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An insight into abjection and deplorability: tea plantation workers in N. Bengal

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By Sreyashi Mazumdar

Darjeelingteagardens

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

Plucking_tea_in_a_tea_garden_of_Assam

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:

Tea_Garden_at_Dooars

 

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.

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Experts Call Next UN Food Chief Must Tackle Rising Hunger and Climate Change Threats

Levels of hunger have grown for the past three years, with one in nine people — or 821 million — worldwide without enough to eat, due to drought, floods, conflict and economic slowdowns

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UN, hunger, climate change
Nepalese children wait for the food to be distributed as they sit next to their houses damaged in a rainstorm in Bara district, 125 kilometers (75 miles) south of Kathmandu, Nepal, April 1, 2019. VOA

As candidates jostle to head the United Nations’ multibillion dollar food agency, experts called on Thursday for a strong leader to tackling rising hunger and climate change threats.

Levels of hunger have grown for the past three years, with one in nine people — or 821 million — worldwide without enough to eat, due to drought, floods, conflict and economic slowdowns, U.N. figures show.

“We don’t see improvement in terms of poverty and hunger. What we see is degradation and resources that would be lost for future generations. So there’s an emergency,” said Frederic Mousseau, a food policy expert at U.S.-based Oakland Institute.

“Agriculture and the way we produce our food and the way we consume our food has to have a major solution. That’s the key challenge for the new director.”

The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has a budget of $2.6 billion for 2018 and 2019, employs nearly 6,000 people and works in more than 130 countries with governments to reduce rural poverty and hunger.

UN, hunger, climate change
A World Food Program plane takes off from Beira International Airport after dropping off supplies for survivors of Cyclone Idai in Beira, Mozambique, March, 31, 2019. VOA

The four contenders include a European Union-backed French agronomist, who could become the FAO’s first female head of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and an agriculture vice-minister from China, whose global influence is on the rise.

Georgia and India have also fielded candidates for the June vote by delegates from the FAO’s 194 member states.

“There is very much at stake in an election like this,” said Mousseau, adding that governments are under constant pressure “to expand the corporate-driven model of agriculture that is polluting and unsustainable”.

“We need someone strong enough at the FAO to stand against that and to be able to propose a different path which is about farmers and sustainability,” he added.

Rising populism and nationalism

The elections come at a time of rising populism and nationalism with major powers cutting aid budgets, including the United States — FAO’s largest funder.

UN, hunger, climate change
A man waits to receive food aid outside a camp for displaced survivors of Cyclone Idai in Dombe, Mozambique, April 4, 2019. VOA

The current director-general Jose Graziano da Silva, architect of Brazil’s landmark Zero Hunger program, has overseen a drive to push through ambitious internal reforms. His predecessor, Jacques Diouf, served an 18-year term amid donor criticism about inefficiencies.

Times have changed since FAO was founded in 1945, when hunger was the main concern, said Patrick Caron, chairman of the U.N. High-level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition.

“Food security is no longer only a question of food supply but also of nutrition,” he said, as limited progress is being made to tackle malnutrition, ranging from child stunting to adult obesity.

“Now is time for a new deal … We absolutely need a huge transformation of our food systems.”

France’s Catherine Geslain-Laneelle said her priorities would include boosting sustainable agricultural output to keep pace with population growth, building farmers’ resilience to climate change and creating jobs for young rural Africans.

 

hunger, climate change, UN
Levels of hunger have grown for the past three years, with one in nine people — or 821 million — worldwide without enough to eat, due to drought, floods, conflict and economic slowdowns, U.N. figures show. Pixabay

The former head of the European Food Safety Authority also said she was keen to support women farmers.

“Although they are present everywhere in the food system, sometimes women have difficulties to access land, to water, to the forums where decisions are made,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Davit Kirvalidze, former agricultural minister in Georgia said his experience growing potatoes during the difficult period when Georgia emerged from Soviet rule gave him an insight into the needs of farmers, “especially in times of trouble.”

ALSO READ: Women Live on Average 4.4 Years Longer than Men. Why?

“Not only did I manage to feed my family but also eventually my community,” said Kirvalidze, who also sits on the board of Washington-based non-profit Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture and advises Georgia’s prime minister.

Representatives from the embassies of India and China did not respond to requests to interview their candidates. (VOA)