The West Bengal government initiative of providing houses to tea garden workers under ‘ Chaa Sundari’ project leads to the breakdown of community feeling cultural bonds as well as loss of income of tea garden workers, reveals a study by the Paschim Banga Chaa Majoor Samity (PBCMS).
The housing project was started by the West Bengal government in 2020 and the tea workers unions have raised concern that the initiative is aimed at making way for business houses to promote tea tourism.
“There has been no consultative process while formulating or implementing the scheme. Instead there have been complaints of misinformation, intimidation and threats during the implementation of the scheme. The community is extremely suspicious about the intentions of the Government and many felt they were to be dispossessed of their houses to make way for business houses, tea tourism etc.,” a press statement by PBCMS said.
In the survey, the tea workers union pointed out that tea garden workers rear poultry, cattle as well as different vegetables and leafy greens in the houses where they live.
“These have been sustaining the community through thick and thin, especially in closed tea gardens, as the trees and animals together fetch them about ₹10,000 monthly income on an average. The scheme gives a layout that neither provides such spaces, nor ensures increase of wages to adjust the drop in income due to displacement,” the survey report pointed out.
The study also points out that tea garden community settlement consists of several extended households of one family and the shifting of new houses where only a nuclear family can reside means a breakdown of community. The design of the ‘ Chaa Sundari’ completely disregards the community and cultural uniqueness of tea garden workers.
The study report states that tea garden workers have invested money to build additional houses and leaving their house to shift to the new scheme house completely disregards the effort and the resources put in by the workers.
According to response to a Right to Information (RTI) query, the State government is allocating ₹5.43 lakh per unit for Chaa Sundari houses. “All the workers put forward the argument that even half of this money invested in their present houses would have been enough to repair their houses beautifully,” the press statement by PBCMS said.
According to PBCMS in 2019, the government had passed the Tea Tourism and Allied Business Policy, by which it freed a maximum of 150 acres or 15% of tea plantation land could be used for tourism and other businesses. “This clearly indicates that the state government wants to free up tea garden land,” the tea workers union said.
While launching the scheme in 2020, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had said that ₹500 crore will be allocated to the scheme across 370 tea gardens. In the Budget document for 2023-24, the State government had pointed out that construction of 4022 single storied dwelling units in 17 sites across seven tea gardens in Alipurduar and in Jalpaiguri have been approved and 1, 171 dwelling units in the six sites have been completed and will be handed soon.
In respect to another announcement where the State government said that it will bring out a policy for issuance of homestead patta to the eligible tea garden workers the PBCMS said that workers have remained in obscurity regarding the mechanisms of the proposed land rights.