Valley of Starvation Deaths
J S Majumdar
THE undulating lush valleys of tea estates in West Bengal’s Darjeeling hills, Dooars and Terai regions are turning into valleys of death. “Nearly 100 people died of starvation and acute malnutrition in the five closed tea gardens in Dooars since January this year with at least 10 of them dying last month itself”, reported Times of India on July 30, 2014, “The workers are paid only Rs 90 for eight hours a day to produce the expensive Darjeeling tea, while in Terai and Dooars the figure is Rs 95 a day.” West Bengal Left Front meeting on November 4 condemned the ‘death rally’ of tea garden workers under the present regime. During the Left Front government’s time, the tea workers used to get support from the government, but now even their ration is getting closed, LF chairman Biman Basu said and called upon the Left trade unions to stand by the tea workers at this time of their acute distress. Left Front government introduced payment of Rs 1500 each month to every worker, work under rural job scheme and ration consisting of food grains, pulses, oil and salt to the workers of tea gardens affected by closure. G P Goenka’s 16 Duncan tea gardens in Dooars and Darjeeling "are in a state of limbo. They are neither closed nor open in the usual sense of the terms, with frightening consequences for the workers in the estates. This situation has added one more chapter to the shameful history of hunger in the tea industry," stated the report submitted to West Bengal government in September 2015 by Harsh Mandar, the Supreme Court's special commissioner on right to food. The report further states, "As far as medical facilities go, none of the estates had a functioning hospital…no medicines and/or other facilities in the hospital…Minimum first aid is also not available." "Since April this year, the situation has become miserable in all these gardens. Wage payment and disbursement of bonus became irregular and yet, the state did not take any step,” said Ziaur Alam, general secretary of All India Plantation Workers Federation. Out of the total 273 tea gardens in northern part of West Bengal, 22 tea gardens, including the largest conglomerate Duncan Group, are now closed affecting more than 35,000 workers. CITU general secretary Tapan Sen, MP during the Zero Hour in Rajya Sabha had raised the issue of closed and abandoned tea gardens in West Bengal. In reply, the minister of state for commerce and industry, Nirmala Sitharaman replied on September 30 that only 5 tea estates are closed and that the central government, state government and Tea Board had been working in coordination for re-opening of the estates and for the welfare of the workers. Since majority of the tea estates are illegally closed, hence, those are not counted by the governments and the workers are deprived of the relief introduced by the Left Front government for closed tea gardens. The sorry state of affairs in the Tea Board, which has a substantial role to play in tea industry and workers welfare with a planned outlay of Rs 1425 Crs during the 12th Five Year Plan, can be gauged from Tapan Sen’s letter of October 14 to the minister Sitharaman saying that he, as an MP was elected as a member of the Tea Board in June, 2015; that since then the Tea Board has not been reconstituted with inclusion of MPs when half of the year has gone. The minister’s written assurance on October 21 of “necessary action will be taken” is yet to be implemented by the Modi government. Non-payment of wages and starvation deaths led to another problem of large scale migration of workers from these closed tea gardens to states like Assam, Karnataka and Kerala. As Duncan gardens are remaining closed since late May, between 25-40 percent of workers have left tea gardens and their families in search of jobs elsewhere, reported Anisur Haque of Zilla Cha Bagan Worker’s Union of AITUC. Some of the workers’ colonies within the Duncan gardens have hardly any men left leaving behind starving women, children and the old. G P Goenka’s Duncan tea gardens are unofficially closed since last May. At least 11 workers died of starvation in these tea gardens in few weeks since closure. Deccan Herald reported 26 such starvation deaths. Goenka said that only one person had died at his Bagrakote tea estate and the rest of the allegations are “baseless canards”. Goenka “blamed the closure of his plantations in Dooars on non-availability of workers,” (!) reported the live mint. Mamta Banerjee government shirked off all responsibilities by handing over to CID the entire matter of closure of 13 tea estates of Duncans Industries Ltd of G P Goenka and the starvation deaths. It is a cover up exercise and for continuation of status quo position in these tea gardens. After a prolong investigation, these cases will be thrown out by the criminal court saying that these come under labour laws and are to be dealt by special courts for labour. LOW WAGES For tea workers the minimum wage per day is Rs 97 in West Bengal; Rs 115 in Assam, Rs 206.22 in Tamil Nadu, Rs 228 in Karnataka and, after 17 days strike and settlement in October 2015 (Working Class, November, 2015), it is Rs 301 in Kerala. Wage revision is due in West Bengal in December 2015. SURVEY REPORT A survey report of all 273 tea estates in West Bengal has been kept under wraps by the labour department of the TMC government since May 2013. However, the gist of the reports has already been published by a number of organisations. The report reveals the deplorable conditions of the workers and their families leading to large number of starvation deaths while demand for tea and prices are soaring and prized gardens of Darjeeling tea are mostly exporting at high prices. The survey shows that workmen of 35 tea estates are yet to be paid arrear wages as per last wage settlement. Workers of two tea estates are not paid their wages as per existing agreement. 11.25 lakh persons of 1.87 lakh families reside in these 273 tea estates in the Hills, Terai and Dooars region of North Bengal; of them 2.62 lakh plus are permanent workers. During survey, 87 tea estates could not produce registration certificate or numbers under Plantation Labour Act, 1951. 185 tea estates could not provide certified standing orders under Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946. One DLC posted at Kolkata functions as certifying officer under Standing Orders Act. There is no labour welfare officer in 175 tea estates. EPF NOT DEPOSITED Under Employees Provident Fund Act, 1952, workers’ total EPF contribution, not deposited by 46 tea estates, amounts to more than Rs 17.14 Cr and due management’s EPF contribution in 55 estates amounts to more than Rs 33.79 Cr for the period 2009-10 and 2012-13. Under the Plantation Labour Act, 1951 there are provisions for the employers, apart from wages, to provide housing, drinking water, conservancy, medical, educational, canteen, crèche, recreational facilities and compensation to members of families in case of housing accidents. HOUSING Out of 2.62 lakh permanent workers, only 1.66 lakh workers have been provided houses; 95,835 workers have not been provided houses. 6 tea estates have not provided even a single house to their workers; 51 tea estates could not provide houses to 50 percent or more of their workers. In 2012, 62 tea estates did not spend a single rupee on housing. The permanent workers are considered as industrial workers and, hence, listed in APL category and not eligible for Indira Awas Yojana. 44 tea estates do not have latrines. Houses in 12 tea estates in Dooars have no electricity connection. DRINKING WATER The workers suffer badly in the absence of supply of drinking water. The workers in the tea estates of hill areas in Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong sub-divisions have severe scarcity of drinking water as most of the tea estates do not distribute water through pipelines and the workers rely mostly on spring water and Jhora as the only sources of water. MEDICAL FACILITIES Out of 273 tea estates, 107 estates do not have any hospital, 166 estates have no nurse, 85 estates do not have any dispensary and 10 estates neither have hospital nor dispensary. Only 56 estates have full time residential doctors, other 110 estates depend on visiting doctors. Primary health centres (PHC) exist only in 160. 113 estates do not have any PHC. AGITATION In this background, in one of the biggest mobilisations in action, 4.5 lakh tea garden workers are expected to participate in 96 hours relay fast at 45 places on November 27-30 and strike on December 1 in response to the call of the united forum of tea trade unions in West Bengal. The Bengal Platform of Mass Organisations (BPMO) in their current statewide jathas in November, while covering each electoral booth area, are also raising the issues of the plight of tea garden workers.