Government weighs take-over of closed tea gardens

The government is weighing plans to take over closed tea gardens and sell them to prospective buyers through a tendering process to get them up and running, minister of state for commerce Jairam Ramesh said.

He said at least 33 small gardens have been shut for over two years in the states of West Bengal, Assam and Kerala, after yields from their ageing tea bushes plummeted.

The government has held several rounds of talks with the owners, but has failed to reopen the plantations.

"Since many gardens are still shut, the state-run Tea Board has been directed on behalf of the government to start a process... to take over the gardens," Ramesh said at a news conference.

The government will initially takeover about three gardens, he said, without elaborating.

Last month, a court inquiry found hundreds of tea workers had died from diseases linked with malnutrition over the past year after the closure of tea estates in West Bengal left them with no income.

While plantation owners blame it on the country''s strong regulations to protect workers'' rights that make it impossible for companies to remove staff, trade unions say that estate owners have failed pay wages and other arrears owed to workers following the shutdown and are now fighting the employers for compensation in court.
Ramesh said India, the world''s largest producer and consumer of tea, aimed to export $7 billion worth of leather goods by the fiscal year ending March 2011, up from $3 billion in 2006-07.

The commerce ministry will invest Rs64 crore ($15.7 million) by mid-2008 to build centres from potato and pineapple processing to a cargo complex in West Bengal to help boost farm exports, he said.