Labour union raises concerns over housing scheme for Bengal tea workers

Pashchim Banga Cha Majoor Samiti Study presents analytical report based on RTI, workers’ replies; shows scheme will reduce income, increase cost of living

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Wednesday 01 March 2023
The scheme’s objective focused on providing houses to permanent tea garden workers who have no houses due to lower economic conditions. Photo: iStock
The scheme’s objective focused on providing houses to permanent tea garden workers who have no houses due to lower economic conditions. Photo: iStock The scheme’s objective focused on providing houses to permanent tea garden workers who have no houses due to lower economic conditions. Photo: iStock

Labour activists have raised serious concerns about the Chaa Sundari housing scheme launched in West Bengal in March 2022. Under the scheme, labourers working in tea gardens would be provided homes under the parja patta (land document) rights.

The housing scheme may not even meet the actual requirements of the tea plantation workers, a study by labour union  conducted in 2022 found. It can eventually deteriorate their life by increasing the cost of living and eroding their cultural and community values, the union said. 

A ground report on the response of the Tea Garden community was conducted in consultation with architect Debasmita Ghosh in the backdrop of the recent announcement of land documents and land allotment for tea plantation workers during the state budget speech.

Read more: Why Bengal tea workers feel let down by political parties

The budget announced only five decimals of land on inheritable but non-transferable land for each family. The new plots are on new land and not on the existing homesteads where the workers live, which are larger than the proposed space. 

The analytical report is based on government responses under Right To Information (RTI) and interviews with the tea plantation workers. Each family with a size of about eight people used to have one permanent worker, it revealed. 

However, there has not been any recruitment by the management since 1999. Moreover, the administration had already provided houses to the workers simultaneously, making the scheme redundant.

Other labourers in tea plantations are temporary or daily wagers who cannot access the scheme’s benefits. Interviews with over 100 workers noted they were concerned about where the other family members who are not permanent once the houses are allotted will stay. 

Additionally, the proposal does not consider the individual courtyards and other cultural spaces of morning prayers and other rituals called sarna. The tea workers, mainly from the Adivasi community, fear being deprived of their cultural values. 

There are about 23 various rituals, customs, festivals and religious customs practised by the tribals, the field study observed. Of this, 15 are followed in individual plots, while others are community driven. The proposed scheme allegedly disregards the traditional practices of the locals.

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Families of about 7-8 members earn about Rs 5,000 a month. However, each house grows vegetables and leafy greens and rears animals such as cows, pigeons, rabbits, pigs, chickens, rats, bees and others for sustenance. 

They also plant different tea varieties, which helps them earn an additional income of Rs 10,000 a month. The proposed scheme layout scraps the opportunity and will lead to a drop in income. 

The acceptance of the scheme is likely to increase their cost of living. Due to poor income, the families heavily rely on wood fuel for cooking and other needs, reducing fuel expenditure, the study said. 

However, the new proposed houses only have a provision for cooking gas that increases the living cost by at least Rs 1,150 to procure cooking gas, thereby increasing the overall expenses by 20 per cent. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) is not accessible either.

The scheme has allotted Rs 5.43 lakh per unit, but the workers have argued that even half the amount if spent on existing houses will suffice to repair the houses and lead a comfortable life. It will waste resources, the report further stated.

The Cha Sundari units use non-native materials such as gypsum board for false ceilings and fly-ash bricks for walls. With the absence of locally available materials in  tea gardens, procuring them for maintenance will become a costly affair.

Instead of adopting the consultative approach towards implementing the scheme, the workers have complained about intimidation, threats and spreading of misinformation about the scheme.

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The community has also narrated that the Block Development Officers (BDO) informed them that accepting the scheme will deprive them of other housing schemes, such as Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. 

This would permanently bind them to tea garden workers as it is only heritable and non-transferable. So if the workers wish to continue to stay, they will have to work in the tea plantations permanently. 

The West Bengal government in 2019 passed Tea Tourism and Allied Business Policy to allot 15 per cent or a maximum of 150 acres of land for tourism and other businesses, the union claimed. 

“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,” it said.

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