Closed tea gardens of West Bengal are enclaves of death and destitution. Speculative ownership and a callous government have prolonged the crisis, with over 1,000 starvation deaths reported since 2002. A yet-to-be published survey by the state’s labour department confirms that the rot runs deeper and at stake are 1.1 million lives
Crushed and torn
Jasoda Tanti has the appearance of a disciplined worker. She stands in attention, upright, arms by her side, when I ask what she is doing on a dry riverbed. “Jharni,” she replies getting back to sieving stones. These stones are in demand by the construction industry. An agent has assured Jasoda Rs 60 for the heaps of stones she has gathered after working from early morning till sundown for two days, and she is anxious. Jasoda is 45 but looks older. Her skeletal appearance can be attributed to years of undernourishment that gave way to near starvation when in July last year Bundapani Tea Estate in Jalpaiguri district of northern West Bengal closed down. Jasoda worked as a plucker at the tea plantation. Now her lifeline is the rain-fed river Rati flowing from the hills of Bhutan. She started for the Rati after a frugal meal of rice and a piece of boiled papaya. In the evening, she will have a serving of rice with salt. She cannot afford two rupees worth of potatoes; vegetables and pulses are a luxury. She tries hard but cannot remember the last time she had an egg; cooked meat is a dream. “There is not a rupee at home,” Jasoda says, adding: “My father could not buy me a husband, and now I cannot buy myself food.”
Jasoda is not the only one in Jalpaiguri living a life of abject misery. The region, with 195 tea gardens, accounts for over a quarter of the crush, tear and curl (CTC) tea produced in India. People working in these plantations are mostly tribals whose forefathers were brought to the region by British planters as indentured labourers. At present, seven of the 195 gardens have either been closed or abandoned, forcing about 5,000 workers and their families— together about 25,000 people—to scrape by somehow. Between 2002 and 2004, when 22 tea gardens were closed, at least 800 workers had died due to acute malnutrition and starvation in just six of the closed gardens, found the Indian People’s Tribunal headed by Hosbet Suresh, retired justice of the Bombay High Court. Activists, who have closely tracked the developments, claim that another 400 have died since due to starvation. Though all but seven of the 22 closed tea estates are now open, the tragedy is far from over (more on this later).
Eight people died of hunger at Bundapani Tea Estate within five months of its closure in July 2013, according to the coordination committee of labour unions. “Six of the deceased are males of working age, a demographic group where mortality should be low in normal circumstances,” wrote Anuradha Talwar, adviser to the Commissioners of the Supreme Court in the Right to Food Case, in a letter to the district magistrate of Jalpaiguri on December 31, 2013. Speaking of the prevailing famine condition in the tea garden, Talwar says, “They have no fat deposits in their body and no cash deposits in their pocket. As soon as the garden closed they began starving.”
I spend a day at Bundapani meeting families of the deceased. Kiran Kindo, 35, had tensed up after the tea estate closed down. “He was part of the Bagan Bachao (save the garden) Committee and collapsed during one of the meetings,” recalls Rita, Kindo’s sister-in-law. His wife has left to work in a nearby brick kiln. Rita tells me the menu for dinner, stretching every word: chapatti with dried tea flowers tossed in salt. “It tastes good with sugar, but there is none at home.” I peek into the kitchen—there are about 2 kg of rice, 50 gm of oil, some turmeric and salt. “Is there a photo of Kiran?” I enquire. “Didi has hidden it somewhere as it reminds her of his death,” she replies. The house of Rantu Gope, 29, who succumbed to starvation, is locked. His wife is also in the brick kiln, leaving behind their seven-year-old son, Sunny, to loiter around. He was all bones.
A walk around the labour lines (where the plantation workers live) of Bundapani Tea Estate evoke a sense of despair. Itwari Oraon, a lactating mother, is busy eating a meal of rice and pulses served at the child care centre of the government’s Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), feeding her toddlers from the same plate. A dog sits patiently next to them. Her husband who sieves stones on the riverbed regularly complains of body ache and breathing trouble. But they cannot visit a doctor. “No one lends us money. They know we cannot repay,” she says.
