Darjeeling Back in Business

DARJEELING, West Bengal, India

Darjeeling overgrown

Tea workers in Darjeeling will be awarded a 19.75 percent annual bonus estimated at $9.3 million with the assurance by labor representatives of a return to normalcy.

But Darjeeling is not normal yet. Traffic restrictions remain and several shops are still closed. Security forces are forcing the shops and other business establishments in Darjeeling to open but as of today only a few have done so.

Workers have been idle since June, with a few returning to work last week as the first gardens and factories restarted operations. So far, workers have resumed labor in only five or six tea gardens.

Approximately 85,000 workers at all 87 of the gardens qualify for the Durga Purja bonus. Payment is based on wages paid during the past year. This year it will be awarded in two installments. The first installment is a good faith payment to be issued shortly after workers report to work. This will be followed by payment of the remaining funds under terms to be resolved at a second round of meetings between government representatives, labor, and garden owners.

Last week, all three parties met at Uttarkanya in Siliguri for a marathon session to hammer out the details. Growers last year awarded workers a 19 percent bonus. The bonus is mandatory under the Payment of Bonus Act, 1965. Gardens must pay whether they show a profit or loss. The minimum bonus is 8.55 percent. A maximum of 20 percent can be awarded.

Garden owners, facing $61.5 million in losses, expressed concern for funding the bonus due to the fact that tea sales virtually came to a halt after the first flush. India’s second flush generates about 40–45 percent of the tea industry’s revenue.

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) is one of several groups that called the strike following a decision by the West Bengal government to require students to learn Hindi. Previously, the children were taught the Gorkha version of Nepal’s official language. The Gorkha lands were once part of Nepal.

The discussions last week took an unusual twist. In June, political parties in Darjeeling that called for a total shutdown failed to give a formal strike notice. The garden owners therefore did not issue notice of a lockout. Azam Monem, chairman of Indian Tea Association (ITA), told the Business Standard that technically, “the gardens have remained open, although in an unoperational stage.”

The entire situation is tenuous.

Single estate owners, 30 percent of the Darjeeling tea industry, will be hard hit. Industry sources said an estimated 60 gardens had authorized ITA and Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) to negotiate and discuss when operations could be resumed. It is thought that the other 27 gardens might not agree to the 19.75 percent bonus demand, implying these might remain closed even after normalcy returns to the region. Under these circumstances, the Darjeeling tea industry, already under financial and production stress, will further feel the pinch.

Sources: The Hindu Business Line, Business Standard