A humanitarian crisis brewing for over a year in West Bengal’s tea gardens has boiled over with deaths from starvation reported from various gardens in the Dooars area.
In the teeth of state government denials, reports of the distress continue to flow with as many as 70 deaths in north Bengal alone. The situation is expected to get worse given prevailing winter conditions with around 30 tea estates either closed or abandoned by their owners, leaving thousands of tea garden workers and their families to their fate.
“Presently, the workers are living by selling tea leaves but what will happen from November to February when there will be no leaves?”, asked Chitta Dey, long time trade union activist and convenor of the Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers of West Bengal. “The issue requires immediate intervention of the Ministry of Commerce and Industries and the State government’s Labour Department,” he urged.
In India, the tea gardens employ over 3.5 million workers and exported products worth $644 million last year. The bulk of workers, nearly 70 per cent, operate out of the two largest tea producing states Assam and West Bengal, of which the latter accounts for 24 per cent of the total tea crop.
There are 290 gardens in the Dooars (Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar) and Terai (Darjeeling plains and Uttar Dinajpur) with an estimated production of 221 million kg, providing employment to over 214,000 people.
But beneath this gloss, the workers tell a chilling story of inhuman suffering. “There is no food in the house. No school for the children and we also fall sick, you know. How will we buy medicines?,” asks Savita, trying to prepare dinner with a handful of rice and two potatoes. “Most of the days we eat boiled food with roots boiled as vegetables,” she said, the tears in her eyes evidence of her plight.
Workers in the colony scrounge in the undergrowth of the tea garden and the forests beyond for food. Tea flowers are collected and scrambled into a sabzi of some kind as are edible roots and leaves. Whatever that could be sold has been sold, cycles, goats, utensils.
The workers say that most of them have not been paid since February last year even though their wages were a meager Rs. 122.50 for eight hours of back-breaking work.
The law lays down that each tea garden worker must receive, apart from daily wages, provident fund payments, bonuses, pension (for retired workers), ration, umbrellas and aprons (while at work), firewood for cooking, housing, electricity, water, medical care and education facilities. But the last time the workers got any rations was in April last year.
“Things are very bad. Whenever we ask the company what is going on, the head office tells us there is no money. There is no ration, no water. My own staff has run away. I have not been paid for seven months,” says VS Rathore, acting manager of the Dhumchipara estate.
Fourteen gardens owned by Duncans, once one of the largest corporate houses in Bengal, are in a similar state, Rathore added.
“The conditions of many of the families are really bad. They have been starving and January will be the worst month and many deaths will be reported,” warned Ratan Chettri of the Dooars Chai Bagan Workers’ Union.
Workers say they have been surviving by selling tea leaves plucked under the ‘cash patti’ or cash-for-leaves system, plucking leaves for Rs. 5 a kg. The leaves are sold to ‘bought leaf factories’ that process tea. But all plucking stopped in January when the tea bushes are pruned and ‘rested’ for the next plucking season that begins in April.
The workers survive during this period through the ‘cash patti’ scheme, when they make between Rs. 70 to Rs. 100 a day. It is almost the same as their normal wage of Rs. 120, but without the supply of rations, firewood, and water, living is hard.
If Duncans or the government doesn’t step in, the tea workers of Bengal will find survival impossible.
“From January end even the little income that has been coming will stop. We will die in hundreds,” said Hemlata, a third generation worker in the Duncans gardens.
A recent survey by an international fact-finding mission, however, reported that neither the state nor central governments, nor the companies, have done anything to mitigate the plight of the workers. Labour laws continue to be violated with impunity.
According to the survey, tea garden workers and their families continue to earn wages way below what is required to ensure decent living. “Most of the families there are run by women, who represent close to 70 per cent of the workforce and are suffering inhumanly,” Yifang Tang, a member of the fact finding team, said.
The West Bengal government continues to deny any deaths due to starvation, although officials accept that the tea workers live in subhuman conditions and cite central government laws for their inability to intervene.
