10 July 2014

Second Day's Visit To Tea Gardens: Procession Of Death Continues

The procession of death remains unabated in the closed tea gardens. We had reported yesterday of 3 persons we had met in Bandapani Tea Gardens (TG) who were near death. Unfortunately, the first news we have got this morning is of the death of Mukesh Goala, one of these three persons. It has induced in all of us a feeling of great helplessness and anger at the injustice of life in the tea estates, where on the one hand owners make huge profits, paying a measly wage of Rs.95 to workers, abandoning gardens with impunity and on the other hand young men like Mukesh Goala die untimely deaths due to hunger and poverty.

The death remains unregistered in any official record and unmarked, part of many such unknown tragedies that take place here every day.

Our second day was spent in Dheklapara Tea Estate. This estate has been closed since 2006. It has been tied up in litigation with the Tea Board as one of the parties. The Tea Board was asked to take over the garden by the High court under Section 16 E of the Tea Act. The Tea Board has after 4-5 years of legal wrangling said it was unable to find a new buyer or run the garden in any other manner. Right now, a group of garden labour owing allegiance to the Trinamool Congress-run the garden selling leaves to a broker. This is done separately in two parts of the garden with the Nirpania division reporting payment of Rs.45 each day to each plucker and a sharing of the profits, while the main division pays Rs.35 per day. There are reports that the labour have recently asked the BDO for permission to allow them to do plantation of new bushes.

Besides plucking, the adults and children from the garden also work in collecting stone and sand from the river, stone breaking, work in a brick field, and at an Army construction site nearby. Earnings range from Rs.100 to Rs.140 per day.

Dheklapara has been the focus of the present Government’s relief efforts. Since December 2012, when it became the focus of attention due to many deaths, as well as threats of suicide by surviving workers, two successful community kitchens catering to about 150 destitute people are being run. Electricity has been given to all people. Water supply has improved. Antodaya rations are given regularly. The FAWLOI and old age pensions are being given with some delays. NREGS works are there though with delays in payment.

Despite the above, we got reports of at least 7 deaths from the three lines to which we had access. (In one line we were stopped from collecting information by rowdies who informed us that they were from the Trinamool Congress)

We also found three persons who were on the verge of death due to hunger. Budu Oraon, (62) has been suffering from low pressure .He fell down about a month ago. The family has kept him in one room. As he is unable to move and is bedridden, he soils himself. Medical aid is needed on an urgent basis in order to save his life.

Rabi Tanti from Beech line died 2 months ago after his FAWLOI (Family Allowance for Workers in Locked Out Industry) was stopped as he had crossed the age of 58. His wife Champa Tanti (59) is now in dire straits. With FAWLOI stopped and a 19 years old son who has no source of income, the family is hungry and Champa is likely to die. Mohan Khariya (57) s/o late Habil wife Surajmani (50). Both he and his wife get food from the community kitchen run under the Sahay scheme.

The above shows the limitation of Government relief efforts even when they are comparatively well run. Dheklapara and other closed gardens need re-opening more than anything. The workers of tea gardens need fair wages- not the paltry Rs.95 that they get presently.

The workers in Dheklapara should be helped to form a cooperative and to run their garden themselves, as many workers want this. Attempts to find an owner have failed and the seeds of self-running are already there- they need to be nurtured with good Government help and proper accountability systems. The tendency of rowdies with political patronage to control people managed processes must be controlled.
Related Read ('The Hindu'): Three Bandapani tea garden wokers bed-ridden: NGOs, trade unions

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