A parliamentary panel has drawn the Centre’s attention to the tea industry’s worst-kept secret while recommending a slew of measures, including reviewing the India-Nepal treaty to rejuvenate the ailing sector.
The Parliamentary standing committee on commerce, in its latest report listed influx of “cheap tea” from Nepal, “abject” working and “inhuman” living conditions of tea labourers and denial of “decent living wages” to workers as some of the factors impacting the industry’s growth.
Tea bodies have been trying to flag these issues for long. However, there has not been any success.
“Now that the parliamentary panel has raised the issue, hopefully the government will pay some attention to addressing them,” said CITU leader and former Rajya Sabha MP Saman Pathak.
The committee tabled its report on “issues affecting the Indian tea industry, especially in the Darjeeling region” in the current session of Parliament.27
In the report, the committee noted that “unhampered and easy influx” of substandard tea from neighbouring countries, especially Nepal is jeopardising the tea industry of India.
“It is appalling to observe that the imports of inferior quality tea from Nepal are being sold and re-exported as premium Darjeeling tea. This dilutes the global brand image of India and also affects the domestic tea prices,” it observed.
The committee said such fake tea also undermines the current government’s vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat or self-reliant India.
The committee’s recommendations
The committee recommended the government to “review and revisit” the Indo-Nepal treaty to counter the import of low quality and cheap tea by making the administrative framework and import inspection regime more robust.
“An investigation should be conducted by Directorate General of Trade Remedies (DGTR) on the dumping of tea from Nepal for suggesting remedial measures and imposition of anti-dumping duty on imported tea,” the committee further suggested.
On the socio-economic condition of the tea workers, the committee said their “abject working and inhumane living conditions” is reminiscent of the “indentured labor” introduced in colonial times by British planters.
The committee was of the view that “inadequacy and absence of political will” in executing Plantations Labour Act, 1951 has led to the deterioration of working standards of tea labourers.
To reverse the situation, the panel asked the government to ensure welfare measures, health and housing benefits and decent working conditions for labourers in the tea sector.
It said the government should prepare a database of plantation workers at the earliest for extending welfare facilities to the targeted beneficiaries.
It also recommended speedy implementation of Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 so as to stipulate obligations for providing welfare benefits in both cash and kind components to the tea workers.
The committee also took serious note of the denial of land rights to the tea workers in West Bengal and poor wages paid to them in the state.
The minimum wages for unskilled workers in the agriculture sector in the state is pegged at around ₹271 per day, around ₹298 per day for semi-skilled and around ₹328 per day for skilled workers, the committee pointed out.
However, it said, despite being a highly skilled job, the workers of tea gardens are being paid a minimal amount of around ₹202 per day as wages, which is among the lowest wages paid to any industrial worker in the country.
The committee was also informed that the workers of tea gardens of Dooars region of the state are paid as low as around ₹130 per day while rest of the wage amount is given in kind or as fringe benefits.
The government must take all efforts for the upward revision and fixation of a minimum daily wage for tea workers “keeping pace” with the cost of living, it said.
In this regard, it recommended expediting “the implementation of Code on Wages, 2019 which would give a legal force and clarity on ‘in kind’ components and monetized value of facilities in a wage component.”
On the land rights not being conferred to the tea workers of Darjeeling, Dooars and Terai region of West Bengal on their own ancestral lands which they have toiled for generations, the parliamentary panel stressed the need for enacting a law to recognise the rights and ownership of small and marginalized tea workers to their ancestral lands and resources.
It asked the government to immediately undertake detailed scrutiny by a dedicated body of eminent persons on the present status of land rights or ‘Parja-Patta’ of tea workers of the region.
The committee also expressed concern over the pendency in the disbursal of tea subsidies.
It said the recent decision of the government to “deny any grant of pending subsidies on not receiving a sanction letter by the Tea Board even after the conclusion of developmental activities indicates nonchalance and ambiguities in decision making to clear the dues.”
The committee said that the permit to undertake developmental activities in the form of NOC is an assurance to the tea growers which should be a basis for reimbursement to tea growers and estates.
It said the government should “earnestly review” its decision in order to settle the outstanding subsidies of beneficiaries.
It further suggested that the role of the Tea Board should be redefined as a facilitator instead of a licenser.
The parliamentary panel also asked the Tea Board to take steps to extend special assistance to modernize and mechanize the tea industries of Darjeeling and other North Bengal districts in collaboration with the NABARD.
It also recommended the Centre provide a financial package as a revival mechanism for the Darjeeling tea sector.