By Sreyashi Mazumdar
Amid the lush greeneries and vivacious stretch of tea leaves, there is a hidden conundrum making life difficult for the people inhabiting the hilly terrains of North Bengal. Despite being picturesque enough at a mere glance, the complexities veiled behind the flamboyance gives way to heart wrenching problems like ascending number of death cases, malnutrition, human trafficking etc; the root cause behind the surging maliciousness being rampant closure of tea gardens. The ageing tea bushes and plummeting production scale has unleashed all hell on the tea garden workers.
According to an Aljazeera report , more than 100 tea plantations workers had lost their lives in the past one year owing to the closure of tea gardens in the Dooars region of North Bengal. Social isolation, malnutrition and anemia are some of the pressing concerns of the day, trampling the livelihoods of the people dependent on tea cultivation.
Adhering to the figures given by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), consuming less than 1800 calories a day leads to starvation. A report by a local NGO fleshes out that around 1200 households in the Budapani estate of Jalpaiguri district consume a meager amount of 250 calories a day- the figure being a complete contrast to the aforesaid calories intake per day
Even though there are tea gardens that are still operating, a majority of them- especially the one located in Bundapani, Dheklapara, Redbank, Surendranagar and Dharanipur have testified shutdowns for a considerable time now.
Rising number of deaths among plantation workers
A study of UTWF (United tea workers front) in Dooars shows that around 1000 workers have died in the past one decade.
“The fact is there are more than 100 deaths this year owing to the closure of at least five tea gardens and abject poverty… As their wages are abysmally low, the poor workers or their family members have neither the fat on their bodies nor the balance in their banks to survive,” said Anuradha Talwar, the state advisor to the Supreme Court Commission on the right to food, as quoted by Al Jazaeera.
Owing to the shutdown of tea estates, a large chunk of the population has been left crippled. A majority of these tea workers used to get facilities like housing, electricity, water, ration and health care from the management until the shut downs in the recent past.
“Most people in the gardens suffer from severe anemia…People have no money to buy food,” says Dr. Sabhyasachi Sarkar who works with a local NGO, as quoted in an NDTV report.
The reason behind the large scale shutdown of tea estates in North Bengal is the plummeting scale of production and lack of profit. Further, the descending scale of yield is mainly due to ageing tea bushes.
The workers across the five gardens adversely affected by the perennial problem of closures have often demanded the state government’s intervention in the matter; they want the state government to take over the closed tea gardens; however, the government isn’t interested in doing so.
State Government’s tidbit of a contribution:
The government’s apathy towards the precarious condition of the tea plantation workers has further aggravated the situation. “There are no starvation deaths in tea gardens of Bengal,” said the state health minister Chandrima Bhattacharya. She further added that the gloomy situation in North Bengal was due to prolonged malnutrition.
Further, despite the government has been trying to recuperate the status of the workers by providing work under the MNREGA schemes, around 30, 000 workers across North Bengal has been suffering from rampant poverty and malnutrition.
“We are in a very bad condition. The government doesn’t really care. We want the government to provide us enough resources as it has become quite impossible for us to make both ends meet. I have lost my 28-year-old son Gogoi to malnutrition. The tea garden where he was working got closed in the year 2003-2004 and after that he was striving hard to meet the needs of the family; however, he met death in the mid way,” laments 65-year-old Tenzin, who was also a tea plantation worker.
Last year, the state government in its attempt at cracking down upon the pervading deplorability of the tea plantation workers had written to the Union minister of state for commerce and industry Niramala Sitharaman asking for a special package for the 3000 tea workers. “Labourers of the five closed tea gardens in North Bengal will be getting Rs. 1500 per month cash subsistence from the government,” said the Chief Minister of the state Mamata Banerjee, as quoted in a report in the Indian Express.
Adhering to the recent development, the state government has passed a bill to set up a West Bengal Tea Plantation Employee’s Welfare Board to look after the well being of the tea garden workers.
Since Mamata Banerjee came to power, she has been talking a lot about poriborton (change), but the abjection borne by the tea plantation workers seem to mock her flagship programme – her dream of rendering a change to the state. However the state government’s recent attempts at curbing the precariousness throw some light upon the poor people inhabiting the devastated areas of North Bengal.