In Mamata’s Bengal, 70 Starvation Deaths In Darjeeling Tea Estates

Suspected starvation death stalks poverty-stricken labourers in Darjeeling’s tea estates, reports Sudipta Chanda.

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In Mamata’s Bengal, 70 Starvation Deaths In
Darjeeling Tea Estates

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Extreme poverty and complete lack of access to any employment opportunities among labourers have led to suspected starvation deaths of about 70 tea garden workers who lost their jobs in over 30 closed tea estates across West Bengal’s Darjeeling district.

Since the middle of this year, by which time 32 of the 277 proprietary or group tea estates closed down or were abandoned, tea garden workers have suddenly begun dying like fleas with the causes ranging from penury to starvation, malnutrition and lack of urgent of medical treatment.

Of late, no week passes when a couple of premature deaths of tea workers is not reported from the ailing plantations in Bengal’s hills. (Photo: Sudipta Chanda)

Amidst all this, the International Tea Day was observed on December 15, as it is done annually since 2005.


Stirring Death in Darjeeling Tea

  • Since last six months, more than 70 deaths of tea garden workers being reported after 32 of 277 tea estates closed down in West Bengal
  • State government continues to remain in denial with malnutrition and penury claiming lives of these workers
  • Judiciary intervenes with Calcutta High Court’s assurance of setting up weekly tea courts to address grave situation
  • Even the meagre daily wage of tea plantation labourers under threat with the Centre and states introducing basic minimum wage from April 1, 2017

What Mati, What Manush?

Neither Mamata Banerjee’s ‘ma, mati, manush’ government nor Narendra Modi’s ‘achhe din’ regime acknowledge the starvation angle and precious little is being done to stem the death tide. Of late, no week passes when a couple of premature deaths of tea worker is not reported from the ailing plantations in Bengal’s hills.

West Bengal government refuses to acknowledge malnutrition deaths in tea estates across the state. (Photo: Reuters)

When six starvation deaths among tea garden labourers was reported from the closed Raipur tea estate on the outskirts of Jalpaiguri town, the Trinamool Congress government refused to acknowledge them. When the tea estate closed down in September 2013, 645 labourers and their families went into penury.

A tea garden worker suffering from malnutrition lies inside her damaged house in the closed Bharno Bari tea garden estate, about 115 km from Siliguri, West Bengal. (File photo: Reuters)

Reminder Of Amlasole

Starvation deaths are not unknown in West Bengal. In 2004, at least five persons (the actual figure could be higher) of the Shabar tribe died of starvation at Amlasole, a remote village in Banipur II block of West Midnapore district. The Left Front was in power then.

Similarly, an unspecific number of tea workers died over the years of starvation also during the Left rule establishing the fact that successive state governments have failed to haul up the industry management and set the situation right on the pretext of legal angles.


Judicial Intervention

The situation is so grave that the Calcutta High Court has stepped in to offer redress to the deprived workers. The high court Chief Justice, Manjula Chellur, visited the ailing plantations on December 12 and assured to set up weekly tea courts in the region to hear out grievances of the labourers.

Children of tea garden workers beg for food in the closed Chinchula tea garden estate, about 165 km from Siliguri, West Bengal. (File photo: Reuters)

While the captains of the industry hold demographic changes, resource constraints, climate change, competition for land and productivity, shift in balance of power across the supply chain, emergence of new business models and consumer attitudes to food value as some of the major reasons behind the industry’s failing health, workers’ union leaders allege deprivation and lack of interest to plough back profits to the plantations as chief reasons for the grim situation.


Extent of Tea Gardens

Tea is north Bengal’s signature crop and is grown in three regions – the Darjeeling hills, which have 70 odd plantations, the Terai, which has about 47 and the Dooars, which has about 160 estates. While the Terai too is in Darjeeling district, the Dooars, which skirt the Bhutan foothills, is essentially in Jalpaiguri and the newly formed Alipurduar districts.

The tea industry is labour intensive and collectively employs around half-a-million people, including ancillary workers in West Bengal. (Photo: Sudipta Chanda)

The tea industry is labour intensive and collectively employs around half a million people including ancillary workers in West Bengal. The tea crop is harvested between February end to mid-November depending on the location and health of the plantations plus weather conditions.

By that theory, the lean period has set in for the tea industry, which means production has gone offline and will limp back in spring. Plantation managements would now focus on maintenance and upkeep of the estates meaning most casual workers would go out of work and income.

But 2015 would probably go down in history as the year which witnessed the maximum number of out-of-action tea plantations and premature workers’ deaths. (Photo: Sudipta Chanda)

That has been the acceptable practice for generations. But, 2015 would probably go down in history as the year, which witnessed the maximum number of out-of-action tea plantations and premature worker deaths.


No Welfare Schemes

The tea industry is covered by the Plantations Labour Act 1951, which entails a series of mandatory entitlements and welfare schemes for tea workers, but those are more often than not ignored with impunity. Since most tea plantations are located in remote areas, alternative source of income for the workers and their dependents is almost absent.

The Calcutta High Court has stepped in, assuring setting up weekly tea courts to address the grievances of plantation workers. (Photo: Sudipta Chanda)

Wage for tea workers is fixed on a three-year basis. A tea worker (permanent) currently gets daily wage of Rs 122.50 plus subsidised ration. The current wage would go up by Rs 10 on April 1, 2016 as per the last three-year agreement. With the Centre and state governments aiming to introduce basic minimum wage and extend food security in the industry, the prevalent three-year wage agreement system would cease to exist from April 1, 2017, if policy is translated into action that is.

Mainstream political parties have in the meantime jumped into the fray and the blame game has begun. The worrisome number of tea worker death issue has found its way in the West Bengal Assembly, Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha and political demonstrations have reached Jantar Mantar in New Delhi.

(The writer is a Siliguri-based senior journalist)

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