers’ unions have opposed the state’s proposal to give a mere “five decimal” land (5 Decimal = 2177.80 Square Feet.) per household, to the tea garden workers in North Bengal districts, as part of its land distribution policy. The Sangathan has put forward the claim that all the land that rightfully belongs to the workers, should be given to them. They have demanded that the government should stop its attempts to hand over the workers’ land to private companies, to make colossal profits by building luxurious tourist estates and businesses.

The tea garden workers, tribals and Gorkhas have been an integral part of West Bengal’s tea gardens for over 160 years. They have been the original inhabitants of the tea gardens since the 1850s.  “Therefore, they are entitled to possess homestead land rights, including Records of Right (RoR) Khatiyan or raiyat, and not a mere 5 decimal patta,” according to a statement issued by the Sangathan in January this year. According to the Sangathan, the government’s proposal of giving ‘5 decimal land’ to tea garden workers did not leave any “alternative livelihood options for the workers except to migrate to other places”.

Recounting the history of how tea garden workers had created the present land from dense forests about 180 years ago, speakers in the March 10 meeting spoke about how most of the tea garden workers have in their possession much more than 5 decimals of land. With the Government giving pattas or land rights only for 5 decimals of land, the Government is actually taking away peoples’ land. The speakers also felt that it was an insult to the tea garden population to call them landless. “We are not landless, we have land in our possession. All we want is a proper record of our rights to this land”, they claimed.

The tea plantations in the North Bengal region are spread over 97,280 hectares (240,400 acres) and produce 226 million kg of tea, nearly a quarter of India’s total tea production. There are nearly 300 tea gardens in North Bengal, employing 3.5 lakh workers.

Various trade unions and people’s organisations in West Bengal have come together to support the struggle of the tea garden workers. They have formed a Joint Action Committee (Terai Doaars and Hills, or JAC-TDH) to take the struggle forward. The JAC-TDH has demanded immediate revocation of the government notification giving pattas of 5 decimals only to each household; permanent right over all the land developed and cultivated by the tea garden workers for the past several decades; an immediate halt to any attempt by the state machinery to privatise the government land in tea gardens in North Bengal so as to favour the private players, in the form of rendering their land freehold or in any other manner whatsoever.

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