BJP aims to retain LS seat in tea belts of Alipurduar; TMC hopes for turnaround | Kolkata - Hindustan Times
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BJP aims to retain LS seat in tea belts of Alipurduar; TMC hopes for turnaround

Apr 11, 2024 02:33 PM IST

Alipurduar, a reserved seat for the Scheduled Tribe (ST) is going to polls on April 19 along with two other constituencies in N Bengal, Jalpaiguri & Cooch Bear

Kalchini: It was mid-day and the one-hour lunch break had just ended at the Malangi Tea Garden in West Bengal’s northern part’s Alipurduar district. Men and women workers of the garden were busy plucking the green leaves and buds from plants inside the lush green plantation before throwing them in bags, while 40-year-old Subhash Lohar was keeping a constant vigil so that there was no laxity before the workers call it a day.

Alipurduar, a reserved seat for the Scheduled Tribe (ST) is going to polls on April 19. (HT photo)
Alipurduar, a reserved seat for the Scheduled Tribe (ST) is going to polls on April 19. (HT photo)

“We know its election time because political parties have already started visiting the villages. One usually doesn’t get to see them once the elections are over. They will come with a range of promises. Once the elections are over, they will fade along with their promises,” said Lohar, a sardar (supervisor) in the garden, smiling chucklingly.

Alipurduar, a reserved seat for the Scheduled Tribe (ST) is going to polls on April 19 along with two other constituencies in north Bengal – Jalpaiguri and Cooch Bear - in the first phase of the coming Lok Sabha elections.

“This time it could be a close fight. Even though the BJP has made inroads in the tea-belt in 2019, the Mamata Banerjee-led government has left no stone unturned to woo the people of this belt in the last five years,” said Gopal Oraon, 42, who runs a small tea stall from a house constructed by the state government for tea garden workers as a part of the Cha Sundari project at Torsha tea garden.

There are 283 tea gardens spread over the hills, Terai and Dooars region of three Lok Sabha constituencies – Darjeeling, Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri – in north Bengal. The 3.5 lakh-strong workforce in these gardens comprising Gorkhas, Mundas and Oraons are key to at least 15 assembly seats, in the three constituencies.

 

There are 283 tea gardens spread over the hills.
There are 283 tea gardens spread over the hills.

While there are 154 tea gardens in the Dooars region of Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri districts, which go to polls during the first phase of the election on April 19, polling in Darjeeling which has 42 gardens in the Terai region and 87 in the hilly areas, is scheduled on April 26 during the second phase.

“While both Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar were bastions of the Left Front in the past, the TMC snatched them for the first time in 2014. The party couldn’t, however, hold on to it and in 2019 both the seats in the tea belt were wrested by the BJP when the saffron party made deep inroads in north Bengal. Only time will tell which party will have the last word on June 4 when the results are declared,” said Mahendra Thapa, an NGO worker, said while having a chat over a cup of tea at a local stall.

Also Read:BJP MLA says he’ll fight as independent if party fields ‘outsider’ candidate in Darjeeling LS seat

The tea was made of the CTC (crush, tear, curl) variety which is produced in the Terai and Dooars tea gardens. The internationally branded premium Darjeeling tea is produced in gardens in the hills.

Alipurduar was carved out as a separate district from Jalpaiguri in June 2014.

According to the 2011 census, Jalpaiguri has 37% SC population while ST population comprises 17% of the district. More than 80% of the population of Alipurduar comprises SC and ST.

The two major parties in fray – the ruling TMC and its arch-rival the BJP - have fielded their candidates keeping in mind these factors revolving around the tea belt.

In Alipurduar, the BJP has dropped the name of its sitting MP John Barla and has pitted Manoj Tigga, a tribal leader and a sitting MLA of Madarihat. The TMC on the other hand has also fielded a tribal leader and a tea garden employee who is also the party’s Rajya Sabha member Prakash Chik Baraik.

“The BJP will get a jolt of 440 volts this time. Ask the people what has its MP done over the past five years and how much of its MPLAD fund has he spent? On the other hand, Mamata Banerjee has laid special focus on the tea belt and has come up with houses for workers (Cha Sundari), distributed land deeds,” said Baraik, while speaking during a campaign trail.

West Bengal finance minister Chandrima Bhattacharya, while tabling the 2024-25 state budget on February 8, had said that homestead pattas have been provided to 23,000 tea garden workers and they are being given financial assistance up to 1.20 lakh for construction of dwelling units under Cha-Sundari extension scheme.

“So far, under the ongoing Cha-Sundari Scheme, construction of 4,022 single storied dwelling units in 17 sites in Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri districts have been approved and construction of 1,171 single storied dwelling units have been completed,” Bhattacharya had stated.

HT Photo
HT Photo

The Tea Tourism and Allied Business Policy, 2019 is aimed at promoting eco-friendly tourism in the unutilized and fallow lands of the tea gardens.

“There is no doubt that the state government has done a lot for the tea garden workers. We get 500 per month as financial assistance from the government and free ration. Even though workers in some tea gardens have been allotted dwelling units under the Cha Sundari project, we are yet to receive it,” said Sabitri Lama, 58, whose husband works as a supervisor at Central Dooars Tea Estate close to the Indo-Bhutan border.

The TMC is also trying to gain out of the BJP’s internal conflict this time. Bickering has already started within the BJP after the party dropped its sitting MP and Union minister John Barla.

In the past, the latter has been vocal over the demand of a separate Gorkhaland state carved out of north Bengal alleging that the region lacked development over the years. The TMC was prompt in making the most of the issue and attacked BJP for attempting to divide the state into two.

“Tigga and some other state leaders have conspired against me and given wrong information to the central leadership. It is because of them that I didn’t get the ticket,” Barla told media persons soon after BJP announced Tigga as the candidate.

He, however, toned down a few days later and said he would campaign for Tigga.

“We don’t decide who will be the candidate. The BJP has its parliamentary board. I never knew that I was going to be a candidate. I don’t mind if someone says anything. I had a word with him. His wife was ill. He said that he would join the campaign,” Tigga had said.

On the other hand, the BJP, which bagged seven out of eight seats in north Bengal in 2019 riding on the promise of CAA and RSS framework among local tribals, is upbeat about retaining the seats in the tea belt.

“We had won the Alipurduar seat by more than 2.4 lakh votes. We will win it again this time. The TMC government is cheating the people of this region. On one hand they say there are no closed tea gardens while on the other hand they say we will open the closed gardens. So, which one is correct? They are also misleading people with the land pattas. People in the tea gardens in Darjeeling hills have also objected against the patta where they will be given a land of only five decimals,” Tigga said.

Alipurduar was carved out as a separate district from Jalpaiguri in June 2014.
Alipurduar was carved out as a separate district from Jalpaiguri in June 2014.

TMC leader said that even though the BJP won the Lok Sabha seat in 2019 and managed to clinch all seven assembly seats in Alipurduar in 2021, the TMC was able to win 58 out of the 64 panchayats in 2023. In 2022, the TMC won 16 out of the 20 seats in Alipurduar municipality and all 18 seats in the Falakata civic body.

“What do we get if the TMC or the BJP wins? Will the situation change? Will our wages be increased, and will we get proper hospitals?” said Gopal Oraon, a tea garden worker and a resident of Bibarey in Kalchini.

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