Dolu Tea Plantation, Silchar: Evictions and the Airport Agreement
Dolu is a 200-year-old tea estate located at Silchar district in the Barak Valley of Assam. The plantation covers an area of about 9,650 bighas and has three branches – Dolu, Lalgarh and Moynargarh. The total number of registered permanent and temporary workers in the Dolu plantation is 1900. If the number of contract workers and other unregistered, irregular labour are added to this figure, the total strength of workers becomes more than 6000. A part of the plantation area is being sold by the Dolu Tea Company for building a ‘Greenfield Airport’ by the government.
The Government of Assam had informed the local administration and estate authorities of its intention to build an international greenfield airport on an area of 2,500 bighas of land in the Dolu tea plantation. As per the wishes of the Government of Assam, the Dolu Tea Estate Authority communicated the decision of acquiring land in the plantation area to some trade unions working in the tea garden. After a process of negotiations, the Dolu Tea Company signed an agreement with the said unions on 22 January 2022, in the presence of the Deputy Labour Commissioner and the Assistant Labour Commissioner of the Cachar district. The agreement states that the Cachar Chah Sramik Union (affiliated to INTUC), the Barak Valley Chah Mazdoor Sangha (affiliated to BMS) and the Akhil Bharatiya Chah Mazdoor Sangha (affiliated to CITU) expressed their conditional consent to the construction of the airport on 2,500 bighas of land belonging to the Dolu tea plantation.
The ‘Declared’ Terms of the Agreement
The terms and conditions of the said unions are as follows:
1. The provident fund and gratuity dues payable to workers shall be paid together with the compensation dues to those evicted.
2. The management will gradually convert the kachha houses of workers in the plantation territory into concrete quarters. The agreement does not mention how many houses will be converted and within what time period.
3. The authorities will spend money on development works such as improvement of schools and improvement of football grounds.
4. The water station located at Lalgarh Tea Estate Branch, from which drinking water is supplied to the workers of the Lalgarh Tea Estate, will be dismantled and will be rebuilt subsequently.
5. The current wage arrears of Rs 2,000 lakh for permanent workers and Rs 1,000 lakh for temporary workers shall be paid.
6. Ambulances will be provided for workers to avail treatment at the garden hospital.
7. Even if land currently in the plantation area is released for building the airport, the names of the workers evicted will not be removed from the payrolls.
8. Roads will be constructed inside the garden.
This agreement may appear justified in terms of clauses but unfortunately they are not really backed by sufficient budgetary allocations or by developing any practical and viable plans for its implementation. It looks more like a fiction to satisfy the feelings and not like a realistic plan to safeguard job, wage and social security of the plantation workers. It is more a rhetoric and surrender than an agreement to safeguard the rights and livelihood of workers.
No Budgetary Allocation
It is to be noted that the airport to be set up at Dolu tea estate in Silchar was not included in the initial list of 21 greenfield airports announced by VK Singh, Minister of State for Civil Aviation, Government of India, in the Rajya Sabha in March 2020. It was only towards the end of a lengthy process of identifying land and finalising the budget for 21 airports that the question of another airport at Silchar came up. Thus, it is not clear whether the central government has allocated money for the airport at Silchar. We are also not aware whether the necessary environmental clearance has been sought for the construction of the airport.
Unless these doubts are clarified, no trade union can express its support for the acquisition of some major portion of the plantation land and the consequent stopping of plantation work. If budgetary allocations are not made, how can the livelihood of all workers involved in the plantation work be guaranteed?
The said agreement, which in a way, gives a green signal on behalf of the workers of the Dolu Tea Plantation to the company to stop plantation activities in the acquired land and is marked by several ambiguities and signals the potential loss of livelihood for thousands of workers of the plantation.
To begin with, the management and the said trade unions decided to keep the agreement confidential. If the rights and livelihood of the workers involved in the tea plantation are to be safeguarded via the agreement, why should it be kept confidential? Why should it be kept away from public scrutiny? CITU released a statement saying that that the airport is needed for the ‘development’ of the area. Should we not ask, the development at what cost? At the cost of livelihood of thousands of workers? Can such a loss of livelihood be agreed through an agreement by the trade unions themselves?
As the agreement is now in public domain, one can look at what it has promised to the workers of the plantation.
