Today, seven years after it was abandoned by its exhausted owners in 2002, the tea bushes are unkempt, the statutory pruning and cropping hasn't been done for years and all the shade trees are gone. Shade trees are imperative for the growth of tea bushes. Asked what happened to these, the workers admitted that they had cut down all the trees themselves and sold the wood to contractors. In a plantation that is more than 100 years old, most of the shade trees were over 80 years old. According to Bhado Lohar, secretary of the local union, more than 10,000 shade trees have been felled that way. The contractor paid Rs 500 for each of the trees, many more than 50 years old.
The same was the fate of the machinery in the nearby Kathalguri Tea Leaf Processing factory. The factory was stripped down and the parts sold to feed starving mouths. "We all knew what was happening at the factory shed. But how we could we prevent it ? The men were so desperate!" reminisced Dayamanti Patel, who used to work in Kathalguri.
How did this happen? Dayamanti was candid. "Enough of the OMC, we need a proper owner for the garden," she said. Operating Managing Committees were the state government-supported organisations of workers that oversaw the sale of tea leaves to contractors in the absence of the owner/management. This system was put in place after a hue and cry in the media about hunger-related serial deaths in closed tea gardens.
But the story is not just about how these estates were closed but how they were ground into the dust by a nexus of some workers and contractors. Kalpana Kamin and many other workers in Kathalguri were of the same opinion: that the OMC had turned into another tool of oppression and what workers -- who are living a life at subsistence levels needed was proper management of the garden.
Unlike other industries that close, even a closed tea plantation continues to generate some revenue by selling its seasonal crop, the green leaf. In the first two months of this year, tea leaf from Kathalguri fetched up to Rs 17 a kilo.
The rate has come down to Rs 10 today. The average yield from the garden is 9,000 kg a day. Most workers are of the opinion that the OMC has become a prisoner of the contractors and the members of the OMC are more concerned about lining their own pockets.
The sale proceeds are supposed to be kept in bank under the close supervision of the district administration. But a cursory examination of the annual income and expenditure statements prepared by the OMC of the various closed gardens shows that lakhs of rupees remain unrealised. In Kathalguri the amount is Rs 21 lakh, which according to the present OMC spokesman Sushil Oraon, was not paid by S Bagchi, a contractor. Bagchi, however, denies the charge saying he made purchases only against cash payment.
This pattern is common to almost all the closed gardens. The Shikarpur Tea Estate, which according to the district administration is the best managed garden by any OMC, has in its statement of account a large sum of money listed under the head "unrealised" from contractors for which no explanation was forthcoming.
Several allegations are made by the workers against the OMC members. Each of the 1,479 workers was forced to make a one-time payment of Rs 300 each to the OMC for the restoration of the electricity in the garden. There is no trace of that fund.
Although vehemently rejecting the charges, Sushil Oraon, the convener of the present OMC of Kathalguri, was unable to explain how the funds went missing. He also admitted that the OMC had neither initiated any move to recover the "dues" nor lodged any complaint with the Block Development Officers. However, he maintained that now the contractors were selected through a tendering process to eliminate corruption.