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Bengal tea garden workers exploit note ban, draw 10 times their wages from bank

Sulagna Sengupta | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:37 IST

As the common Indian continues to face a cash crunch due to the ban on Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes, reports have emerged of a demonetisation-related scam in northern West Bengal.

An investigation carried out by the North Bengal Secretariat found that almost 2,000 tea garden workers in the Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts had withdrawn about 10 times the money due to them as wages from a nationalised bank in Siliguri.

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the demonetisation scheme on 8 November, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had issued instructions that the district administrations' accounts would be used by the tea industry to disburse wages.

But since all this was arranged in a hurry, the state government failed to provide a proper list of tea garden workers whose wages were to be paid this way.

This paved the way for people to draw much more than was due to them. That the nationalised bank in Siliguri did not even ask for identity proof before giving away the wages only compounded the problem.

As a result, workers from two tea gardens in particular - the Mintri tea estate and the Bamandanga tea estate - withdrew their wages plus Rs 2,500 each, according to a report by the administration. By the time this was noticed, workers had already withdrawn in excess of Rs 16 crore, whereas the net amount of wages would've amounted to no more than Rs 1.6 crore.

Lessons learnt?

The Darjeeling hills and Dooars region of Bengal have 283 tea gardens, employing 3.5 lakh permanent and casual workers, who earn Rs 132.50 per day. The belt has another 40,000 small growers, which employ about one lakh labourers.

After receiving a report about this scam, top officials of the state home department said they had asked the district administrations to send proper data about the number of tea garden workers to all the branches of the nationalised bank, and to also check some documents, such as Aadhar card, voter ID card, as well as the card of the respective tea gardens they work at. Only then will workers be able to withdraw the cash.

In a meeting with the officials of the tea board in West Bengal, it was decided that one day will be fixed every week for disbursing wages.

Barun Kumar Ray, divisional commissioner of the Jalpaiguri division (which encompasses seven districts of north Bengal), who is looking after the welfare of the tea garden workers, admitted that the administration had received reports of irregularities, but said it had already taken measures to curb such incidents in the future.

"We have already intimated the banks to verify documents before giving the wages to the tea garden workers, and we have also submitted to all the banks in the entire north Bengal region the number of tea garden workers as well as the identification documents of the tea garden workers," he said.

The Minister for North Bengal Development, Goutam Deb, added: "We are fighting against demonetisation, and the district administrations have already taken steps to curb irregularities at tea gardens in North Bengal."

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 24 November 2016, 11:04 IST