04 December 2010

Tea Garden Starvation Deaths

[Published in Uttar Banga Sambad, August 2007]

The tea industry in the Doars is in the news – for the wrong reasons once again. The spectre of hunger and starvation death seems to haunt it forever. The latest impetus has been provided by a report produced by Uttaran Workers’ Facilitation Centre based on figures given by the CMOH Jalpaiguri. This report places the number of deaths in 14 closed tea gardens at 571 from January 2006 to mid March 2007. The recording of these deaths was part of a laudable effort taken by the CMOH and the District administration to understand the kinds of deaths that have taken place.

 According to the District Magistrate’s Status Report on Relief Measures in Closed Gardens, the population in these 14 gardens is 69038, giving a crude death rate for 2006, when 468 of these deaths occurred, of 6.8 per thousand. This is higher than the crude death rate for West Bengal (6.4 per thousand according to the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare). Of greater concern is the fact that 105 of the total deaths or almost one fifth of these deaths occurred in just two and a half months.

Certain other disturbing facts are also emerging from this report – 329 or 58% of the deaths have been amongst the working age group, amounting to a huge erosion in the work force of these estates. Also, almost all the deaths (89%) took place at home and only 51 of these people were able to reach a hospital before they died, pointing to the near absence of available medical care. Bharnabari, an estate that closed down in January 2006 and had been running regularly before that, reported 79 deaths within 14 months of closure. 

While figures of this type may seem run of the mill to those who deal with rural poverty in India, in the case of the tea industry they seem especially shocking. These are not figures for poverty stricken, chronically backward villages in some remote part of the country- these are deaths in an organised, unionised sector, with clear labour laws. In a sector in which India is still a world leader and where the annual turnover is more that Rs.10,000 crores, it is almost as if the population had no financial or nutritional reserves to fall back on when closure took place.

 Never Enough To Eat A Stomach Full

According to the Committee on Fair Wages, the first committee on wages in independent India, a worker requires 2700 calories per day per person. It needs Rs.27.78 per worker at current prices to provide workers with the food intake recommended by the Committee on Fair Wages. A family of 5 (2 adults and 3 children or 3.5 units, taking each child as half an adult) would therefore require Rs.97.23 per day only for proper nutrition. The present wage rate in the tea gardens of the Doars is Rs.53.50 per day. Workers are also given subsidised rations every week (many gardens report a back log in rations however). These would amount to 9 kgs and 360 grams of food grains per week or 1kg and 340 gms per day for a family of 5 with only 1 worker. Workers pay only 40 paise per kg for these rations, while the market rate would be about Rs.10 per kg. Workers therefore receive Rs.12.84 per day in the form of foodgrains. Along with all the other facilities that workers get under the Plantation Labour Act (fuel, housing, free drinking water etc.) the wage rate would therefore amount Rs. 75-80 per day, which is way below the amount required for proper nutrition, let alone for other requirements.

The impact of low wages on workers’ nutrition is clear from a study done in 2005 by Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS), the International Union of Food Processing, Plantation and Agricultural Workers (IUF) and the American Jewish World Service. The study was done amongst 120 families of tea workers in 2 open and well running, 2 open but sick and 2 closed gardens in the Doars. The study showed that nutritional conditions were very bad in even the 4 open gardens i.e. Based on World Health Organization criteria for Body Mass Index, all four open gardens surveyed can be labeled as “starving communities” or “at critical risk for mortality from starvation.”  35% of workers in 4 open gardens were consuming less than 2400 calories per day (BPL level). At least 32.5 % or one-third families in open gardens had gone hungry due to lack of food for one whole day in the previous year

Studies by the Indian Council of Medical Research in 2006 and 2007 in show similar condition in the Assam tea gardens, where wage structures are similar to those in the Doars
Compared to national standards, the mean height and weight of tea garden children was inferior at all ages. Assessment of nutritional status using WHO recommended anthropometric indicators revealed a high prevalence of malnutrition among tea garden school age children and malnutrition was both chronic and recent in nature.
Almost half the adolescents were stunted (height for age) and all of them were thin (weight for age), 69.9 % adults were thin, 59.9% children were underweight. Prevalence of anemia, worm infestation, filaria, TB, skin problems were significantly high amongst the tea garden population.

