GUWAHATI, Oct 26 � A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has been filed in the Gauhati High Court alleging �mismanagement and misutilisation of public money and fund allotted to the Assam Tea Corporation� and the resultant �suffering of the workmen and staff� of the ATC, with the petitioners requesting the Court to �constitute a high-power committee to find out the anomalies and irregularities being committed by officials of the Corporation�, for referring the matter for investigation by any Central investigating agency and for relief to the thousands of workers and staff of the firm.
The petition, by Hiranya Bora and Munin Mahanta, both former MLAs, has been filed in the court of Justice K Sreedhar Rao.
It cites the matter as �mismanagement and misutilisation of public money and fund allotted to the Assam Tea Corporation by the Government of Assam and as well as misutilisation of fund generated by the said Corporation, resulting in deprivation of the workmen and members of staff of the tea gardens owned and managed by ATC of their salaries, provident fund (PF), gratuities, rations, proper housing, water supply, sanitation, medical facilities, retirement benefits and other fringe benefits due to them and sufferance of organisational growth for misutilisation of fund� and also �sufferings of the workmen and the staff and the Organisation as a whole due to mismanagement and lack of proper planning, budget and proper financial management and accountability.�
The PIL names as respondent the Additional Chief Secretary to the Government of Assam, Industries and Commerce Department, the Commissioner and Secretary to the Government of Assam, Industries and Commerce Department, the Chairman of ATC, the ATC represented by its Vice Chairman cum Managing Director, and Harish Sonowal, Vice Chairman and Managing Director of ATC. There are also four other �proforma respondents�.
The petitioners have stated that they are social activists, �espousing the causes of the backward communities in the State of Assam,� specifically the tea workers working in various tea gardens in Assam.�
The PIL states that �the petitioners could gather the information regarding the present state of affairs of the tea gardens under the ATC... from Rameswar Dhanowar, who happens to be at present Chairman of the Corporation.�
It states that �the tea workers and employees working in the various tea gardens owned and managed by the Corporation, on account of their primitive condition and lack of education or material advantages due to the mismanagement and misuse of funds meant for the development of the gardens, are incapable of looking after their welfare and as such the tea workers and staff basically cannot ventilate their grievances through the court of law and other appropriate forum.�
As per the PIL, some dedicated trade union leaders and intellectuals held a seminar on August 24, 1969, at Jorhat and discussions were held to �discourage the selling out of various tea gardens of Assam to some vested interest at the cost of the society at large... Accordingly, a public meeting was held at Jorhat on August 8, 1970, in which leading citizens of Jorhat and other places were present. The present Chief Minister of Assam Tarun Gogoi was also one of the convenors of the said meeting.�
It further states that as per the decision arrived at the meeting, the Government of Assam had decided to constitute a Corporation with certain objectives, including to acquire, purchase and take over tea estates in Assam that are offered for sale from time to time and �which the Corporation, considers profitable, with all or any of its fixed and floating assets, goodwill rights, licences, quota rights, etc, and to pay for the same and to carry on the said business in such a manner and on such scale as may be considered desirable from time to time.�
Among the other objectives of the ATC, was to promote, purchase, lease, take control of, manage and/or develop tea estates in Assam, to safeguard the future of the tea industry and to protect the interests of workers and increase employment potentialities.�����
It states, �... accordingly the ATC, a public limited company was constituted� and adds that, �... the Government of Assam initially was pleased to sanction Rs 2 crore as a capital to the said Corporation. Thereafter, the Government of Assam sanctioned several crores of rupees as loan, grant-in-aid, etc, for proper management of the Corporation from time to time for upliftment of the Corporation as well as the miserable living conditions of the workers and staff members of the gardens.�
�... the Corporation was running smoothly but subsequently due to the mismanagement, the production of green leaf as well as teas declined, specifically in the recent years, it has again started deteriorating sharply,� the PIL states.
The petitioners say that they could learn that the conditions and the state of affairs of the tea gardens under ATC are very pathetic and deplorable.
�There are about 15 tea estates in the State of Assam under the management of the Corporation, engaging about 15,000 tea workers and staff members of the garden, involving about more than one lakh people depending upon their livelihood on the plight of the tea estates under the Corporation.�
The PIL also mentions a series of newspaper reports about the condition of these tea gardens and states that they throw light on the huge mismanagement and misuse of public money by the authorities of the Corporation.
�... due to the mismanagement... at present the production of green leaf has declined resulting in losing revenue earnings by the Corporation, as a result the workers and staffs of the tea gardens of the Corporation are deprived of their legitimate legal dues from the Corporation. As a consequence, some of them have to starve specially for non-payment of regular wages and salaries and supply of rations to the workers and staff of the gardens as contemplated under the provisions of various industry-wise bilateral and tripartite agreement. The management of the Corporation has miserably failed to implement the various provisions of Plantation Labour Act, 1951,� it states. The petition says that production of green leaf tea had declined from 1,92,62,351 kg in 2005 to 1,76,25,069 in 2013.
�Again from 2006 to 2009 and from 2010 to 2013 if year-wise decrease of green leaf production is calculated it will appear that over the period, the Corporation has incurred an accumulative production loss of green leaf by one crore 55 lakh 44 thousand kg, the value of which is around Rs 37.30 crore in the present day market. By generating such production through proper field practice, planning and management, the Corporation could have easily increased its revenue earnings,� the petitioners allege in the PIL.
It adds that �according to observation and knowledge, the Corporation is losing huge production of green leaf basically for mismanagement, lack of proper planning, not having a proper budget, defective pruning, tipping and plucking, defective cultural practices, lack of proper supervision, lack of accountability, not having awareness about cultural practices, costing, etc.�
The PIL adds that from 2007 to 2012-13 around 400 hectares of new plantation were created in different gardens of ATC from where production of green leaf was supposed to be increased by around 30 lakh kg, the value of which would be around Rs seven crore.
�For the mismanagement, instead of increasing, the production has dropped further and in 2013 production dropped even from the level of 2005... for the mismanagement and misuse of fund, the Corporation has not been able to revive since last 10 years. The Corporation is incurring heavy losses in revenue earnings... resulting in immense suffering of the tea workers and the staff of the Corporation,� says the PIL, adding that while the cost of green leaf and tea has gone up substantially over the years, the liabilities of ATC have in fact increased.
�In the year 2005 the liability of the Corporation was around Rs 120 crore which was at par with the value of assets of the Corporation. But by the end of 2013-14 instead of decreasing the liabilities by reviving the Corporation, its liability has gone up to around Rs 400 crore inclusive of liabilities for PF, gratuity, arrear wage and salaries, value of ration and other fringe benefits, etc, which is almost double the value of its assets... the liabilities of the Corporation in respect of payment of PF as on March 31, 2014, stood at Rs 1,31,89,94,373 including interest,� state the petitioners.
They say that even though the State government has allotted several crores of rupees to ATC but due to �mismanagement, misuse of fund, lack of budget, lack of proper long-term and short term planning, execution of day-to-day works properly, lack of monitoring and accountability, public money has been misused and losing revenue earnings, thereby dragging the Corporation from bad to worse.