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Over 40,000 tea garden workers in Assam battling for survival as ACIL delay hits welfare plan

By PTI
Over 40,000 tea garden workers in Assam battling for survival as ACIL delay hits welfare plan
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Representational image (Photo: PTI)

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Guwahati/New Delhi, Feb 23: Over 40,000 tea garden workers in upper Assam are being allegedly forced to live in dilapidated homes without access to proper healthcare and education due to an over three-year delay in fulfilment of welfare promises made by their employer -- a major global conglomerate facing fraud and forgery charges.

The workers from adivasi communities are employed in 14 tea gardens of the 182-year-old Assam Company India Limited (ACIL), which was acquired by billionaire B R Shetty-owned BRS ventures in 2018 after approval from the National Company Law Tribunal.

The ACIL, however, refuted the allegations, saying the management was committed to improving the lives of workers and blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for the delay in the implementation of the proposed welfare plan.

BRS ventures acquired the stressed ACIL in 2018 after it submitted in the NCLT a resolution plan that along with the purchase money it will also spend Rs 150 crore within six months of acquisition for the welfare of garden workers.

The plan involved renovation of staff quarters, building a multi-speciality hospital, drinking water facilities, labourers welfare, gratuity and proper provident fund according to the Plantation Labour Act, 1951.

This act becomes mandatory for the government and the private companies to adhere to it when they venture into this sector.

The workers claimed that they were given written assurances by the company about the elaborate welfare plan that it had chalked out for them and also included promoting tourism in the region.

However, abandoning their staff quarters and moving to higher land due to floods in the monsoon season and braving chilly winters inside their crumbling homes are a grim reality that they have to face every year.

Adding to their woes is the lack of fully-functioning community health centres and educational institutions for their children - both assured by BRS ventures during the acquisition.

According to the leaders of unions representing the workers, BRS ventures, which is facing fraud and forgery charges in the UK and UAE, took over the tea gardens in 2018.

And of all the bidders, ACIL voluntarily showed interest in spending Rs 150 crore on the welfare of workers and other staff involved in the daily operation, they claimed.

But once the acquisition was done, BRS ventures did conveniently ignored the assurance given to the workers of the tea gardens which are spread over 14,000 hectares and produce 15 million kg of premium tea annually.

Assam alone accounts for more than half of India's tea production. The estimated annual average production of tea in the state is about 630-700 million kg.

"B R Shetty is unreachable and his officers here don't respond to our memorandums on the matter. It feels as if our people have been cheated. We looked at him as a messiah who would take care of the workers along with the gardens. However, it was all a mere hoax," Lakindra Kurmi, general secretary of Assam Tea Tribes Students' Association (ATTSA), told PTI.

Leave aside the basic facilities, the company has now started withdrawing its financial deposits which are meant for the basic maintenance of the gardens. This exposes their malicious intentions, Kurmi alleged.

"We suspect B R ventures is conspiring a massive fraud just like what it has done in the UAE and the UK. They are operating in a very surreptitious way. Our people are in a fix and don't know what to do," Kurmi said.

Shetty, a billionaire, has reportedly flown to India as legal problems continue to mount for his UAE-based companies NMC Health and UAE Exchange. The group reportedly has a financial debt of USD 6.6 billion.

Also last year in February, the Karnataka High Court had rejected his plea against the action of the Bureau of Immigration restraining from leaving India based on lookout circulars issued by two public sector banks to whom his companies owe around Rs 2,800 crores, according to media reports.

The trade unions have repeatedly protested over the matter in the last one year and approached Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on February 3 urging him to look into the matter and not let BR ventures escape responsibility or commit a "UAE-type of fraud".

Pawan Singh Ghatowar, president of Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS), said the unions will be speaking to the top management of the company in the next 10 days to get clarity.

"The problem is that the resolution plan was submitted to the NCLT three years ago and now Shetty's empire in the middle east has crumpled like a house of cards. So, we don't know the exact status," Ghatowar told PTI.

He said the company has claimed it does not have any financial liability, however, the problem is that BRS venture has no bank finance to handle the gardens, he said.

"B R Shetty's firms may not have any liability in India but it has many outside the country. It remains to be seen what impact will it have here. We have told the government that they must ensure that this company should not shut down. Labour welfare has to be continued," Ghatowar, a senior Congress leader who has held labour and health portfolios in the central government in the past, said.

The life of over 40,000 workers is at stake and this can't be challenged, he added.

Playing down the claims, ACIL management said the company is in full compliance of the resolution plan submitted by the promoter group.

"Since the resolution plan was proposed keeping the socio-economic nature of the business, ACIL is committed to contributing to the development of the state and its people," Preetham Melantha, director of ACIL, told PTI.

"Some of these plans include promotion of travel and tourism and setting up of hospitals, educational facilities albeit the same not forming part of the approved resolution plan," he said.

He, however, blamed the COVID-19 pandemic as an obstacle in the execution of the welfare plan as committed in the NCLT.

"COVID-19 has delayed the execution of these plans as some of the funds earmarked for setting up of hospitals had to be used in setting up of Covid care facilities in each of the gardens to ensure our work force have access to quarantine facilities within the garden premises," Melantha said.

The pandemic broke out in India in March 2020 whereas the acquisition was done in 2018. The company had enough time to implement the welfare plan, the workers argued.

Melanta, who recently took over as the director of ACIL, said the company has launched a pilot digital education initiative at one of the tea estates to provide the best available online tutoring for children of the tea garden workers.

The workers admitted that the initiative was launched but claimed nothing happened after that and no child is getting any benefit.