When The Worker Falls Sick

According to Section 10 of the Plantation Labour Act 1951, medical facilities are to be provided in each and every plantation.  An NGO, Swadhikar, in a survey of 132 gardens in Jalpaiguri district in 2006 showed that half the gardens did not have qualified doctors. Simple emergency aids such as antiseptic lotions, gauze etc were not available in 51% of the gardens, while 95% of the gardens did not keep anti-snake venom. Many did not dispense free drugs (40%) or reimburse workers for drugs bought outside (45%). Only 4% of the gardens bore all the medical costs for investigations, hospitalization etc.

PBKMS and IUF’s study on closed and reopened tea gardens in 2005 shows similar results. “Of the 13 re-opened plantations for which information is available, in 6 of the plantations, medical facilities were said to be non-existent or almost non existent…. Qualified doctors were not available in most of the gardens. The medical reimbursements for the labourers and the members of staff have been pending for years together. Ambulance facilities were also not available in most of the gardens. An example from Toorsa TE would make this clearer. Lolit Koirala led us to the ward of the garden hospital. There we met a TB patient, who has been lying in the bed for three months. He was unable to walk and could not even speak properly. According to him, he had not been getting medicine for the last seven days. He had never been given food from the hospital. There was no attendant. His family members were attending to him after finishing the day’s work in the garden. It was impossible for them to stop work as “no work means no pay”. In Carron TE, the patients admitted to the plantation hospital were receiving a broth of rice (phena bhat) with salt or boiled potatoes as food.”

After low levels of wages and very little medical treatment, it is not surprising therefore that closure should lead to a rapid rise in deaths.

A Crisis of Profits?

Why then are workers in this state in the tea industry? Is the industry gripped by a crisis? Is that why workers are not getting sufficient wages?

Owners and owner associations have been blaming various factors like global competition and fall in prices for a crisis in the tea industry. However there are various other factors that come to light when one examines what is happening in the tea industry. For example there has been a consistent rise in the difference between the price that consumers have to pay for tea and the price at which producers sell in the auction markets. Many people in the industry believe that large buyers have been colluding on the auction floor to artificially depress prices paid to producers and are reaping profits in the process. Many also argue that the industry is not primarily export oriented. Only 17% of Indian tea is exported while the rest is consumed in India. And, the Indian tea market is an expanding one. Hence, global competition should not have created such a problem.

Paradoxically, the world leaders in the tea sector- Tata Tea and Hindustan Unilever – seem to have been flourishing during the period when the tea crisis gripped workers in the Doars, leading to starvation deaths. According to an IUF report presented at a national tea unions meeting from 1st to 3rd June 2007 in Kolkata, Hindustan Unilever has totally divested its investment in plantations during 2001 -2006, the period of the tea crisis. It has shifted all its plantations to subsidiary companies. In March 2005 it shifted 12,400 workers to different companies. It no longer produces any garden tea, though it still produces 61,481 tonnes of packed tea. Its sales of tea have come down by 13% from 2001 to 2006, but all this does not mean that Hindustan Unilever (like the workers in tea) is in decline – from 2005 to 2006, its net profits after taxes went up by 32%.

IUF’s report also shows that Tata Tea is also following the same policy – of disinvesting in plantations. It has reduced its employees from 1999-2006 by 25,864. Its payments to workers have come down by Rs.40 crores from 2001 to 2006. However its profits during this period increased by Rs.86 crores, up by 87%, showing that almost half its profits (Rs.40 crores) came from a decrease in payments made to workers. Even more shocking and glaring in comparison to the plight of tea workers are the profits that Tata Tea has made by buying and selling US health drink maker Glaceau. Tata Tea bought this company in August 2006 and sold it in May 2007. In a period of just nine months it has made a profit of Rs.2144 crores – enough to pay its entire workforce for the next 17 years!

