The Supreme Court, on Wednesday, directed four States to make an interim payment of approximately Rs. 127 crores to tea garden workers whose legal dues had remained unpaid for over 15 years now.
The Bench comprising Justice S.A. Bobde and Justice L.N. Rao directed the States of Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal to make the payments on a contempt petition filed by the International Union of Food Association and the Paschim Banga Khet Majdoor Samity.
During the hearing, Senior advocate Colin Gonzalves, who appeared for the NGO, contended that despite the Court's directives to this effect, the tea estate owners had refused to comply. This, he asserted, amounted to contempt of court.
The Centre then pointed out that the dues of the workmen amounted to Rs. 249 crores in Assam, Rs. 27 crores in Kerala, Rs. 70 crores in Tamil Nadu and Rs. 30 crores in West Bengal. Consequently, the States were directed to pay approximately half of such dues within 60 days.
The Court also directed officials of all companies running tea estates to appear before it on the next date of hearing.
The story so far
It was in 2003 that a committee on plantation labor appointed by the Centre had found that out of the 4819 registered plantations, 1367 had defaulted in the payment of workers’ dues, with the largest default occurring in the plantations of Kerala, Assam and West Bengal.
Thereafter, the Centre, through the Tea Board, introduced a Tea Quality Upgradation and Product Diversification Scheme for the period from 1 April 2007 to 31 March 2012, where Rs.1500 crores were allocated for the tea gardens. However, the workers of closed tea gardens did not benefit from this.
The matter then reached the Supreme Court. The petition before it concerned roughly 3 lakh workers in the sick and closed tea gardens in the States of West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal. It had pointed out that 240 workers had died of starvation between March 2002 and February 2003.
The Supreme Court had then, in August, 2010, taken note of the plight of the workers of these abandoned tea estates, and had directed the Central Government to carry out its statutory duties under the provisions of the Tea Act, 1953 [sections 16B, 16C, 16D, and 16E] within a period of six months.