65 die of starvation, future bleak for lakhs of north Bengal tea workers

Siliguri,Amrita Madhukalya: At about 3 pm on September 15 early this year, Rajman Lohar passed away in his modest home in Hantapara. A permanent worker at the Hantapara Tea Estate, owned by the Duncan Brothers tea company, Rajman died because he received no treatment from the garden’s hospital for the continuous stomach pain he was suffering from in the 15-20 days before his death. The local Madarihat government health centre, too did not help. His widow, Behani Lohar, is now taking care of the four children, one of whom is physically-impaired. The family has a debt of Rs 10,000 in the local grocery store, and her children now contribute by crushing stones at a nearby quarry.

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Behani is not alone, she is among the tens of thousands of tea workers that have been severely affected by the closure of tea gardens in the area. About 25 tea plantation gardens in the Terai-Dooars area have stopped production due to rising costs of production, leaving lakhs of workers and their families in the lurch. During the last severe crisis in the North Bengal estates in 2003-04, over 30 estates shut down without a closure notice. In 2010-11, another 14-15 estates were closed. According to the Right to Food Campaign, for the 12 estates for which government data from a 2013 survey is available, the number of workers affected is 18,323, while the number of families of workers affected are 11,196, and the total population affected is 74,190.

The situation of hunger has now resulted in several starvation deaths. In the last six months, 65 workers have died, with 21 dead in Birpara tea estate, 16 in Hantapara, 15 in Dhumchipara, 7 in Gargandya and 6 in Nageswari.

In the 14 families from four estates that the were questioned by the Right to Food campaign about their food intake at present, it was found that 10 of the families are consuming less than 1800 calories every day, while 7 below 1400, revealing extreme starvation. Consumption of milk, eggs, pulses and oil is practically nil.

This rout has also led to the exploitation of women workers, who form 70% of the workforce. A fact-finding mission conducted by a network of NGOs and civil rights bodies including FIAN International, Right to Food, and several experts found that women workers are paid less than 1% of price of a kilo of tea, are expected to be active till the last day of pregnancy, and specific needs like breast-feeding are denied.

Anuradha Talwar of the Right to Food Campaign India said that cases of exploitation and low wages have now led to prostitution and child abuse. “In our fact-finding reports in North Bengal, we had seen that men were migrating to other states, women, too are migrating now. There is a strong likelihood of trafficking here. In Birpara estate in Duncan’s, women are now going to the nearby towns for prostitution, because the tourist season has started,’ she said. “In Nowera-Naddy estate, which is owned by the Tata’s Amalgamated Plantations, cases of child labour has started. This is not within the gardens, but the children are now going to other estates for cash-plucking.”

The children who are paid by the kilo work anywhere between 10 to 12 hours a day. Of the 100 children they questioned, Right to food found that 70 were girls and 30 were boys. Talwar said that the group is submitting a report to the Supreme Court.