What we are seeing then is a restructuring of the tea industry- the larger companies are moving away from plantations through selling them or transferring them. They are instead concentrating on brand names and selling of manufactured products. The place of production for tea is no longer important- it does not matter whether one is growing Assam tea or Doars tea. What matters is the brand – Tata Tea, Brooke Bond, Red Label etc. and it is possible that the larger players now buy their tea from anywhere in the world and package and sell it in their brand name. The possession of plantations is therefore no longer relevant to them.

Many other players in the tea industry have allowed their plantations to deteriorate through lack of investment. When the boom years were on, many owners and companies took money out of tea and invested it elsewhere. Factories were allowed to deteriorate, tea bushes were allowed to become older and older without replanting. One hears many stories in the Doars of employers who have used bank loans and money given for repalnting by the Tea Board for replanting in sectors other than tea.

The entire industry is being restructured- small growers are becoming more important, bought leaf factories are being allowed to proliferate and there is very little initiative to see that new laws or old laws like the Plantation Labour Act apply to the workers in these new enterprises.

At the bottom end of this spectrum are the workers in closed and abandoned tea gardens- the victims of the restructuring of the industry for whom no safety net is available, who suffer the worst consequences of this restructuring while some companies reap huge profits. The plight of these workers is also used as a threat for workers in open gardens. The general feeling amongst workers in open gardens is  “if we crib too much about our working conditions, the garden could close down. So let’s all keep our mouths shut”. Closure thus leads not only to the suffering of workers in closed gardens – it has also become an instrument fro the oppression of workers in open gardens.

The Government’s Role

The irresponsibility of Government is very visible in this entire process. They have allowed owners and large companies to reap huge profits with little plough back for development and workers’ welfare. They have also allowed employers to run away with workers’ money.  Till September 2005, in 22 gardens that had been closed in 2004 in Jalpaiguri district or were still closed, workers’ dues were Rs.36.62 crores. The Government has taken few or no steps to recover this huge amount (equivalent to 17 months of wages for all workers in closed gardens). These dues include even workers’ contributions- money that employers have deducted from workers’ salaries as payment toward Provident Fund, but which they have later not deposited with the Provident Fund Commissioner. This is in spite of the fact that existing laws like the Provident Fund Act and the Tea Act have sufficient provision for the Government to take stringent measures against recalcitrant employers. Thus under Section 8B of the PF Act, the authorised officer has the power to arrest and detain the employer; attach and sell his moveable and immovable property; and, appoint a receiver for the management of the movable and immovable property of the employer or establishment. The Tea Act also has clear provisions under Section 16D for the takeover of estates that are not running properly and/or are not paying due wages to the employees. It is in fact after 7 years of the crisis that the Minister for Commerce, Shri Jairam Ramesh has talked of using the Tea Act against owners.

The State Government was also pushed by the Supreme Court in January 2004 to provide relief measures to the workers. The State Government by an affidavit in the Supreme Court assured that it had extended facilities for BPL families to all permanent workers in closed estates. It also began a system of providing subsidised Antodaya Anna Yojana rations, work under Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana (and now National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or NREGA) to the workers, facilities to children and mothers under the ICDS and the midday meal scheme, drinking water and medical facilities. In addition Rs. 500 per month (now Rs.750) is also being provided. There have been regular reviews almost once every six months of the implementation of the Supreme Court orders. These reviews reveal innumerable problems in the implementation of the schemes- irregularity and delays in giving the benefits lead to considerable suffering amongst workers. What is however even more important is calculations show that even if these orders were implemented with a 100% efficiency and if, along with Government schemes, workers were to get at least 100 days of plucking work in the peak season, workers would be earning only Rs.380 per capita per month, which is well below the poverty line.


Workers themselves have always expressed dissatisfaction with the relief schemes and have wanted instead their gardens to be reopened. There has also been a great deal of talk recently about a tea revival package by the Central Government and Shri Jairam Ramesh has also been speaking of re-opening of abandoned gardens. While re-opening should be welcomed, one must also learn from the experience of 2005 when re-opening led to a reduction of closed gardens from 22 in 2004 to only 6.

