14 September 2015

North Bengal Tea Workers Face Humanitarian Crisis

A strange situation has arisen in North Bengal — 15 tea estates owned by one the premier companies in tea, Duncans Industries Private Limited, are in a state of limbo. They are neither closed nor open in the usual sense of the terms, with frightening consequences for the workers on the estates. This situation has added one more chapter to the shameful history of hunger in the tea industry. A report on the situation there entitled “Ignoring Hunger:Report on the Situation In Duncans Tea Estates in North Bengal” is being released for the public.

Earlier on September 8, 2015, the Special Commissioner of the Supreme Court on Right to Food after visiting the gardens wrote to the Chief Secretary, West Bengal Government, asking for immediate steps for relief to the workers. He wrote that “the illegal and undeclared stoppage of wage payments and ration payments in the Duncan gardens has resulted in enormous food distress and livelihood distress, as well as considerable hardship to the workers and their families.”  So far, we are not aware of any effective response by the West Bengal Government.

The report shows that closure (or semi-closure) of Duncans’ estates in North Bengal is becoming a humanitarian crisis of vast proportions. Over 75,000 people have been affected. Two cases of deaths probably due to hunger were also found during the study.  Immediate measures need to be taken by the State Government. There has been drastic decline in earnings and consequent severe deterioration in diets. If we add to this the crisis in drinking water in the estates, along with the total collapse of medical care, we seem near a disaster situation.

The State Government has played a negative role in this crisis by ignoring several important lapses by the Duncans management, such as non-renewal of leases to the garden land, non-payment of dues and rations to workers, not depositing Provident Fund money etc. It has in fact turned a blind eye to several illegal acts of the management.

With no realistic plan being put forward by the management to re-open the gardens, the State Government must step in with short term relief measures, which it is obliged to do under the Supreme Court orders on the Right to Food such as an immediate distribution of GR, followed by regular distribution of rations; opening of MGNREGA works and immediate clearing of all due wages under the MGNREGA; extension of medical facilities through mobile medical camps; ensuring safe drinking water supply for the workers etc.

The State Government must also take measures to ensure that the management immediately opens the gardens and runs them properly. In the absence of such initiative by the management, it must begin the search for new owners, after cancelling leases where necessary. It must also ensure that the dues of the workers are paid by the management so that workers do not have to suffer because of the callousness of the employer.

For Right to Food and Work Campaign, West Bengal

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