COVID-19: No Facilities as Woman Breastfeeds in Bengal Tea Garden

The woman's condition is representative of the plight of tea workers in Darjeeling say workers' unions.

4 min read
Hindi Female

A woman sits on a rock at a tea garden in Darjeeling. There's a crying baby in her lap, trying to suckle her, as another child, slightly older looks curiously at the man taking a video of them.

"She's trying to breastfeed her child. There is no creche here", says the man taking the video. He pans the camera to show pluckers at the tea garden with no masks or any other protective gear.

This video, which has been obtained by The Quint, was taken at a tea garden in Darjeeling run by the Bansal Tea Corporation.


'Can't Maintain Social Distance In Tea Gardens'

The video, which was sent to The Quint by a source at a tea estate in Darjeeling, is representative of the state of tea garden workers in the North Bengal district, say members of tea workers' unions.

On 11 April, the West Bengal government announced that tea gardens in the state can begin plucking operations but by employing only 25 percent of the workforce. The gardens were mandated to follow all safety protocols.

"The tea garden is not like any other industry. Workers there don't come to a factory and go home", says Suraj Pathak, President of the Darjeeling District Chai Kaman Mazdoor Union, a union of tea garden workers.

"They all stay at the tea garden and maintaining distance is not an easy task. If one of them gets the virus, everyone will be affected. This is why we had requested the government that since tea is not an essential service, the gardens should be closed. But plantation owners were losing revenue from their first flush and so operations were started by the government", said Pathak.

Pathak's claims about the practical problems of following the government-mandated social distancing norms in tea gardens is echoed by Sunil Rai, secretary of the Darjeeling Terai Dooars Kriya Kaman Mazdoor Union.

"A lot of the work that are done in tea gardens like plucking and weighing are, by definition, group activities. You can't do them while maintaining a distance." said Rai.

He further added that due to the low wages that tea garden workers get, many of them also go to other cities like Mumbai and Delhi to work and then come back during the plucking season.

"We don't know whether they have come back with the disease, and due to the close quarters that all the workers stay in, that is a matter of concern", said Rai.

Member of Parliament (MP) from Darjeeling, Raju Bista, who belongs to the BJP, told The Quint that he too had seen the video and it saddened him. He too questioned how social distancing can be maintained in a tea garden where workers are required to work in close proximity.

"When the Central government had initially said that plantation workers could work with 50 percent workforce, I'd immediately written them a letter. I said that I welcome the decision but the situation in West Bengal is such that this cannot be implemented. I requested them to review it", Bista said.

He also added that while the Mamata Banerjee-led state government did not agree to 50 percent workers working in plantations initially, it has now brought the 25 percent workforce rule.

"This is pure politics. Nothing else", he said.


Wages Not Paid During Lockdown, No Sanitation Facilities

Both Pathak and Rai also say that the tea garden workers have not received their wages for the entire period of the lockdown.

Earlier, when work in the gardens were at a standstill, the government had ordered that tea garden workers should be paid during the lockdown period.

"The problem is that the plantation owners are making the workers work because it benefits them, but also ignoring the government diktat on ensuring payment for all workers", says Pathak.

Moreover, he says that apart from soap and water, which is provided to the workers when they come in for duty, no other protective facilities are being extended to the workers.

"There are no masks, no gloves and no sanitisers. The dispensaries in the tea gardens, often the only place to get medical supplies in miles, are also ill-stocked", he said.

In the video sent to The Quint, the man taking the video, asks the managers of the garden workers why they are wearing masks when the workers are not.

To this the managers say that they got their masks on their own that the company had not given them any instructions on the safety procedures that the workers needs to follow.

There are approximately 87 tea gardens in Darjeeling with over 53,000 permanent workers.

"The lockdown rules have to be implemented by the state government", said Bista. "But the statement government has been a failure in implementing the lockdown. They said that the owners will ensure safety of the workers. But the owner's won't. They obviously just care that their work gets done. It is the government's job to give them masks and ensure their personal hygiene", he added.

Rai, on the other hand, is worried that if a case does surface, there are not enough facilities in the gardens to handle it.

"There is not even an ambulance in the gardens. We are not against work, but it should only have been started once all the precautions were in place", he says.

"This is a disaster waiting to happen", he signs off.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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