Agri Business

Energy-saving lights cheer tea garden workers

Pratim Ranjan Bose Kolkata | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on January 08, 2017

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Arun Tea Estate manager’s decision to install CFL bulbs at labour quarters has led to huge savings in power bill

Energy conservation pays. But what if the narrow interest of a business entity to cut the energy bill results in major community savings? Arun Tea Estate of Gillanders Arbuthnot & Co in Sonipur district of Assam did just that.

For nearly a decade, the 2,800-strong population in the garden — comprising over 800 workers and their family members — are paying the same electricity charges, despite the at least 35 per cent rise in discom tariff and substantial rise in consumption.

That’s not all. The interest earned from a huge community savings of ₹15 lakh is used in providing expensive energy efficient lights free of cost, resulting in major savings for the workers. The fund is managed by both the management and workers.

And the credit for this goes entirely to the garden manager Sanjay Kumar Bohra.

In 2007, Bohra decided to replace some 1,400 incandescent bulbs in over 300 labour quarters with energy saving CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Lamps) at an estimated cost of ₹2 lakh, on personal guarantee. The aim was to reduce the energy bill on common metre.

As per industry norms, tea estates were expected to ensure electricity connection (not pay for usage) to permanent workers in labour quarters. And the State distribution utility in Assam would have a common metre.

It is the responsibility of the estate management to recover average electricity dues from workers and pay the discom. The system had its inherent problems.

Apart from permanent workers, a large population of temporary workers — required in peak seasons — also live in Assam’s tea gardens. It was impossible for the gardens to deny them electricity connection.

Managing energy use of such a large population was not easy. While overdrawing by one would inflate the energy bill, considering the low affordability of tea workers, garden managements cannot increase average charges frequently, as this would lead to under-recoveries.

Arun Tea has gone through it all. It was expected to collect ₹120 a household, for five connections each, every fortnight. This was 15 per cent of the then cash wages of ₹700-800 a fortnight. The garden’s fortnightly recovery was ₹56,000-57,000 against an estimated energy bill of ₹70,000. The accumulated losses on electricity crossed ₹1 lakh.

Estate managers normally resort to rationing electricity supply to limit losses. Some gardens also use this as an excuse to earn quick bucks by supplying less electricity to workers than billed.

Making a difference

Bohra decided to make a difference. He was convinced that the solution lies in replacing incandescent bulbs. But at the prevailing retail price of ₹150 or more, workers couldn’t afford CFL. His company wouldn’t pay for it either.

Bohra procured them on credit with the hope that he could pay back the vendor from the savings in electricity bill. And, it worked.

As workers were charged at the same rate, the garden started generating a surplus recovery of ₹25,000 a month. Bohra could repay the vendor. His company was happy to see the past losses wiped out.

Workers were the happiest. Their houses were now more brightly lit than ever and without any extra payment. Bohra offered them free of cost replacements and still managed huge savings. He had also removed the cap on energy use.

The model was replicated with success in at least two gardens in the district — Dhekiajuli of Parry Agro and Kacharigaon Tea Estate of Winsome Group.

However, a month ago, the State government finally decided to provide metered connections to garden workers. A total of 51 gardens (out of 800), including Arun and Dhekiajuli, have been chosen for the first phase of implementation.

Responding to the government initiative, Dhekiajuli had done away with the community fund. But workers of Arun Tea didn’t agree. “I wanted to redistribute the money. But workers want the free supply of energy saver bulbs to continue. We have to explore what else we can do with the money to make their lives better,” Bohra told Business Line.

Published on January 08, 2017
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