3 Darjeeling Tea Gardens Reopen

DARJEELING, West Bengal

Darjeeling, West Bengal, India

Three of the 87 gardens idled by a strike and street protests since June 18 reopened Monday.

The strike involves 85,000 tea workers. At Goodricke Group’s Springside Tea Estate 70 of the 250 employed at the garden reported for work. Several local schools also opened.

Some stores in downtown Darjeeling were open and traffic was flowing amid the first encouraging signs that the region is returning to normalcy. Leaders of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) agreed to ease restrictions but GJM organizers continue to lead rallies in support of statehood for the several hundred thousand Gorkha living in the Darjeeling hills.

“We are hopeful that more tea gardens will reopen in the days to come,” a senior police official told local television station NDTV. Use of the internet remains restricted and tensions are high but there were no incidents of violence. During the past week police have used the local public-address systems daily to appeal to locals to open their shops and urged citizens to return to the streets.

On Monday West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee asked garden owners to pay workers their annual bonus despite loses that could exceed INRs 450 billion ($70.5 million) according to Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) estimates. All told the cost of the strike to tourism, lost retail revenue, and the failed crop is estimated at INRs1200 billion ($187.7 million).

The bonus is mandated by law even if a garden’s owners fail to show a profit. It is paid on a sliding scale based on a minimum of 8.33 percent of a worker’s annual wages up to a maximum of 20 percent.

The state labor department, tea garden owners and several unions representing workers are scheduled to meet Sept. 21 to discuss how this year’s bonus will be awarded and to resolve how to get the tea garden workers back to work. Tea planters are seeking financial assistance from the Tea Board of India.

Bimal Gurung, who heads the GJM and Roshan Giri, his close associate, are in hiding charged with inciting violence and for property damage resulting from protests that left seven dead. Anit Thapa and Benoy Tamang have challenged Gurung, arguing at a rally in Kurseong on Sunday that members of the GJM are willing to return to work once talks get underway. On Monday they met with Chief Minister Banerjee. Gurung refused to meet with Banerjee but representatives of several other ethnic, social, political, and organized labor groups support talks.

“Peace has returned in Darjeeling,” said Banerjee. “It’s good that more and more people are joining offices and places of work. Do your job well and live in peace together,” she told reporters.

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