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Death of workers mar the taste of Bengal tea. Is anybody listening?

Rajat Roy | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:38 IST

Crisis hills

  • West Bengal\'s famed tea industry is in a crisis
  • 31 plantations have stopped working since May
  • 78 workers have died in the past three months

More in the story

  • How have the state govt reacted?
  • What does the industry want?
  • What can the Centre do?

While farmers committing suicides in Maharashtra, Punjab or elsewhere have caught the national media's attention, the recent deaths of Parvati Baraik and Prabhu Sardar in Alipurduar went relatively unnoticed.

Parvati worked at the Duncan Group's Birpara tea garden in West Bengal's Alipurduar district. Prabhu retired from the same garden, which stopped operating last May. No wonder, Parvati and Prabhu died of hunger.

Read- The storm in your tea cup: what's killing Bengal's tea garden workers

Birpara is not alone. Out of the 276 tea gardens in four districts - Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar and Alipurduar - 31 have shut down or are sick. And the lives of 4,80,000 families who employed by those gardens are in a limbo.

To put things into perspective, some of the world's most valued tea is produced in the region. But the famed 'Darjeeling' is fast losing ground to cheaper rivals from other parts of India as well the world.

According to official accounts, 78 people died in the past three months in the gardens in north Bengal's Dooars area. Unofficial estimates, collated by trade unions and civil society organisations who insist that hunger is the main cause of the deaths, peg that number at 175. Many more are at risk.

The industry wants lower power tariffs, restructured debts

Governments at the state and the Centre, meanwhile, have denied that malnutrition and penury are the primary factors behind the deaths. Not a single case of malnutrition, penury or anaemia was identified as the cause of death in a report by the Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH) of Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri. Reasons cited for the deaths included: heart aliment, tuberculosis and low haemoglobin count.

The situation was so grave that the Calcutta High Court had to intervene. Chief Justice Manjula Chellur visited the closed gardens and assured to set up weekly courts in the area to hear grievances of tea workers.

A hopeless situation

But the visit by the Chief Justice or even by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee have not set things right.

The reaction from both the West Bengal government and the Centre have been ad hoc at best. The state has provided a meagre ration to the closed gardens that has fallen short.

Also read- Chai pe charcha: a Barcelona author desperate to save Darjeeling tea

Also, the CM reportedly told Duncan Chairman GP Goenka that if the gardens were not reopened immediately, the government would take them over.

The Centre went a step ahead: The Tea Board of India, under the Union Commerce Ministry, has already offered to take over six of the 17 closed Duncan tea gardens.

In response, Duncan moved court. The Tea Board stepped back as the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR) - the business sickbay whose approval is required for such takeovers - exists only on paper and is itself being readied for a burial.

Tea Board Chairman Santosh Sarangi recently held a meeting with directors and managers of the 31 gardens to discuss how to bring them back to their feet, but to hardly any positive effect.

Bank debts and their restructuring posed a major obstacle with Sarangi indicating that the government was keen to auction off some of the gardens whose leases have either expired or have been cancelled.

The Tea Board wanted to take over several gardens, but then stepped back

On their part, representatives of the gardens suggested a number of short- and long-term measures, broadly under two categories:

a) Financial restructuring

b) immediate social-sector intervention

The Indian Tea Association, an affiliate of the Bengal Chambers of Commerce and Industry said

both the state and the industry needed to come up with some bold, long-term measures to end the perennial ailment.

But the following short-term urgent steps were also needed:

  • The entire tea estate population needs to be brought under the National Food Security Act

  • Similarly, they should also get better medical facilities
  • All tea workers must be covered by Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act
  • Rastriya Swasthya Bima Yojana currently covers only a third of 1.5 million tea workers. The cover should be made universal
  • Dependents of the workers should be included in the 'below poverty line' list so that they can also be covered under the health insurance scheme.
Read more- On their own: why Kerala women workers' strike isn't just for wages

According to the lobby, both governments need to act together. Its proposals for a revival included:

  • financial restructuring of bank debt

  • continued exemption of green leaf cess
  • waiver of electricity duty
  • provision of separate power connections for irrigation
  • appropriate tariff for workers' houses

Will the governments work on the suggestions? Or will they pass the buck? Is the industry also not responsible in bringing things to such an impasse? More importantly, what is the future of this industry? Such questions are still out in the open as West Bengal readies to go elect a new legislative Assembly in a few months.

Inputs & edits by Joyjeet Das

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First published: 10 February 2016, 7:55 IST
Rajat Roy

Journalist based out of Kolkata.