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The Garden Route To Ulfa

Tata Tea is rocked by charges that it funded medical bills of a top ULFA leader and doled out other 'benefits'

The Garden Route To Ulfa

FOR tea giant Tata Tea, the last few years in Assam have been troublesome. First, its senior executive Bolin Bordoloi was kidnapped by Bodo militants and kept hostage for 11 months in 1993. Two more tea garden managers were picked up in 1995 by the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). Now, the Assam police alleges that the company directly funded the medical treatment of a top ULFA leader.

As Assam DGP K. Harishkeshan took the line that "there is sufficient evidence to prove that Tata Tea is funding militants in the state", senior Tata Tea officials were put through the wringer. Its outgoing managing director R.K. Krishna Kumar and Mumbai-based official K. Sridhar secured anticipatory bail in Mumbai, but two other senior officers—executive director S.K. Kidwai and general manager S. Dogra—were grilled in marathon sessions in Guwahati. They were quizzed about the involvement of the company in financing and abetting ULFA militants.

The nexus was unearthed following the arrest of Pranati Deka, the outfit's cultural secretary, in Mumbai, along with two other members on August 23. Documents recovered from their possession apparently reveal that the tea company had not only picked up her maternity bills in Mumbai's Jaslok Hospital, but also paid for her two-way air passage twice this year. According to the DGP, the total expenses borne by the tea giant "run into lakhs."

 Deka, member of ULFA's central committee, the outfit's highest decision-making body, is the wife of Chitraban Hazarika, who is the finance secretary of the organisation. She and two escorts, Kamal Baruah and Phanindra Medhi, have been brought to Guwahati and remanded to judicial custody. Deka's less-than-a-month-old baby has been handed over to a relative.

The police has now launched a search for Brajen Gogoi, Tata Tea's manager, community development and social welfare, who apparently escorted Deka to Mumbai. The police claims it has seized letters written by one of Tata Tea's Mumbai-based officers to the Jaslok authorities as to why Deka was not provided with an A-class cabin as sought.

Gogoi is believed to be somewhere in the United States and the state government might approach the CBI so that it can get in touch with Interpol and trace him. Gogoi is said to have also accompanied top ULFA leaders to Switzerland for a meeting of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples' Organisations—a trip funded by Tata Tea. Another damaging charge is that it recently made a huge payment in foreign currency to the banned outfit in London.

Shaken by the revelations, Tata Tea has come up with a rather vague defence. In a note issued from its Calcutta headquarters, the company said members of the banned outfit may have availed of medical treatment under its welfare scheme. But it did not specifically rebut the charges of picking the tab for the two-way air fare of the ULFA members. The press note issued by the company's executive director, Kidwai, said: "The company pays money directly to the hospitals for actual treatment of the patients under the scheme and it does not pay any amount directly to beneficiaries. Some persons apparently belonging to the ULFA have apparently availed of this scheme. " The police is not buying this argument. "How does the company explain the payments for air travel and the fact that one of its senior officers accompanied the ULFA members to Mumbai?" asks a senior police officer.

Although reports that tea companies siphon off funds to militant groups as protection money have always made the rounds, there has never been any proof. Since the early '90s when the ULFA made its presence felt for the first time, and the Bodo militancy also gathered steam, the Rs 2,000-crore Assam tea industry has been at the receiving end. At least a dozen managers and senior planters have been killed over the last seven years and several others have been kidnapped and then released for undisclosed ransom amounts. The most prominent of the killings took place in June 1990 when Surendra Paul, owner of the Apeejay group and brother of UK-based Swraj Paul, was gunned down by the ULFA in Upper Assam. Paul's killing and a spate of kidnappings over the next few years was enough to send the over-a-century-old tea industry scurrying for cover.

The industry stepped up its 'social welfare' activities to counter the propaganda that it does very little for the state and also persuaded the government to set up a security force exclusively for vulnerable tea gardens. The Assam branch of the Indian Tea Association (ITA), an influential tea body, has spent at least Rs 6 crore on various welfare measures since 1989. Individual tea companies like Williamson Magor and even Tata Tea have also stepped up their welfare activities. Williamson Magor, for instance, has instituted a literary award carrying Rs 1 lakh in cash and a citation. Besides, it has set up a football academy to train budding players. Tata Tea has set up a Rs 7-crore referral hospital and has recently commissioned a vocational training centre at Rowta, deep inside the Bodo-dominated area. The change in the tea industry's attitude came after an ITA-commissioned survey conducted by IMRB in the early '90s which revealed, among other things, the following points:

  •  That the people believe a lot more Ass-amese should be employed in tea gardens
  •  That a majority believe tea garden managers are unsympathetic to the people
  •  That the industry is pumping profit out of the state.

    AWARE of the threats to its senior managers and planters, the ITA funded the Assam Tea Plantation Security Force. Drawn from the existing battalions of home guards, 2,000 personnel of this force are deployed in 80 gardens. But with 850 gardens spread across the state, the force strength is hardly sufficient. Hence, as a senior planter said on condition of anonymity: "There is no other way but to 'buy peace' with the militants." While the general reaction in tea circles is of shock, many seasoned executives are not surprised that Tata Tea took the route of "funding" militants. "With 19 of its 46 major gardens in Assam and an annual production of 25 million kg, Tata perhaps took the easy way out," says a tea veteran. Tata may not acknowledge paying off militants but another company, Goodricke, showed a large amount as 'ransom payment' in one of its annual reports.

    The other tea major, Williamson Magor, is also said to be under scrutiny following the recovery of audited account books of another banned outfit, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, earlier known as the Bodo Security Force. The books reveal that Magor had paid huge sums to the Bodo out-fit. Magor has not reacted to the allegation. Most companies toe Tata Tea's line since it offers them a respite from the militants.

    But Assam chief secretary V.S. Jaffa is not convinced. "Whosoever abets or aids in waging a war, whether an editor (referring to Ajit Bhuyan, editor of an Assamese daily arrested recently for alleged links to the ULFA and the Sanjoy Ghose murder) who does it with his pen or an industrialist who does it with his money should be dealt with equal severity." Strong words, signalling the state government's relief in having found someone else to blame.

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