As Elections Approach, Will Someone Finally Pay Attention To Bengal’s Dying Tea Workers?

Posted on November 25, 2015 in Politics

By Abhishek Jha

Three women pluck tea leaves at a tea gardens in the Himalayan town of Darjeeling on June 9. More than 60 percent of the tea garden workers are women. They earn 38 rupees ($1 = 43 rupees) a day. JS/DL/WS - RTRQ273
Women at a tea garden in Darjeeling. Image source: Reuters
The tea gardens of West Bengal might finally see some relief as assembly elections draw near in the state. However, despite some stop-loss measures that the incumbent chief minister might have made, the condition of the workers living in the tea estates remains abysmal, a report published last Sunday in the Indian Express shows. Some of these tea estates had started shutting without proper procedure, the report says, as early as 2002 leading to over thousand deaths.

However, this is not the first report that has rung the alarm bells for the tea estates spread over the Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling districts. The state labour minister had himself initiated a survey in 2012 for the same and had learnt of the same results. A synopsis of the report on all the 273 tea estate had been prepared by 2013 but has not yet been made public, although portions of it have been published on Down To Earth. Reports of surveys of NGOs indicating malnourishment of the labour force too had been published earlier this year. It is only after an apparent intervention from the centre that Mamata Bannerjee toured the region earlier this month.

A tea picker collects tea leaves at a tea estate at Naxalbari in the north eastern state of West Bengal, September 3, 2004. Tea exports had plummeted from 200 million kg in 2002 to 180 million kg last year. The slump in prices and exports was largely attributed to inferior quality of tea being produced by various Indian gardens, besides the loss of Pakistan and Iraq as potential buyers. The Indian tea industry had projected an estimated production of about 850 million kilograms this year. - RTXMWX4
Image source: Reuters

But the sub-text of the Express report reading ‘too little too late’ can be read in the negligence that has gone on despite deaths spanning over a period of more than a decade. The Tea Act of 1953 provide the Central government with powers to “make, or cause to be made, a full and complete investigation into the affairs of the tea undertaking or, as the case may be, tea unit, by such person or body of persons it may appoint for the purpose,” if either the estate makes losses; or produces an yield lower than the district average by twenty-five percent; or habitually makes “default in the payment of wages, or provident fund dues of workers and other employees, or rent of the land, or duties of exercise or such other dues”; or “is being managed in a manner highly detrimental to the tea industry or to public interest.” The complaints that are making news now are along the same lines as these sub-clauses written in the law.

The state government too cannot feign ignorance of the plight of the workers in these estates. The Plantation Labour Act, which provides for medical facilities, canteens, education, etc- all of which are being reported to be absent- also gives powers to the state government to appoint a Chief Inspector and Inspectors subordinate to him for making inquiry and examination into the implementation of the law.

Unfortunately, for government making lapses in exercising its powers, there is little punishment. The dethroning of the incumbent CPI(M) seems to have had little effect on the reinvigoration of the state machinery and has brought almost no change in the plight of the workers of the tea estates. In light of the assembly elections, the plight of the workers is in the news. One hopes at least an election will save them.

Indian tea pickers arrive for work at a tea estate at Naxalbari in the north eastern state of West Bengal, September 3, 2004. Tea exports had plummeted from 200 kg million in 2002 to 180 million kg last year. The slump in prices and exports was largely attributed to inferior quality of tea being produced by various Indian gardens, besides the loss of Pakistan and Iraq as potential buyers. The Indian tea industry had projected an estimated production of about 850 million kilograms this year. - RTXMWX6
Indian tea pickers arrive for work at a tea estate at Naxalbari in the north-eastern state of West Bengal, September 3, 2004. Tea exports had plummeted from 200 kg million in 2002 to 180 million kg last year. The slump in prices and exports was largely attributed to inferior quality of tea being produced by various Indian gardens, besides the loss of Pakistan and Iraq as potential buyers. The Indian tea industry had projected an estimated production of about 850 million kilograms this year. Image source: Reuters

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