Water

Bengal's tea belt: 3 lakh voters, but nobody cares about elections

Tea garden workers in Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and North Dinajpur, which go to polls on April 18, depend on Bhutan more than India for employment and water

 
By Atonu Choudhurri
Last Updated: Saturday 20 April 2019
Lok Sabha Elections 2019
A group of woman is working at a tea garden to process tea leaves in Darjeeling. Photo: Getty Images A group of woman is working at a tea garden to process tea leaves in Darjeeling. Photo: Getty Images

About three lakh voters out of nearly five lakh tea workers and their family members residing in more than 276 tea estates in Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and North Dinajpur in West Bengal will cast their votes in the General Elections on April 18, 2019. But they are not enthusiastic about it. A sense of disbelief on the democratic system runs deep in the minds of people whose livelihood comes from the once-thriving Bengal's distant tea gardens.

Even when tea tribe’s votes are high and political parties are wooing them, in all possible ways, their status remains unchanged.

The idyllic picture-perfect tea gardens with verdant plantations tucked away in state’s northern parts present a picture of neglect, deprivation and poverty.

Jupiter Orang, one of the three lakh voters, is unsure if he should vote. “My wife, three children and I live in India, but survive on Bhutan’s water. My wife Nancy walks for miles to enter Bhutan to fetch drinking water. Frankly, we are not bothered who wins or loses as we have little time to think about candidates and governments. We’re too much bothered about our basic minimum daily needs of survival,” says Orang sitting in a room with a tin roof near Bandapani Tea Estate in Jalpaiguri.

He says former tea workers, who were forced to work as daily labourers after the closure of the Bandapani estate due to unrest, look up to Bhutan government to provide them water. Unavailability of drinking water, especially during torrid summer, aggravates their problem.

“Last year, we had to give Rs 5,000 to authorities in the neighbouring country to use their water. We’re poor and find it difficult to eke out a living for ourselves, but we had no option. We somehow collected money from family members in the village and gave it to Bhutan authorities,” says Orang.

Workers are unsure if they can survive under this financial burden for long. Bandapani garden workers in other gardens, like Carron and Lankapara, also spend substantial amount of money to get water from Bhutan because there is no facility for drinking water in their areas.

Fed up of the way they were treated, Orang’s fellow worker Ramkant Orang migrated to Bhutan to work at a factory. “In India, tea workers are living in sub-human conditions. Management asked us to collect 25 kilogrammes of leaves in eight hours. Earlier, it was 20 kg in eight hours. Again, wage is very less. What will you do with Rs 176 per day? I was forced to leave my home and migrate to Bhutan where working at a factory helps me sustain my family,” says Ramkant.

Other than water crisis and poverty, problems that stalk tea gardens are low wages and lack of land rights for workers, whose votes are decisive in three Lok Sabha constituencies in North Bengal.

The country’s second largest employer — tea industry — undermines labour rights and deprives workers and their families of the most basic needs. Other glaring problems the voters in nearly 300 tea estates face are malnutrition, human trafficking and starvation deaths.

These are certain factors underscoring the desire for a better life. The availability of basic facilities like healthcare and education do not even meet the minimum criterion.

Experts believe daily wage is a major bone of contention. “Tea garden workers in North Bengal have been demanding revision of minimum wages. Nearly three lakh workers in North Bengal called a three-day strike in August 2018. Right now, a worker gets a daily wage of Rs 159. After several meetings with the joint forum of trade unions, the West Bengal Labour Department issued a notification saying tea workers will have to be paid at an enhanced rate,” Debu Chaki, who has done a research on North Bengal’s tea problems.

“The wage rate has to be increased by Rs 10 from September 1, 2018 and by Rs 7 from October 1, 2018, which means, the new wage will be Rs 176 per day. This is an interim measure to help the workers until the minimum wage rate is finalised, says the government order. But in reality, the wage issue still persists as many workers are getting less than the amount,” adds Chaki.

Anadi Sahu, general secretary of Centre of Indian Trade Unions, feels the condition of tea workers is getting worse by the day. “Tea workers are beset with a host of problems and the state government and Centre have turned a blind eye to their plight. We’ve raised the issue of their minimum wages, lack of livelihood and lack of sanitation, but to no avail,” says Sahu.

He further questions the intent of the West Bengal government regarding minimum wage of tea workers. “A tea worker in Bengal struggles to get Rs 176. But think of Assam, where a tea worker gets Rs 350 for the same work. Centre’s 7th Pay Commission also recommended at least Rs 18,000 for such tea workers, but the recommendations have not been implemented yet,” adds Sahu.

Another problem that stalks the gardens is human trafficking. “About 80 per cent of migrants from tea gardens are unsafe. Trafficking agents get Rs 40,000-50,000 per person,” says Binu Rai, an activist in the region.

There are agents who lure unemployed tea workers with job promises. “First, they travel to Delhi, from where they fly to Saudi Arabia. Women, who get jobs as domestic help, are abused in foreign countries. In the past two years, only few women were able to return and some of them came back with communicable diseases,” adds Rai.

Speaking about the main reason behind closure of tea gardens and financial condition of tea workers, secretary of Tea Association of India in Dooars, Ram Avtar Sharma, says, “Most of the tea estates are running in losses. India produces high quality tea and a good amount of tea is exported to foreign countries, but we’re losing out to China, Kenya and Sri Lanka as they sell tea at a cheaper rate. Tea production has become costly and the profit margin is very less.”

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