We are in a major international health crisis unlike any other in recent memory. The coronavirus has now infected over 1.3 million people across the world, with a global death count of close to 81,580 people, according to the WHO on April 9, and these numbers are increasing exponentially by the hour.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) cites social distancing as one of the foremost practices in arresting any further spread of this highly contagious virus. Individuals with pre-existing health conditions are said to have a heightened risk of getting infected. The Government of India, and various state governments, responded swiftly to the pandemic and implemented a nation-wide lockdown to enforce social distancing – the only presently known way of preventing community spread.
Undoubtedly, such a lockdown has caused an inevitable economic crisis that has primarily, and most gravely, affected workers within the informal sector, daily wage workers, and other marginalised groups. Despite this, workers are not being paid wages, and, in many cases, being strong-armed into joining work.
Does panic around the economy justify further harassment and exploitation of these workers?
Workers’ health, safety and nutritional needs have often taken a back seat to the narrative of economic gains on Assam’s tea plantations. The high maternal and infant deaths in Assam, one of the highest in the country, is evidence of this misplaced priority.
There have been multiple reports of large numbers of infant deaths in Assam’s health facilities. Tea plantations are one of the biggest contributors to these high numbers, where quality, or even adequate, healthcare is a distant dream. A dismally low wage of ₹167 adds to the plight of these hard-working people from Adivasi communities, who are stuck in the vicious cycle of poverty and servitude.
Given the track record of poor health and nutritional conditions on tea plantations, including high instances of anaemia and malnutrition, coupled with an extremely poor healthcare infrastructure, Assam’s tea plantation workers are an extremely vulnerable and a high-risk group in the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the above, on April 3, a Government of India order, expanding the scope of the exemptions to the nation-wide lockdown, notified, “…tea industry, including plantation with a maximum of 50% workers.” Effectively stating that millions of tea plantation workers across India can be asked to work through the lock-down period. This puts the lives of workers, their families, and the entire community at a grave and immediate threat of possible exposure to the disease.
Despite many urgent measures being taken globally and even nationally, tea plantation workers are being denied the protection of emergency strategies.
There also persists a severe lack of clarity in decisions being taken by the State and Central governments. For instance, the notification of April 3 introduces ambiguity when read with a March 27 notification of the State government stating, “… to enable the Tea Plantations to ensure essential plant protection, spraying work for pesticide, weedicide, etc. and irrigation may be carried out in tea gardens during lockdown period.”
Despite decades of demands from workers, plantations have not been able to provide even the most basic health facilities. The WHO had advised repeated and persistent testing as another crucial tool in fighting the spread of the disease. The testing rates in Assam is meagre, despite being a recipient state for reverse migration, highlighting the poor state of affairs in the health infrastructure. Therefore the order to permit functioning of plantations during a pandemic could potentially be catastrophic.
Women form over 60% of the workforce on tea plantations, and are particularly vulnerable as the onus of care-taking, providing food and earning a livelihood is often solely on them.
Women will invariably face a higher burden. The All Adivasi Women’s Association of Assam (AAWAA), strongly condemning a similar policy of the government of Assam, estimated that it puts “15 lakh workers at risk”, in Assam alone.
The AAWAA statement clarified, “…We have no reason to believe that any extra care will be taken for women being made to work during the COVID-19 epidemic. In fact, because of these dismal conditions, the women in the tea plantation are already malnourished and highly anaemic which makes them highly vulnerable to infection. Women workers are the backbone of the tea industry and many of them are primary breadwinners in their families. Without immediate support from the government and the industry, women will be forced to work through this critical period and expose themselves to infection.”
In light of the callousness towards health and nutrition of workers, the statement issued by AAWAA stated, “We extend our full support to the women workers in tea plantations in these difficult times and demand that the government take adequate measures to protect them from COVID-19 and the repercussions of the nation-wide lockdown.”
In light of the prevailing conditions, and the policy measures, it is imperative that the Central and State Governments take at least the following measures to remove from harm’s way, the 15 million people on Assam’s tea plantations:
Human life cannot be the opportunity cost for securing the apparent economic needs of an industry. Putting the lives of plantation workers at risk will also undermine the economic interests that are sought to be protected by this action. It is therefore, a double-edged sword and should be rejected at the start.
In the present time of a global crisis, it is imperative that companies and governments work together to secure the lives of the entire population of tea plantation workers in Assam because once it starts to spread, arresting the contagion will be close to impossible.
About the author: Sangeeta Tete is currently working as Program Advocacy Coordinator with Purva Bharati Educational Trust, Jorhat, Assam. She’s a human rights activist with a focus on education, nutrition, gender-based violence and livelihoods of Adivasi women.