Assam again revises deadline for cashless wage transfers in tea gardens

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The Assam government missed the second consecutive deadline to pay tea workers' wages via bank transfers, and fell back on the existing mode of cash payment through the district magistrate's office. This process of paying the wages in cash will continue till January 5 next year, and will cover the December 30-31 pay cycle.

In a bid to ensure transparency in wages and promote digitisation, the state government had, just after demonetisation, set a deadline of December 5 for banks and tea gardens to open accounts for the 11,00,000 strong workforce and pay the wages via bank transfers. Banks were instructed to open branches or ATMs, or arrange for suitable means to facilitate cash withdrawal on the payday.

However, faced with challenges of remoteness of the gardens and high rate of illiteracy among workers, the deadline could not be met and had to be extended to December 15 this year. Again, with bank accounts for 30 per cent of the workforce still pending and the banks' inability to arrange for suitable cash withdrawal options on payday, the deadline to switch over to bank-based wage transfers has been again extended to January 5 next year

Around 60 per cent of the 850-odd gardens in Assam are located in remote areas.

Industry officials also opined that the banks need to be more proactive in opening the accounts.

"Every time, they (banks) cannot consider profit and revenue to open and operate the accounts. Financial inclusion should also be an objective of the banking system and in case they find it unprofitable to open the accounts, the banks can treat it as corporate social responsibility," Raj Baroah, chairman of Aideobari Tea Estates said.

While the government has now revised the deadline, tea garden workers and estate owners alike doubt if the switchover can be met within the aforesaid time period.

"The revised target of January 5 as the last day to pay wages in cash looks unfeasible. Even if accounts are opened, these cannot be serviced, as proper infrastructure, especially telecommunications, is not in place," D N Boruah, chairperson of Lankashi Tea & Seed Estates said.

Gautam Barooah, director at Muktabari Tea Estates is also of the same view.

"Telecom connectivity and remoteness of the gardens is the biggest impediment. Besides, if workers queue up for salary withdrawal in front of an ATM or bank correspondent, the entire man-day is lost," he said.

Muktabari Tea Estates generally takes a maximum time of two hours to pay its 2,000-strong workforce in cash under normal circumstances.

Paban Singh Ghatowar, president of the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha, the largest tea workers' union, has approached the state government to continue cash payments for wages till the time bank accounts for all the workers could be opened and bank facilities provided. He expects the process to take at least another two months to roll out.

Recently, following a meeting between West Bengal's chief minister Mamata Banerjee and RBI governor, Urjit Patel, payment of wages via bank transfers as well as cash has been worked out for the tea garden workers in West Bengal.

Tea garden workers get 43-45 per cent of their total wages as cash component (Rs 130-150 daily) as the plantations are required to compulsorily arrange for free foodstuff, healthcare and other benefits for the workers employed.


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