"The children continue to suffer due to lack of proper education," Kurmi said.

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Over 40,000 tea garden workers in Assam battling for survival as ACIL delay hits welfare plan

Guwahati/New Delhi, Feb 23: Over 40,000 tea garden workers in upper Assam are being allegedly forced to live in dilapidated homes without access to proper healthcare and education due to an over three-year delay in fulfilment of welfare promises made by their employer -- a major global conglomerate facing fraud and forgery charges.

The workers from adivasi communities are employed in 14 tea gardens of the 182-year-old Assam Company India Limited (ACIL), which was acquired by billionaire B R Shetty-owned BRS ventures in 2018 after approval from the National Company Law Tribunal.

The ACIL, however, refuted the allegations, saying the management was committed to improving the lives of workers and blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for the delay in the implementation of the proposed welfare plan.

BRS ventures acquired the stressed ACIL in 2018 after it submitted in the NCLT a resolution plan that along with the purchase money it will also spend Rs 150 crore within six months of acquisition for the welfare of garden workers.

The plan involved renovation of staff quarters, building a multi-speciality hospital, drinking water facilities, labourers welfare, gratuity and proper provident fund according to the Plantation Labour Act, 1951.

This act becomes mandatory for the government and the private companies to adhere to it when they venture into this sector.

The workers claimed that they were given written assurances by the company about the elaborate welfare plan that it had chalked out for them and also included promoting tourism in the region.

However, abandoning their staff quarters and moving to higher land due to floods in the monsoon season and braving chilly winters inside their crumbling homes are a grim reality that they have to face every year.

Adding to their woes is the lack of fully-functioning community health centres and educational institutions for their children - both assured by BRS ventures during the acquisition.

According to the leaders of unions representing the workers, BRS ventures, which is facing fraud and forgery charges in the UK and UAE, took over the tea gardens in 2018.

And of all the bidders, ACIL voluntarily showed interest in spending Rs 150 crore on the welfare of workers and other staff involved in the daily operation, they claimed.

But once the acquisition was done, BRS ventures did conveniently ignored the assurance given to the workers of the tea gardens which are spread over 14,000 hectares and produce 15 million kg of premium tea annually.

Assam alone accounts for more than half of India's tea production. The estimated annual average production of tea in the state is about 630-700 million kg.

"B R Shetty is unreachable and his officers here don't respond to our memorandums on the matter. It feels as if our people have been cheated. We looked at him as a messiah who would take care of the workers along with the gardens. However, it was all a mere hoax," Lakindra Kurmi, general secretary of Assam Tea Tribes Students' Association (ATTSA), told PTI.

Leave aside the basic facilities, the company has now started withdrawing its financial deposits which are meant for the basic maintenance of the gardens. This exposes their malicious intentions, Kurmi alleged.

"We suspect B R ventures is conspiring a massive fraud just like what it has done in the UAE and the UK. They are operating in a very surreptitious way. Our people are in a fix and don't know what to do," Kurmi said.

Shetty, a billionaire, has reportedly flown to India as legal problems continue to mount for his UAE-based companies NMC Health and UAE Exchange. The group reportedly has a financial debt of USD 6.6 billion.

Also last year in February, the Karnataka High Court had rejected his plea against the action of the Bureau of Immigration restraining from leaving India based on lookout circulars issued by two public sector banks to whom his companies owe around Rs 2,800 crores, according to media reports.

The trade unions have repeatedly protested over the matter in the last one year and approached Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on February 3 urging him to look into the matter and not let BR ventures escape responsibility or commit a "UAE-type of fraud".

Pawan Singh Ghatowar, president of Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS), said the unions will be speaking to the top management of the company in the next 10 days to get clarity.

"The problem is that the resolution plan was submitted to the NCLT three years ago and now Shetty's empire in the middle east has crumpled like a house of cards. So, we don't know the exact status," Ghatowar told PTI.

He said the company has claimed it does not have any financial liability, however, the problem is that BRS venture has no bank finance to handle the gardens, he said.

"B R Shetty's firms may not have any liability in India but it has many outside the country. It remains to be seen what impact will it have here. We have told the government that they must ensure that this company should not shut down. Labour welfare has to be continued," Ghatowar, a senior Congress leader who has held labour and health portfolios in the central government in the past, said.

The life of over 40,000 workers is at stake and this can't be challenged, he added.

Playing down the claims, ACIL management said the company is in full compliance of the resolution plan submitted by the promoter group.

"Since the resolution plan was proposed keeping the socio-economic nature of the business, ACIL is committed to contributing to the development of the state and its people," Preetham Melantha, director of ACIL, told PTI.

"Some of these plans include promotion of travel and tourism and setting up of hospitals, educational facilities albeit the same not forming part of the approved resolution plan," he said.

He, however, blamed the COVID-19 pandemic as an obstacle in the execution of the welfare plan as committed in the NCLT.

"COVID-19 has delayed the execution of these plans as some of the funds earmarked for setting up of hospitals had to be used in setting up of Covid care facilities in each of the gardens to ensure our work force have access to quarantine facilities within the garden premises," Melantha said.

The pandemic broke out in India in March 2020 whereas the acquisition was done in 2018. The company had enough time to implement the welfare plan, the workers argued.

Melanta, who recently took over as the director of ACIL, said the company has launched a pilot digital education initiative at one of the tea estates to provide the best available online tutoring for children of the tea garden workers.

The workers admitted that the initiative was launched but claimed nothing happened after that and no child is getting any benefit.

"The children continue to suffer due to lack of proper education," Kurmi said.