What every exquisite cup of tea fails to narrate is the plight and agony of those workers who have been heavily exploited and marginalized for generations. Beyond the romanticised notions of the beautiful hills and tea estates, the “the two leaves and a bud”, and the “cheerful faces of its people”, what remains invisible is the ugly truth of sub-human wages and living conditions, denial of basic rights of workers, more than a thousand starvation deaths and seething anger.
Once again the Hills, Terai and Dooars of Gorkhaland are gripped in seething angst when they are forced to witness the misery of its own people in the form of hunger and starvation deaths. It is outrageous to see the workers of a multi-million industry (tea plantation) dying a slow and painful death due to hunger and starvation. Most deaths are occurring in tea gardens that are owned by the rich corporate houses of Britain and India. Only recently, from April, 2015 till date, 70 workers died due to chronic hunger and starvation in this region.
Every tea garden you would visit in free India echoes the cries of labourers who have been bonded and forced to work on paltry wages. Among many such are the tea gardens of Darjeeling and Dooars whose scenic beauty and unparalleled flavour of tea have gained world reputation, whereas the state of the livelihoods of workers (especially tea-garden labourers) suffering perennial misery and insecurity remain unheard and ignored. The region has remained in grip of the predatory claws of imperialism and colonization which has obscenely exploited its resources, both natural and human in the worst forms. It would be erroneous to estimate the scale of this open loot by factoring in only monetary losses in the form of wages and incomes. In fact, the ramifications of the denial of the same has spilled out to cause starvation (in many cases amounting to death), malnourishment of children, denial of proper education, health care, sanitation and housing, erosion of self-confidence, forced migration for work, sex slavery and human trafficking in the most hazardous industries.
Workers have witnessed rampant flouting of labour laws which has made a brazen mockery of their rights. According to law, each tea garden worker must receive, apart from their daily wages, provident fund payments, bonuses, pension (for retired workers), ration, umbrellas and aprons for working, firewood for cooking, housing, electricity, water, medical care and education facilities. The last time the workers got ration in Dhumchipara was in 2011. In Dhumchipara Tea estate in Dooars, a poor woman having two children has been reduced almost to a skeleton due to starvation. These children who have been becoming immobile due to chronic hunger and poor health require at least 750 ml of blood which their family cannot afford. Doctors say, “They may not live long.” Such cases of starvation induced illnesses and death in the tea-gardens of Darjeeling and Dooars are too numerous to quote here.
The irony of this situation is lies in the presence of stark poverty, chronic hunger and exploitation alongside the colossal profits these tea-gardens generate for the owners and the State. According to an estimate by the Darjeeling Chamber of Commerce, tea industry in the hills generates an average revenue of Rs. 450 crore annually, equal to that of the tourism industry in the region.
Absence of workers’ rights, non-payment of minimum wages and benefits is not specific to the tea-industry alone but is rather a persistent feature of work in the highly segment labour-market in India. However, it is pertinent to highlight here the regional aspects of discrimination that are visible in the tea industry. The minimum wage paid to unskilled tea labour in Kerala is Rs.254, in Tamil Nadu it is Rs 209, in Karnataka it is Rs 228, in neighbouring Sikkim it is Rs. 220 while the same in Darjeeling comes to a meagre Rs.112.5. Even the minimum wage paid in West Bengal for MGNREGA is around Rs. 130-151 and for agricultural labourers is Rs. 206 per day.
The tea workers in North Bengal are thus made to work for wages which are far below the minimum in any form of work. It is very shrewd on the part of the owners to claim that low wages are due to low price being earned from the sales of tea leaves produced from these gardens. If this is the case then why are the wages of workers same in those tea gardens which fetches the highest price in the world tea market (for instance Rs. 1.1 lakhs per kg of tea is produced by Makaibari tea garden but wages remain still at Rs.112).
In the last decade more than 1400 tea workers have died due to acute malnutrition and starvation. As recent as January 2013, 95 workers of the locked out Dheklapara Tea Estate in Dooars sent a letter to the Chief Minister of West-Bengal seeking her “order” to kill themselves because they were suffering from acute starvation. The tea workers therefore are forced to languish till they die of hunger and malnutrition. Studies show that 70% of the people of the closed tea gardens suffer from chronic energy deficiency III stage. In the gardens affected by starvation death, it was found that workers and their families have Body Mass Index (BMI) identical to those populations affected by severe famine.
As the tentacles of exploitative markets are always spreading in search of cheap labour; men, women and children in these regions are facing increasing vulnerability to Human Traffickers. A report of a joint study by UNICEF, Save the Children and Burdwan University (in 2010) estimates 3,500 minors were trafficked from 12 gardens of Dooars only. It’s certain that the total number of people forced into sex trade will be much higher when we add up those from Darjeeling Hills and the Terai region.
Mass casualization of workers is another problem because of which even the base minimum services (health, rations and lodging) that the tea estates have to provide under the Plantation Labour Act, 1951 can’t be accessed by a majority of its labourers. Whereas, the price of first flush (the costliest batch in the tea production cycle) is deliberately kept a secret by the owners to ensure that workers don’t raise their demand for higher wages. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) too in its 2005 report clearly bemoans the sad plight of tea workers. It states that the Tea Board which is the regulating authority of the Tea Industry has failed to fulfill its stipulated function. They have continuously ignored wage and provident fund defaults of tea estates, while portraying this crisis only as a marketing mismanagement. The ILO report also suspects that there is collusion between the planters and the State which is highlighted by the non implementation of the Tea Act, 1953.
The Supreme Court’s order dated 06.08.10 categorically directs the Government of India to carry out its statutory duty under Tea Act 1953. The Act mandates the Central Government to take over the management/control of the tea undertakings/units (under section 16 B/D/E) and take steps thereafter to ensure that the interests of the workers are well protected and dues are all paid in time. Sadly the constitutional duty to uphold the ruling of the highest court of the country has not been carried out neither by the Central Government nor by the State Government. Contrary to this the government has even started to privatise a handful of tea gardens which was operated under its supervision.
Beyond some symbolic gestures and tokenism, the larger political establishment has shown apathy and indifference of the highest order in this issue. Also the survey of condition of tea gardens workers done by West Bengal labour department is not made public yet. For truth is too gory to reveal to public. Adding insult to injury, Labour minister Malay Ghatak denied allegations that there had been deaths from malnutrition and lack of treatment in closed tea gardens and asserted that the government was trying its best to provide relief. If narratives of political establishment are to be believed then it seems that the workers have voluntarily starved themselves to death.
The historic victory (forcing management to increase wages and bonus) by tea estate workers mostly led by women in Munnar, Kerala has shown that only the uncompromising collective struggle can break the status quo and force the tea management/owner to bow to their demands.
The students from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi University (DU), Hyderabad Central University (HCU), Vishva Bharati University (VBU) have expressed their solidarity with the movement of workers and expressed outrage over the horrendous exploitation of workers by big corporate houses. As the workers and trade unions are collectively protesting (since 27th November, 2015), we believe this solidarity statement will strengthen their resolve to fight for their right and also help us bridge the gap between students and workers movements. When oppressors are always united and consolidated, it is a historic responsibility on our shoulders to unite and fight for a just and egalitarian society!
We also demand that:
1. Closed and abandoned tea estates be reopened immediately.
2. Stop privatisation of government operated tea gardens.
3. Declare and implement Minimum Wage for tea plantation workers.
4. Grant legal ownership of housing space to workers
5. Casual labour should also be brought under the purview of Plantation Labour Act, 1951.
6. Backlog of unpaid Provident fund and gratuity should be cleared without delay.