Exploited for generations, tea garden workers struggle for land rights in Darjeeling hills, Terai, and Dooars

While tea ensured economic well-being for the Brit enterprises, it spelt doom for the local tribes

Raju Bista November 29, 2021 16:24:16 IST
Exploited for generations, tea garden workers struggle for land rights in Darjeeling hills, Terai, and Dooars

Tea garden workers. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Rupeshsarkar

Darjeeling is a name synonymous with the most famous and expensive tea in the world. The history of Darjeeling hills, Terai and Duars though ancient, is closely intertwined with the tea industry in the modern era. The British interest in the Darjeeling region was owing to its strategic location as a frontier outpost conveniently situated between Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and China. In 1835, they took over the region from Sikkim to establish a sanatorium for the soldiers. As the British interests in the region increased, so did their need to ensure the economic viability of their outpost. Experiments with various crops were undertaken, till finally in 1841 Dr Archibald Campbell, a surgeon with a passion for horticulture successfully grew tea bushes in his garden at Beechwood, Darjeeling.

Under the British, tea went on to become the mainstay of the economy for the entire North Bengal region and one of the most profitable trade. While tea ensured economic well-being for the Brit enterprises, it spelt doom for the local tribes. Their traditional lands were usurped, old-growth forests were cleared in favour of monoculture plantations, and revenue from the tea economy was used to make the British tea merchants and their families’ rich, at the cost of local tea garden workers and the environment.

Landless tea garden workers

Of all the discriminations faced by the tea garden workers, their deprivation in terms of land rights remains stark. To this day the tea garden workers do not have access to land. They may have worked in the gardens for generations, yet they do not have any Parja Patta (land rights) to their ancestral land and the homes they live in.

Even though land reforms were introduced across West Bengal from 1978 to the mid-1980s, through which sharecroppers and landless farmers were given land rights, but such reforms were not implemented in the tea belts of North Bengal. Even today, the majority of the people living in Darjeeling hills, Terai and Dooars do not have the parja patta rights i.e their ancestral lands registered in their names. The plantation workers continue to operate in a semi-feudal set-up, whereby if they do not send someone to work for the tea garden, the tea company holds the right to ask them to leave their ancestral homes because technically the land rights rest with the tea company and not the worker or his family.

In 2019 the West Bengal government permitted the tea companies to use 15% of the land in the garden for ‘alternative use purposes.’ Today, five-star hotels are being constructed in the tea gardens, but the workers continue to be deprived of their basic rights.

Landless Cinchona garden workers

Around the same time, starting from 1861-62 Cinchona plantations were set up in Darjeeling and Kalimpong hill region under the direction of Dr Thomson Anderson, Superintendent of the Royal Botanical Garden, Calcutta. For decades malaria had been the leading cause of death, and the British government needed these plantations to provide quinine to the hospitals. By 1906, Ranju Valley Block – comprising of Rangbi and Mungpoo Divisions; and Rayang Valley Block consisting of Sitong and Labdah Divisions had been established. Starting with Mungpoo (1862), Munsong (1901), Rongo (1938), and Latpanchar (1943) four quinine factories had been set up. At a point in time, these plantations were spread in an area of over 26,000 acres and provided direct employment to around 7,000 people.

However, much like in the tea industry, even those employed in these Cinchona gardens too were deprived of their land rights by the British. Sadly even 75-years after Independence, those working in the Cinchona gardens too are yet to get their parja patta (land) rights.

Landless forest villagers

In 2006, the Parliament of India passed the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 also known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA 2006). This landmark act recognises the rights of the forest villagers, tribal communities, and other traditional forest dwellers to forest resources for meeting their needs. The FRA 2006, requires that all forest villages inhabited by people must be converted into revenue villages and land rights and ownerships are to be transferred to the forest dwellers.

In 2013, the West Bengal government issued a notification to convert forest land to revenue villages across the state. Gazette notification for conversion of Forest Villages into Revenue villages was issued for the neighbouring districts of Jalpaiguri and Alipurduars in 2014 itself. However, the West Bengal government did not take any steps towards conferring the same rights to the forest dwellers of Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts where around 2.6 lakh people live in Forest Areas.

District Improvement Fund – A colonial tax system

Even after 75 years since Independence, around 24 Mouzas in both Kalimpong and Darjeeling districts have been kept under the so-called “District Improvement Fund” management system. Also known as the DI Fund system, it was developed by the British to prevent the locals from acquiring properties in the areas where white settlers were based. Under this regime, the district administration managed the land at their discretion and charged exorbitantly high revenue to keep the locals away.

Moreover, the funds generated under this system and revenues collected are not appropriated to the state exchequer, but rather it is used as a discretionary fund managed by the district administrator.

For the past 75 years, the succeeding West Bengal governments have continued with this unconstitutional land tenure system, whereby people living in these properties are being forced to pay exorbitantly high revenue on an annual basis, with no guarantee of permanent settlement.

Justice awaits, people hopeful

Even as our nation celebrates ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav,’ I must confess the people from Darjeeling hills, Terai and Dooars have not much to celebrate about. Nearly 90 percent of the people here are deprived of their Parja Patta land rights. This deprivation would not be possible anywhere else in the state or the country. But here in West Bengal, the minorities from the North Bengal region have been rendered politically too marginalised to be able to make their voices heard.

They await justice and the right to their land.

This is why people from the region have overwhelmingly supported Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In Modi they see their only hope to get justice from this tyrannical system, which has kept our people deprived of their natural rights even 75 years after Independence. They believe in Modi because he has broken through the traditional barriers and dismantled the generations-old discriminatory practices and customs that existed elsewhere.

People here know it’s just a matter of time before they too get justice, and get to live the promise of our independence – equality, dignity and freedom from exploitation

The author is a Member of Parliament from Darjeeling and national spokesperson for BJP.

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