Yet all have not resigned to the gloom. About 300 workers of the estate are involved in voluntary labour to maintain the tea garden, spread over 500 hectares. Every day, they prune tea bushes for two hours, hoping that one day a buyer will come to their rescue. “We want the garden to reopen and not follow the fate of Dheklapara Tea Estate,” says Raju Thapa, member of the coordination committee and my guide for the day.
Dheklapara Tea Estate, adjacent to Bundapani, has been closed for over 12 years. In November 2012, when non-profit Siliguri Welfare Organization organised a relief camp for workers living inside the estate, it threw up shocking figures. Of the 219 adults (20 to 60 years) who attended the camp, 107 (49 per cent) were chronically undernourished, with body mass index (BMI) of less than 18.5. BMI of most adult women ranged between 15 and 17. “The figures indicate perpetual state of famine in the population,” says Abhijit Majumdar of the non-profit and a trade union leader from Siliguri. He blames the prevailing condition on the way tea estates are managed in West Bengal.
“These gardens passed hands several times. Speculative owners, interested in siphoning off funds, took over as the government and the Tea Board of India looked the other way,” says Majumdar.
Bundapani, for instance, was run by Darjeeling Dooars Plantation Ltd (DDPL) till 1996, when it was handed over to Alipurduar Enterprises (aka Mohta Enterprises), says S M Tamang, head clerk at the estate for 30 years. The lease expired in 2006. However, this did not prevent a money marketing company, Sarada Pleasure and Adventure Ltd, to take it over in 2010. Sarada had no experience in tea and allegedly came to make quick bucks after paying Rs 2.5 crore to Mohta Enterprises in an illegal deal. Both Mohta and Sarada defaulted on workers provident fund (PF) deposits and bank loans.
Beginning 2012, signs of sickness were apparent to workers—there were delays in payment of wages; food rations supplied by the garden owner stopped. On July 13, 2013, workers found out that the top management was missing. Today, the tea garden has financial liabilities of a whopping Rs 12 crore, according to the coordination committee of labour unions. This includes PF, gratuity and wage dues to workers and unpaid bank loans. Production of tea also reduced from 800,000 kg a year during DDPL to a measly 300,000 kg a year when the garden was abandoned by Sarada.
Dheklapara Tea Estate, abandoned since 2002, had found a new owner in one Gopinath Das, who opened the estate with much fanfare in July 2005, flying down starlets from Mumbai. Das took bank loans of over Rs 8 crore only to abandon the estate in three months. He purchased the estate from hotelier Pintu Ghosh, who had shut shop in 2002 after availing bank loans of Rs 4 crore.
The infamous Kathalguri Tea Estate, where 525 people died (one death in every third household) between 2002 and 2005, is now owned by the Barelia group. The group has bought and reopened another four closed gardens. “The owners are paying a portion of the daily wage through the Centrally sponsored Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS),” alleges Victor Bose of non-profit Dooars Jagran. A senior state government official, who does not wish to be named, admits that during the lean season when plucking of tea leaves comes to a halt, many tea estate owners use MGNREGS to pay workers for pruning of tea bushes and digging drainage channels.
Kathalguri is also among the 14 gardens that reopened between 2009 and 2013, but the state government continues to provide subsidised rations to the workers under Antyodaya Anna Yojana, a Central government scheme for the poorest of poor families. While it is imperative on part of the state to run employment guarantee and food subsidy schemes in closed gardens, Bose says, it is illegal to do so when a tea estate is run as a private enterprise. More so, because owners deduct a portion of the daily wage to account for the food rations.
Usually, when a garden is closed, local politicians, labour union leaders, babus (officials at the tea estate) and garden workers get together to form an operating managing committee (OMC)—a system that has thrived with state patronage. The leaf collected is either sold to other estates or factories that do not have plantations. “When an estate is run by OMC, workers get paid a pittance. Crores of rupees are siphoned off by babus and politicians,” adds Bose.
Besides, a new breed of owners are indulging in fraudulent asset stripping, informs Vaskar Nandy, president of Paschim Banga Cha Bagan Sramik Karmachari Union, an independent labour union. They send a poor quality tea sample to the licensed brokers, who fix the price at which the tea can be sold at auctions. This low benchmark price, say Rs 50 per kg, is shown in the books while the tea is actually sold at a higher price, say at Rs 120 per kg, in off-factory sales. The books thus show losses, wage payments are delayed, PF money is stashed away and the owners disappear.
