A section of tea worker leaders in 19 tea gardens under Kulaura upazila have allegedly pocketed lakhs of taka from several thousand unsuspecting poor tea workers.
The leaders have been collecting more or less Tk 500 from the workers on the pretence of enlisting the workers' names in a list of 3,735 impoverished tea workers, each of whom are eligible to receive Tk 5,000 financial grant from the government's social services department for 2019-20 fiscal year.
Workers of Clevedon Tea Garden, under Joychondi union, where the grant has been allocated for 575 workers this fiscal year, alleged that their leaders told them that they would only enlist names of those who pay up.
Moreover, the workers also accused the leaders of practicing favouritism and nepotism in preparing the grant recipients' list every year. Same person has received the annual grant for more than two times, while names of many deserving workers had been left out of the list due to this unethical practice.
When asked why they were collecting money (ranging from Tk 200 to Tk 1,000) for enlisting, the leaders said it was to cover for various expenses including transportation to and from the government offices, making duplicates of workers' photographs and photocopies of their ID cards, said a number of tea workers.
Ajit Urang, a tea worker at Clevedon Tea Garden, said the leaders do not have to incur any extra expenses during the enlistment process as all tea workers made their own photographs as well as photocopies of their ID cards before providing those to the leaders.
According to many tea workers, they became upset after finding out, from a Facebook post on Upazila Proshashan Kulaura, that payment of money, in any form, was not required of them to be able to receive the annual grant from the government.
Ashu Urang, a tea worker at the same tea garden, said Tea Garden Workers' Panchayat Committee President Mohan Lal Goala, its Treasurer Rambachan Goala, and committee members Bikash Mudi, Susan Urang and Mukul Chandra Bunarji have been collecting at least Tk 500 from each worker, with the assurance that the payment would ensure their receiving the grant.
Another tea worker, Subas Goala, said the president of the committee always shows different excuses every year to collect money from the workers and if anyone refuses to comply, he threatens them with removal of their names from some list.
Demanding exemplary punishment for those involved in the irregularities, Shankar Urang, a member of Ward 5 (Clevedon) for Joychondi Union Parishad, said the collection of money in exchange for the grant by the committee members is a clear violation of "Cha Sramikder Jibanman Unnayan Karmasuchi Bastobayan Nitimala-2013".
Asked whether the allegation brought against him and the other members of the committee were true, President Mohan Lal Goala admitted to have collected the money for various expenses such as making duplicates of photos and ID cards of the workers, travelling to government offices and preparing the "master role".
He, however, claimed of collecting an insignificant amount, between Tk 100 to 120, from each worker.
Similar allegations are surfacing at all tea gardens in Kulaura upazila and the upazilas that surround it.
Contacted, Kulaura Upazila Nirbahi Officer ATM Farhad Chowdhury said the grant is in fact a gift from the prime minister and it has to be disbursed free of charge among the poor workers.
After receiving complaints of anomalies in the process of preparing lists of recipients, he held a meeting this Sunday (July 5) with Panchayat committee leaders of 19 tea gardens in the upazila, managers of the tea gardens and chairmen and members of union parishads in the upazila.
The social services officer in the upazila has been instructed to investigate the allegations at Clevedon and other tea gardens and take stern lawful action against anyone found involved in financial transactions during the process of enlistment for disbursement of the grant.
He also said that at the meeting he has warned all concerned to return all the money that was collected illegally from the workers. Otherwise, the person responsible will face strict action from the administration.