07 November 2015

This Is No Storm In A Teacup

Guest Post by Harsh Mander

[The sudden withdrawal by some tea plantation managements in North Bengal of not just regular employment, but also all a series of life-enabling services is proving to be nothing short of catastrophic for workers.]

A largely invisible, grim, humanitarian crisis, of mounting hunger, looms over several thousand North Bengal tea garden workers. Duncans, a leading tea company with 15 plantations in Darjeeling and the Himalayan foothills, has plunged its workers into a precarious state of illegal limbo. It has neither formally closed its gardens nor is it running operations normally, with devastating consequences for the survival and future of around 15,000 workers and their families.
The company began tea operations in India in 1857, clearing large swathes of dense forests in North Bengal to establish its extensive tea plantations. With other British plantation companies, it transported industrious tribal people from Chota Nagpur and Santal Parganas as indentured, near-slave labour. After Independence, ownership of these companies gradually passed into Indian hands. Although nominally free now, workers continued to work in near-colonial conditions. The dependence and submissiveness of the workers was partly secured by paying part-wages in kind, as food rations, housing and health services. Until recently, most tea worker households were not even issued Public Distribution System (PDS) ration cards. Instead, State governments supplied PDS grain to companies to issue to workers.

In these conditions, if tea garden managements suddenly withdraw these supplies, workers are left singularly defenceless and precarious. The first such crisis was thrust upon workers of 30 tea gardens in North Bengal in 2003-04, when they were illegally closed and abandoned overnight by owners who no longer found them to be commercially viable. Instead of first securing the interests of the workers and gardens, they simply disappeared. On my visits to the gardens at that time, I found several worker households facing conditions of actual starvation.

A similar situation has arisen today with the illegal semi-closure of 15 gardens by Duncans. Early in 2015, the management abruptly stopped paying wages to its workers. It also terminated food rations. It cut electricity and drinking water supplies to worker colonies. For several years, pensions and provident funds had not been paid. Gardens were not maintained, and ageing, unproductive tea bushes, some a hundred years old, were not replaced. Workers’ houses were not maintained for years. Workers allege both apathy and runaway corruption by the management.

Such illegal semi-closure would jeopardise critically the future of workers in any industry. But tea worker communities have been brought up for generations in forced direct dependence on the management even for basic essentials such as food, clean drinking water, housing and health care. For them, sudden withdrawal by the management of not just regular employment, but also all these life-enabling services, is nothing short of catastrophic.

I found workers surviving by travelling to neighbouring gardens and working at low, piece-work rates. These garden managements are profiting from their distress; they pick them up in buses for which they are charged, and workers are forced to spend longer hours to earn far less in uncertain casual employment, with no job security or additional benefits. Others are mining stones on riverbeds and several younger workers have migrated to Bhutan, Kerala, Delhi and Tamil Nadu. Children are dropping out of school and joining the workforce to bring some food to the table. Adding to worker distress, many are dependent on untreated stream water for drinking. No Duncan tea estate has a functioning hospital since 2000: without doctors, medicine, and occasionally a nurse.

Those we found most threatened by hunger were single women, those ailing and the elderly. Phulo Munda, for instance, is a widow of 57 years. As a permanent worker, she earned around Rs.1,600 a month. But since the undeclared closure, she has received no wages. She has only one meal a day. When strong enough, she trudges to the river bed to break stones, for which she gets Rs.70 a week. For August 2015, she earned just Rs.150. The condition of her house is appalling, with virtually no walls. The wooden pillars to support the tin roof were also bought by her. When it rains, she squats with an umbrella inside the house, awake the whole night. Every day she walks 3 kilometres to fetch drinking water, and collects firewood from the forests nearby. Food, fuel and housing were all guaranteed in the past by the management.

This purgatory situation of semi-closure is patently illegal, but labour officials and trade unions have done little to hold the management and owners accountable. The State government has also not started wage work or restored health care, drinking water or electricity in worker habitations. In the inverse government morality of our times, States defend morally and legally culpable failures by wealthy plantation owners and their corrupt and inept managements. Workers are left defenceless, thrown to the edge of survival. 

Harsh Mander is a human rights worker, writer and teacher
(This article was originally published in The Hindu)