“The state and Central governments and the Tea Board of India are mute spectators to this cycle of fraud, if not complicit in the crime, by their gnomic silence,” says Nandy. Under the Tea Act of 1953, the Centre can investigate units that have “habitually made default in the payment of wages, or provident fund dues of workers”. The government can also take over the management in case of “reckless investment” or “diversion of funds”. These powers were never exercised.
G Boriah, former director of tea development at the Tea Board of India, agrees to the provisions of takeover in the Tea Act. But he puts in a caveat saying, “The board’s mandate is not to run estates but overall development of the sector (financial support to improve production and marketing support, etc). In case the board takes over a mismanaged estate it has to hand it over to somebody. But no one comes forward as a huge infusion of funds is required to settle outstanding liabilities. It is the responsibility of the state government’s labour department to ensure that labour welfare norms under the Plantation Labour Act, 1951 (PLA), are adhered to.”
A first-of-its-kind survey of 273 tea estates across West Bengal, conducted by the state’s labour department in late 2012, has shown how plantation owners are shirking their responsibility of providing statutory welfare benefits like housing and medical facilities despite accounting for these in wage calculations. The survey report, which remains unpublished for reasons unknown, also shows that 87 tea estates could not provide the registration number under the PLA (see ‘Survey under wraps’ on p35). Even the regional labour offices did not have proper registration records of these estates. The finding raises the question if a large number of estates are run by fictitious owners oblivious to the welfare of workers. For instance, according to the survey, Bundapani Tea Estate is owned by Rakesh Srivastava, managing director of Alipurduar Enterprises. In reality, Srivastava is the owner of Sarada, the company that took over from Alipurduar to run Bundapani and eventually fled the scene. “As many as 116 tea estates have been run by different management in the last 10 years. Some of these tea estates suffer a lot in respect of development and sustainability. Some of the tea estates are run by the promoters who hardly care for long term development planning,” notes the survey report. A K Singh, secretary of the state’s land and land reforms department, did not respond to queries of Down To Earth whether any leaseholder ever faced punitive actions or their leases were cancelled for not running the estates.
The survey report also shows that as many as 46 estates deducted PF from daily wages but did not deposit it. This is a criminal offence under the PF rules. But it was only in February this year that the Regional PF Commissioner of Jalpaiguri issued arrest warrant against 15 erring estates. Till the time of going to press, Down To Earth did not get a response from the department as to why others were spared.
On February 14, the day I was at Redbank group’s tea estates at Redbank, Surendranagar and Dharnipur, the state government was distributing subsidised food rations under a special scheme for closed tea gardens. The state labour minister Purnendu Basu had visited the estates a few months ago. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had toured the district only days ago, announcing generous relief—food grains at Rs 2 per kg and an increased quota of kerosene. In the long queue at the ration shop stood stick thin bodies, pressed against one another. In the fading light, the tea processing factory looked like a ghost draped in rusted metal.
Atish Sen, teacher and freelance journalist, has documented deaths of 19 workers who succumbed to starvation in these tea estates in the past three months. After closing down in 2003, Redbank opened in 2011 under one Roshan Lal Agarwal. Robin Paul, the original leaseholder allowed Agarwal to run the garden for a year. The garden reopened under Paul for a few months in June last year. Then one fine October morning the management left with a promise of bringing cash to pay wages, but did not return. The subsidised rations are critical to workers who have not received wages in months and are prized for its barter value. Most families sell a portion of the food to outside traders, who arrive on the day rations are distributed, to buy groceries like salt, turmeric, oil and potatoes. Mining stones in the dry riverbed of the Diana is the other lifeline. Children have dropped out of school to assist their parents at the Diana. Many youngsters have migrated to work as construction labourers in Kerala and Delhi. Trafficking is rife: agents from north India frequent the estate looking for young girls to work as domestic help or prostitutes. The day I was at Redbank, a group of people from Sikkim visited the estate. A girl, about 12, sat inside an SUV while agents scouted the labour lines for more.
