10 July 2014

Food Campaign Team Finds Shocking Conditions At Tea Garden

A 12-member team from the Right to Food and Work Campaign, West Bengal on the first day of their survey of closed tea gardens visited Bandapani, the situation there is grim, to say the least. Twenty-nine deaths have taken place after closure since 13th July 2013. Three other persons are on death row. They are:

Amrit Jhora, aged 23, suffering from malnutrition and barely able to walk. The family has shown him to the National Rural Health Mission clinic being run by an NGO, MANT, for the last one year, but it has not helped. He has to be carried to the NGO’s camp, but this is not always possible. Surprisingly the NGO has not referred him to any other place.  Nanki Soren (aged 60 years) no family, husband has already died. No ration card or any other benefits. Abha Soren a neighbour feeds her occasionally- one meal a day. Mukesh Goala (23 years) suffering from diabetes according to his widowed mother. No earning member in the family.

The garden is not re-opening because it is mired in illegalities. Despite that, the Government has not taken corrective action. The lease given by the State Government has lapsed since 2006, and the ownership of the TG is now in dispute. The present “owner”, M/s Sarada Pleasure and Adventure Ltd, has been operating in the name of the past owner, M/s Alipurduar Enterprises Ltd, who in turn is not legally in possession of the tea garden land. The lapsed lease seems to be in the name of a third party. The disputed ownership is now acting as a problem to get a new owner. The management has also not deposited Provident Fund dues of about Rs.3.1 crores since 2002; electricity bills amounting to Rs.10-14 lakhs are lying unpaid; wages and salaries amounting to Rs.1 crore, gratuity of Rs.1 crore and bonus of Rs. 56 lakhs have not been paid.

The Labour Department and the district magistrate have called several meetings for re-opening, but the owner has not responded. In February 2014, the DM wrote to the Land Reforms and Land Revenue Department asking for lease cancellation. No progress is reported after that.

In the name of domestic work, many able bodied young women have been taken to cities and other places in Delhi, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim. One woman was sexually assaulted while at work and was forced to come back from Punjab when she was pregnant . She was taken to Delhi and then Punjab by an agent. Four to five agents seem to have free access to the garden, and they are reported to take away half the salary of the women they put in employment. Despite such problems, within this week, about 3-4 women from Chaibasa line say that they will be forced to leave for Bangalore as they have no other way of surviving in the garden.

The team found gross violation of Supreme Court orders on facilities to be given in closed gardens. While AAY rations are available, FAWLOI (family Allowance for Workers in Locked Out Industry) forms are just being distributed. NREGS works are largely unavailable. Drinking water is a severe problem, with insufficient, highly contaminated water often with worms coming from a Bhutan stream. Medical facilities being provided by an NGO under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) do not meet the NRHM norms, with most medicines having to be bought. Ambulance facilities are unavailable as are good referral services.

The team found stunted children and anaemic adults in the garden population. Most depend on stone collection from the river with an income of Rs.50-100 per day for a living. Many families reported eating only once a day. Huge numbers are migrating or getting trafficked.
Before coming to the gardens some members of the team had met the Food Minister, who had informed us of a number of positive measures being taken. The attitude of the Government towards this problem was seen by us as being very encouraging. However, however, our experience tells us that these measures still need more effort to percolate to the affected people.

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