“There has been no starvation death in the area. We stand by the tea workers and the government is providing them with rations and medical help. But the state government is unable to do much as the gardens are governed by central government laws,” state labour minister Malay Ghatak said.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee did a whirlwind tour of the area and in her trademark style, tried to solve a decades long problem overnight by offering sops and doles of low cost rice, free water and electricity. She even threatened to take over the Duncans group, giving nightmares to the already fragile industry-state relationship.
However, her party MP K.D. Singh who owns three gardens - Dooteriah, Peshok and Kalej Valley in the Darjeeling hills - is accused of not having paid workers for the last five months
“Alchemist Group, whose chairman is TMC’s K.D. Singh, has not paid workers wages for the past five months. Rations have not been distributed to the workers for the past eight months and the total dues of the company have touched Rs. 5.54 crore,” complained Suraj Subba, the general secretary of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha tea workers union.
“There are approximately 2500 workers in these three gardens and they are living in sub-human condition as they are daily wage earners and have no savings to fall upon,” said Sunil Thapa, a central committee member of the union and a worker in the Dooteriah estate.
“The garden is under lockout. The management is in the garden and workers continue to discharge their duties but they are not being paid. We even met Singh in Delhi on December 16 but apart from empty promises, he has not done anything. Company officials have not given any concrete answers on paying workers’ dues,” Thapa said. But no TMC leader was willing to comment on the same.
S.S. Ahluwalia, who represents Darjeeling constituency in Parliament, said since 2002, 2,000 workers had died due to starvation and illness, 70 died this year alone.
He said the 1951 Plantation Labour Act governing tea gardens was biased towards owners and management, who often escaped their responsibility while shutting down the facilities.
“While Kerala and Karnataka pay a minimum wage of Rs 254 per day to tea garden labourers, their counterparts in West Bengal get Rs 120 per day. The workers should be brought under the ambit of the Food Security Act and treated as living below the poverty line,” Ahluwalia said. Most of the workers have not been paid since February last year even though their wages were a meager Rs. 122.50 for eight hours of back-breaking work
A few days ago, Union MoS Commerce Nirmala Sitharaman visited the area and proposed that the minimum wage for Bengal’s tea garden workers be revised and the gardens be reopened.
“Everything concerning the tea gardens was discussed at the meeting. Both the governments agreed that the situation needs their intervention and it is necessary to open the tea gardens,” said Zia-ul-Alam, Convenor, Joint Forum of Trade Unions, an umbrella organization of 24 trade unions working in the tea sector.
Sitharaman held a meeting with West Bengal’s Education Minister Partha Chatterjee and representatives of various tea garden unions in Siliguri, Darjeeling district. She visited Danguajhar tea garden (run by the Goodricke group) in Jalpaiguri district also met G.P. Goenka, the chairperson of Duncans Group, which owns most of the abandoned tea gardens in the northern parts of the state.
The workers however, are not convinced with either Sitharaman’s proposals or Mamata Banerjee’s grand promises of implementing a Rs.100 crore project. “The problem is that most owners will agree in front of the minister but will simply refuse to pay when the time comes. We have seen many such proposals but nothing happened,” said Rathor.
“The biggest issue here is that workers have no skill other than tea leaves plucking that they have learnt from their father’s and grandparents. We try to send our children to school so they learn to live outside the gardens. But we do not know the world outside,” said Seema, a mother of three.
“There is a larger ploy to all this. Over the years tea plucking has become mechanized and these companies want to get rid of their workers by any means, even if it means killing them,” said Sukuimar Yangru, a local resident.
“They claim that there is no profit from the business but the companies’ books show a profit of 11 per cent, of which some money could have been used for the welfare of the workers,” he pointed out.
Mamata Banerjee did a whirlwind tour of the area and in her trademark style, tried to solve a decades long problem overnight by offering sops and doles of low cost rice, free water and electricity
Clearly, corporate greed and government indifference have combined to bring a once thriving tea sector to its knees. The human cost is incalculable. At this point, it’s not clear how quickly or sincerely the new measures being planned by the Centre and the state governments will be implemented.
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