Susanti Saontal, a plucker from Redbank, exercised none of these options. In January this year, her husband, 35-year-old Chandidas Saontal, passed away. Chandidas looked like a skeleton days before he died. Her eldest son, 18- year-old Vishal, returned from Kerala four days later with a severe bout of jaundice. Susanti says she cannot work on the riverbed for she is too weak for the job. Not surprising, the evening I met Susanti she had had her last meal at 10 am—two chapattis dipped in black salted tea.
Open gardens no better
Using the WHO criteria for body mass index (BMI), a 2005 nutritional survey of tea workers by Paschim Banga Khet Majdoor Samiti and International Union of Foodworkers, labels open gardens in the state as “starving communities” or at “critical risk of mortality from starvation”. Anuradha Talwar, part of the team which prepared the report, says, “low wages are at the heart of the issue. It has created a state of undernourishment widespread even in open and sick gardens. Workers endure extreme lean periods due to delayed or decreased wage payments, food rations and benefits that are due by the law.”
The Plantation Labour Act lays down the welfare responsibilities of tea estates in providing in-kind benefits, including housing and medical facilities, to workers. But plantation owners in West Bengal and Assam have interpreted the Act to their benefit by including statutory benefits like housing into the wage calculations. Worse, cash wages, determined by a tripartite agreement between planters, labour unions and state government’s labour department, are abysmally low in West Bengal. At present, it stands at Rs 95 per day. By contrast, daily wages paid under MGNREGA is Rs 151. Tea plantation workers in Kerala and Tamil Nadu get Rs 225 and Rs 210 in daily wages, in addition to housing and medical benefits. Even if one factors the food ration cost of Rs 15 per day per worker into the daily wage of Rs 95, tea garden workers in West Bengal get far less than their counterparts in southern Indian tea plantations. “The disparity is stark as tea from southern Indian plantations is of inferior quality and fetches 40 per cent less price at auctions compared to West Bengal,” says Nandy.
Better wages in Kerala translate into better living conditions, notes a 2013 study, Brewing Misery, by Delhi-based Centre for Workers’ Management and International Labour Rights Forum in Washington DC. In West Bengal, however, the plantation worker is unable to bargain for a fair wage despite the higher price of tea, the study concludes.
In the ongoing round of wage negotiations (the last wage agreement expires on March 31), the labour unions have asked the West Bengal government to declare a minimum wage for tea garden workers. “We also want a variable dearness allowance in tune with the consumer price index,” adds Nandy. This will translate into daily wages between Rs 280 and Rs 322.
“In-kind benefits under PLA have become anachronisms in an environment of state-delivered services,” says Monojit Dasgupta, secretary of Indian Tea Association (ITA), a planters’ group with 425 member gardens in West Bengal and Assam. “We want the government to share some of the benefits like housing, medical benefit, sanitation and water supply.”
According to ITA, the total daily cost to the employer is a handsome Rs 190 per day per worker in West Bengal after accounting for in-kind benefits. In 2012-13, the state labour department initiated 201 prosecution cases against owners who did not provide welfare benefits guaranteed under PLA. The yet-to-be published survey of tea gardens shows that shirking welfare responsibilities like housing and medical facilities have become a norm than exception. According to the survey, tea estates spent Rs 893 per worker per annum on housing while ITA’s wage calculations show an in-kind wage component of Rs 9.50 daily. At 300 working days in a year, this translates to Rs 2,850 per worker per annum. This implies estates are spending a third of what they are claiming.
I was about to leave Bundapani towards the evening when 89-year-old Dhiru Kujur appeared from nowhere. He had large eyes placed in hollow sockets chiseled deep into his face. Kujur spoke of one Hall Saheb, a British planter, who took good care of the workers. Then lifting his face forward he said “Independence is a curse for us.”
Kujur’s assessment could be discounted as a lapse of memory, for in 1951, a newly Independent India enacted PLA to undo the historic injustice meted out to the dirt poor migrant tribal workforce brought by the British. Now planters feel the Act is an “anachronism”. But it has not stopped them from including these “anachronisms” in wage calculations as in-kind components and then denying the workers those very facilities. It is these calculations that have turned into a curse for Kujur.
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