Only one in the 9 re-opening agreements that PBKMS examined in 2005 during its study, was there an agreement to repay dues. A review done by PBKMS in December 2006 show that even a year and a half after re-opening, the situation was largely unchanged. If we are not to make a total joke of the rights of workers, clearing of all past dues must be one of the pre-conditions for re-opening of any garden by a private owner. One cannot expect workers to forego money that ahs been deducted from their wages and has been siphoned off by owners instead of depositing with the PF Commissioner. It is not necessary here that the new owner should be liable for this- legal action against the old owner could form a part of the actions taken for re-opening.

Also, in 2005, fly by night financiers and middlemen were often the ones who re-opened the gardens. Estates were opened only during the plucking season. Little development work was done. Closed gardens are thus being sucked dry by such rogue employers. Any new private employer must therefore begin uprooting, new re-plantation and other development work from the start of taking over a garden. A plan for development must thus form an essential part of any re-opening agreement.

The general practice is also for tri-partite meetings for re-opening to take place far away from the garden in the presence of a few trade union representatives alone. There is great resentment amongst workers in general about not being consulted when agreements for re-opening of gardens take place. All re-opening agreements must therefore be finalised after a consultation with a general assembly of all workers in a garden, even if such agreements are provisionally approved by trade union leaders in tri- partite meetings beforehand.
In some gardens (for example, Shikarpur and Raipur) workers through the Operating and Managing Committee have invested their hard earned wages for new plantation and development of the garden. If such gardens are handed over to private employers, all such money spent by the workers should be returned to them before re-opening.

In gardens such as Shikarpur, workers’ cooperatives are in a nascent stage. Workers have had a fair amount of success in running these gardens without an employer. In fact, they have been more responsible about the development of the garden and the welfare of the workers than any previous employer. The success of Durgabari TE in Tripura also shows that with proper State support, workers can run closed gardens very well. It would therefore be wise that in all cases where there are workers’ cooperatives or nascent coopertives, such cooperatives must be given the first preference in the handing over of the garden for re-opening. Support, (financial, legal and technical) must be extended to such workers’ cooperatives by the Government.

Immediate measures

Re-opening must be a long drawn procedure if one is to do it in a manner that is sustainable. A study of each garden’s viability and a proper plan for its re-opening must be made. There should be a clear prediction of how the capital needed to develop it will be arranged and how workers’ dues will be paid. All this requires careful planning, in which it is essential that the Government takes an active role in order to safeguard the future of the workers.
The immediate future however asks for gardens to be running and providing sufficient work and income to the workers if we are to prevent further deaths. A possibility for this is to immediately expand the work under NREGA through provision of funds from the State Government’s exchequer. The West Bengal Government, to show that it is genuinely concerned with the plight of tea workers should guarantee 200 days of work to workers of closed tea gardens. On 31st March 2007, 14 gardens were closed with 16,900 workers affected. This would therefore involve an extra expenditure of about Rs.16.90 crores per year (Rs.100 per day for wages and materials x 100 days x 16,900 workers) and would be well within the reach of the State Government. If possible, part of the wages in this scheme should be provided in food grains at BPL prices to ensure food security. One component of the above scheme could be to use the person days provided to do pruning and other developmental works that are so far being neglected due to lack of funds with the garden level OMCs. In order to ensure that Government funds are not used to enhance the assets of private tea garden owners, development work could be undertaken only in gardens where leases have lapsed or have been cancelled.

Along with this what we need is good monitoring of what is happening in the closed gardens. Systems of early warning that inform the administration about crises and untimely deaths in all closed gardens must be put in place. In order to ensure that relief schemes reach the beneficiaries in a timely manner, the administration had for a short period started a system of having one deputy magistrate in charge of one closed garden. This should be continued and visits by the deputy magistrate periodically should be undertaken. Complaints books under NREGA and as per Supreme Court orders must be made available at all levels and regular hearings by these deputy magistrates on complaints must be conducted.

We have expressed enough shock about the deaths in tea gardens. We have debated enough about whether the deaths were due to starvation or not. Let us put this all behind us and now begin to see that closed gardens become economically viable entities that provide their workers with a decent standard of living.

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