Sick tea gardens of West Bengal -Workers die of hunger
The tea picker’s cup of woes is fullLike the workers in the jute and textile mills, the malady of the tea pickers in the tea gardens in the North-East appear to be etched permanently into their fate. Despite umpteen studies, seminars, meetings, and agitations, workers continue to suffer from periods of extreme distress. The welfare measures like provision of medical facilities, schools, subsidized rations etc. the workers, who are bound to their trade due to their not having any other skill, suffer from bouts of extreme distress. Reports of emaciation and near-starvation coming out of the Jalpaiguri tea gardens in West Bengal has disturbed many in India.
A recent study conducted by Sreerupa Mitra Chaudhury and her team has revealed cases of starvation deaths, and various other symptoms of social angst such as trafficking of minor girls, attack by wild animals, high incidence of suicides, kidnapping of widows, and proliferation of narcotic trade and the attendant criminality. The study has also unraveled abysmal shortage of basic facilities like potable water availability, healthcare and schools. The Public Distribution System, a life line for India’s poor, is virtually defunct in the region.
With starvation death reports buffeting the media, the tea garden owners, the labour unions and the state government have started a deplorable campaign to wash their hands off the matter, and pass the blame to other stake-holders. Such blame game bring little succor to the languishing workers. The daily wages, paid by the garden owners are well below the government mandated minimum wages. Even an unskilled worker in other sectors of the economy gets much better wages than the tea pickers. The government does admit that the workers are in great distress, but in the typical bureaucratic way, denies reports of starvation deaths.
Ms. Chaudhury, who is a pioneer of the efforts to alleviate the suffering of the tea garden workers, has spearheaded the ‘Save the Garden, Save Workers Initiative for Plantation Workers’. She laments that most of the Rs. 4600-crore package offered by the Union Commerce ministry to revive the sick and closed gardens may get diverted to other areas, with workers welfare being pushed to the bottom of the agenda.
Another study conducted by Dr. Binayak Sen into the state of health of the distressed workers corroborates the fact that the tea workers are somehow managing to cling to their lives. The study shows that in a closed garden, 60 per cent (136 numbers) of the people had a Body Mass Index (BMI) lower than the critical value of 18.5. Obviously, these 136 workers are severely under-fed. Some 37 among the 136 had a BMI below 16, which is considered life-threatening.
According to WHO standards, any community that has more than 40% of its people with BMI less than 18.5 should be considered as “a starving community”. Even an official report of the West Bengal government’s Labour Department says that the workers are victims of exploitation. It says that in a number of gardens the managements has stopped making any disbursement to the workers. The gardens have been abandoned leaving the workers in the lurch. The mandatory maintenance amounts are not being paid. This contravenes the Plantations Labour Act of 1951. As regards housing accommodation, the picture is no better. Of the workers surveyed, 36 per cent live with no company-provided housing. Similar dismal picture is seen with regard to medical facilities. Only 166 out of the 276 tea estates have just namesake medical facilities. There are no full time doctors and the infrastructure is rudimentary.
Managements have defaulted on provident fund, bonus, and gratuity. Curiously, some gardens are flourishing in their business. This points to the fact the problem of unremunerative gardens lies squarely on the managements, who have not done harvesting in a sustainable way.
The ‘sick’ tea estates maintain that paying better wages is not possible as the returns are too low. However, tea garden experts say that the gardens have been depleted of their wealth due to ravenous exploitation. The lure of quick profit lies at the root of the sickness of the gardens. Therefore, it is the greedy owners who must be brought to book. The poor workers must not be made to suffer because of no fault of theirs.
There is another angle to this saga of misery and exploitation. The tea pickers originally belonged to the tribal areas of central India. They were virtually hounded out of their homelands and brought here to the tea estates to work. These people are poorly educated and know no other alternative skills. So, they can not switch jobs to migrate to other places. This compounds their misery. The onus clearly lies with the government and the tea garden owners to find a way out of the situation.