Unable to get food, Adivasi tea worker in north Bengal estate dies of starvation

Fact-finding team formed by independent labour organisations reveals the worker and his wife had no access to food under the public distribution system

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Wednesday 07 February 2024
Workers pluck tea at an estate in Darjeeling, north Bengal. Representative photo from iStock

A 58-year-old Adivasi worker from north Bengal’s tea gardens has allegedly died of prolonged starvation after failing to procure food from the government and allowance from the tea estate he worked with, according to activists.

The deceased, identified as Dhani Oraon of Kalchini block in Alipurduar district, was on the rolls of (PF No. WB/889/2514) Madhu Tea Garden. He died on February 2, 2024.

A fact-finding team composed of Paschim Banga Cha Majoor Samity or PBCMS (an independent trade union of tea garden workers) members, representatives from the Right to Food and Work Campaign and two advocates, reached the worker’s home on February 3 to understand the reasons behind the death.

A detailed report prepared by the team has been accessed by Down To Earth (DTE). It stated that the body mass index (BMI) of Oraon’s wife was about 12 kg/m2, weighing 26 kilogramme for a 4 feet 10 inches tall person. According to World Health Organization (WHO) norms, “A BMI <16.0 is known to be associated with a markedly increased risk for ill-health, poor physical performance, lethargy and even death.”

Conversations with neighbours revealed that Oraon was equally underweight and was almost skin and bones. “His wife’s Asrani’s health is also indicative of the extreme starvation the couple were suffering from,” Birbal Oraon, PBCMS secretary, said in a press statement.

Further inquiry revealed that the couple had rations available only for three to four days each month.

The study by the fact-finding team found that Madhu Tea Garden, with whom Dhani Oraon was employed, shut down on September 23, 2014. It re-opened after seven years on December 27, 2021.

Read Dying for ration: A DTE series on ration card beneficiaries

The management did not provide the workers with health, housing, timely wages as well as gratuity during the entire period of closure. They were entitled to these benefits under the Payments of Wages Act, 1936.

The team found that the employees of the tea estate had received salary of only one fortnight in the last two months. Madhu Tea Garden has a total staff strength of 951, of which 300-400 are on its rolls.

The investigation further found that Dhani and Asrani could not avail food from the Public Distribution System (PDS) for two to three years. This was because their Aadhar cards were not linked with the ration cards due to which, the technological system failed to recognise their fingerprints.

Further, the couple were Antyodaya Anna Yojana cardholders. The card allows the beneficiary to access rations of up to 35 kg and entitles benefits under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana, which is an additional free five kilograms of food grains extended under the National Food Security Act 2013.

Oraon said Dhani’s health deteriorated with time. “The couple was entirely dependent at the mercy of villagers for food and consumed only once or twice a day, with no fixed interval. Both often remained hungry or consumed stale food,” he said.

Birbal added that the villagers also failed to help them at all times due to dismal financial conditions owing to irregular payments of wages from the Madhu Tea Estate.

The investigating team found that years of poor nutrition and starvation took a toll on the health of Oraon. “When work resumed at the tea estate in 2021, he often suffered seizures due to weakness and poor health. He eventually stopped working and on February 2, around 3-4 am he suffered another seizure. After this, his health continued to deteriorate and he died around 2 pm,” the report noted.

The villagers could not take Oraon to the tea estate’s hospital as it was almost non-functional. The nearest Primary Health Care at Lothabari was located about 20 km away and a trip cost Rs 400. The poor condition of the couple did not permit them to afford treatment.

To escalate the issue, the team approached the ration dealer who showed that the system displayed the message, “This card does not have entitlements” against the names of the couple. When the matter was taken to the food inspector, he informed that both ration cards were deactivated as they were not linked with the Aadhar cards.

Following the incident, the PBCMS has now demanded an independent team to investigate the matter and strict action against concerned officials and management of the tea estate.

They have also demanded government benefits to Asrani under government welfare schemes and immediate medical assistance.

The PBCMS has also sought an immediate assessment of PDS status in the district and identification of hunger levels and health conditions of workers in tea gardens.

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