By Tanushree Gangopadhyay*
There is disquiet brewing in the Dooars and Terai plains of Darjeeling district with tea estates in the throes of a crisis. Workers are dying of hunger and malnutrition since their wages have not been paid. The owners of these tea estates seem to have gone into hiding.
In early November Majnu Khalku, 65, a veteran tribal tea estate plucker, died at the closed Panighata tea estate. “We could not afford her medical treatment. Neither did we have enough food to feed her,” lamented her daughter, Lalita Tirkhi.
She, along with five other tribal women workers, was on a relay hunger strike, demanding minimum wages, implementation of labour rights and reopening of the estate. “We have been denied wages. The hospital has been closed for the past 11 years. Neither do we get the rations we are entitled to,” said Tirkhi.
Arun Khetri, 38, another permanent worker of Panighata, died at his home near Naxalbari in Siliguri district. His family did not have enough money to feed him adequately or to access medical services.
Dr Abhijit Mazumdar, president of the AICCTU-affiliated Terai Sangrami Cha Sramik Union, who visited his home with other union members, said that three workers of Panighata aged between 26 and 38, died of malnutrition in November.
Between 2000 and 2015, 1,400 tea estate workers have died on 17 tea estates, a majority of them in the Dooars. Low wages – just Rs 90 per day – lack of clean drinking water, rations and sanitation facilities were listed as the causes.
“Most of them were skilled tea workers, descendants of migrant tribal indentured labour. They are either starving or suffering from malnutrition since they are denied their daily minimum wage of Rs 122. Neither the management nor the government agrees that their deaths are due to starvation. Several tea estate owners have actually plundered the tea gardens with oppressive wage structures while others have fled,” said Mazumdar.
Shankar Saraf, owner of Panighata, fled 50 days ago, alleged Pradip Pradhan, executive member of the Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Labour Union. Saraf did not pay wages to the workers, says Pradhan. The estate has been closed for 11 years.
The well-known tea company, Duncans, owned by G.P. Goenka, is in charge of 16 estates. “Goenka too has fled,” alleged Mazumdar. “He defaulted in paying provident fund, gratuity and other worker dues to around 30,000 permanent workers. He has siphoned funds to industries in other states.”
“Neither the government nor the owners declare a lockout. At least that would enable us to take action,” he added.
Workers are on relay hunger strike, demanding wages, arrears and 20 per cent bonus. Mazumdar says they have not been getting their monthly ration of 16 kg rice and wheat per family for nine months.
Tshering Dahal, Chief Coordinator of the Gurkha Jan Mukti Morcha, scoffs at the pathetic wages of Rs 120 per worker. The prescribed minimum wage for skilled work is Rs 400, she points out. “Slavery prevails in the tea estates,” she says. Dahal wants to take over the lease of the tea estate from Saraf and let workers run it.
“The owner did not pay us the Puja bonus,” said Sheila Toppo, a tea worker. “Had he just paid us Rs 3,000 like last year, we could have managed.”
A health survey carried out by Dr Binayak Sen, pediatrician and vice-president of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), found that most tea workers had a Body Mass Index (BMI) below 18.5, some even below 14. According to World Health Organisation standards, a BMI of 18.5 would place workers in the category of ‘famine-affected’.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) served a suo motu notice to the West Bengal government when media reports of the deaths of 1,000 workers due to malnutrition in three tea estates of the Dooars in Jalpaiguri district caught its attention.
The Tea Plantation Act, 1951, has specific provisions for tea workers which include minimum wages, housing, subsidised rations, fuel, and health and education facilities.
Mazumdar is categorical that the tea industry is making profits. He said that in 2010, 1.44 lakh tonnes of tea was produced. This figure rose to 1.89 tonnes in 2014.
The auction price of a kg of CTC tea was Rs 113 in 2010 and Rs 139 in 2014. These estates cater to 80 per cent of the market. The Makaibari Tea Estate’s premium tea sold at $8,000 a kg recently at an auction.
In Siliguri, officials are well aware of the condition of the tea workers. Deputy Commissioner Kallol Banerjee is emphatic that Goenka was arrested for defaulting on provident fund payments but secured conditional bail.
Saraf did not return after a meeting with union leaders. He has yet to sign an agreement. He apparently admitted that the Panighata management is moribund, that they have defaulted on wage payments and hence the workers were on strike over unpaid dues.
The government has given the tea estates on lease and Saraf took over the estate with liabilities, according to Banerjee. But talks with the unions on dues to be paid to workers broke down. The unions demanded a bonus of 20 per cent whereas Saraf offered 8.33 per cent. After that, he vanished. Banerjee pointed out that the industries department and the health department also had responsibilities towards the workers.
*Senior Ahmedabad-based journalist. First published in http://www.civilsocietyonline.com/