Thousands Being Thrown to the Winds
Clearly, the most important question concerning trade unions is the question of jobs and livelihoods of the workers of the Dolu Tea Company who are likely to be evicted when the land is converted into an airport. The agreement claims that no worker’s name will be deleted from the payrolls. Workers in the tea plantation include permanent, contractual and other unregistered workers. Amongst them, permanent workers constitute a meagre percentage of the total workforce involved. How can the temporary and unregistered workers of the tea plantation be included in the payrolls? Have they been counted and consulted before signing the agreement between trade unions and the company? It can be safely said that majority of the workers, more than 2000 of them, are going to be evicted without any compensation, guarantee of jobs or a right to bargain through a union of their will and choice.
Can ‘Pay Roll’ Mean ‘Jobs’?
Even if we assume that some continue to remain on the payrolls, will they be given jobs? If they are not to be given jobs, will they be paid wages without any job? Will not the joblessness lead to retrenchment very easily? Can’t their rights be easily targeted and violated? The agreement is silent on these issues. This clearly indicates that even if some workers continue to remain in the payrolls of the Company, their rights as workers are bound to be snatched away.
Statutory Rights Being Compromised Through Agreement?
The agreement mentions guarantee of payment of arrears of Provident Fund and gratuity to the workers after the company receives compensation from the government for the shutdown of work. It also says that pending wages of Rs 2,000 lakh (Rs 20 crore) for permanent workers and Rs 1,000 lakh (Rs 10 crore) for temporary workers are yet to be paid. Payment of these wages are also a part of the agreement. It would have been fair if they are paid before the land is acquired. But, it says that it will be paid only after the compensation is received after the legal transfer of the land. This is another surrender by the unions. In fact, no union of workers will accept any sales until workers dues are settled. But, unfortunately, the unions that are party to the settlement have agreed for sales before settling workers dues. Provident fund, gratuity dues and timely payment of wages are existing legal rights of the workers. Normally, it should have been enforced by the enforcement machinery of the government. Generally, such statutory points should have nothing to do with an agreement regarding eviction of plantation workers. We believe that such basic rights which are mandatory cannot be claimed to be a big achievement of the unions through an agreement for the handover of plantation land which is bound to result in loss of livelihoods of workers.
Ambulance After Closure?
Another provision of the agreement says that ambulances will be provided. This means that there was no ambulance in such a large tea plantation till now. Mr. Hemanta Biswas Sharma, the present chief minister of Assam himself, has been in charge of the Health Ministry for the last fifteen years. Even then, the Dolu garden hospital was not equipped with an ambulance and the same, ironically, is being promised now, after closure.
Alternative Source of Water
The agreement states that the Lalgarh branch water reservoir will be demolished and a new one will be constructed. What will the workers of Lalgarh do if the existing water reservoir is removed without providing alternative water reservoirs? There is no answer in the agreement.
Rights of Workers
A Left trade union issued a statement regarding their position on the Greenfield Airport in Dolu. They have welcomed the construction of the airport and have talked about concerns regarding the rights of workers. They also have reiterated the terms of the said agreement. They have also said that concerns regarding livelihood of workers have been adequately addressed in the agreement.
The point remains, however, that the defence of workers’ rights mentioned in the said statement are not reflected in the agreement. If there is no need to worry about rights of workers, then why did the union, CITU in this case, consent to the agreement being kept confidential?
Why Blame Workers for Agitation?
The CITU statement also questions the agitation by workers in Moynargarh branch of the Dolu Plantation. It is unfortunate to see that a trade union is issuing a statement to disown and vilify an agitation by workers. The very fact that the protest by workers of Moynargarh itself indicates their dissent against the agreement and also indicates their fear towards the threat of losing their livelihoods. If the workers have not been consulted in the process of negotiations, if they have not been guaranteed their livelihoods, how can a trade union want them to be silent and approve the plan of the government and the management?
Livelihood of the Community of Tea Tribes
This is not the first time that a plantation land is being sold or transferred to others. Tea plantations is a labour intensive industry and can involve a large number of workers, rarely seen in other industries. Therefore, the government should stop this transfer as it involves issues of livelihood and employment of a larger community of tea tribes. In this case, around 2,500 workers are employed in 2,500 bighas of land in all seasons. The government’s socalled ‘development plans’ are snatching away the future and the livelihood of these workers which should be opposed tooth and nail by any responsible trade union.
AICCTU is committed to safeguard the interests of tea workers who are also mainly of tea tribes in Assam.