Poverty, starvation stalk Bengal tea garden workers (Lead, superseding earlier story)

June 4th, 2008 - 1:56 pm ICT by IANS  

By Aparajita Gupta
Kolkata, June 4 (IANS) The cup that cheers is bringing woes to the thousands who work in West Bengal’s tea gardens, with poverty, malnutrition and starvation deaths making life a living hell for plantation workers in the state’s northern parts.Trade union sources estimate that abject poverty has driven 1,800 tea garden workers in north Bengal to death in the last three to four years. Aloke Chakraborty, general secretary of the central committee of the National Union of Plantation Workers, says 50 percent of the 318 gardens in the Terai and Dooars region in the state were sick, with 14 even closing down.

Even in the so-called healthy estates, the condition of workers is miserable, he adds.

“The problems in the tea estates of north Bengal have been brewing for a long time. Around 1,800 people died during the last three-four years,” Chakraborty told IANS.

There are altogether 8,709 tea gardens in north Bengal, but only 311 are spread over an area of 10 hectares or more. All others are small. The districts that have tea gardens are Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling and North Dinajpur.

“People are dying of starvation. The effects of malnutrition have made worker communities vulnerable to anaemia, tuberculosis, anthrax and severe dysentery,” Chakraborty said.

Chandra Kumar Dhanuka, chairman and managing director of Dhunseri Tea and Industries, also painted a bleak picture for the industry.

“Labour prices have shot up in the last few years. The fertiliser cost has gone up by 25-30 percent. The tea industry is bleeding,” he said.

“In the last 10 years, prices of commodities like wheat and rice have doubled, whereas tea (auction) prices decreased 10 percent,” he said.Chakraborty accused the owners of redirecting profits from the gardens into other businesses.

“Tea garden owners don’t reinvest the profit they earn from tea gardens into the same business or ancillary businesses. They take that profit and invest in some other business at some other place,” he said.

During the past few years, several tea estate owners have abandoned their gardens abruptly without even paying the salaries and provident fund dues of the employees, he said.

“Again, the owners of many running tea gardens don’t pay the gratuity money in one go. Workers get their gratuity sum in paltry instalments,” he said.

Jai Prakash Lodhwar, manager of Pandam Tea Estate and Rangaroon Tea Estate rejected the claim, saying: “Provident fund dues are being cleared. Development work is being carried out by the Tea Board in this region.”

He, however, rued the shortage of manpower in the plucking season when companies generally hire casual workers.

S. Patra, joint-secretary, Indian Tea Association, tried to sound upbeat. “We recorded an all time high tea production in 2006. It was 956 million kg, but declined to 945 million kg in 2007 due to erratic climate,” Patra said.

The year 2006 was good for India’s tea industry as it exported 219 million kg. But the export figure plummeted in 2007 due to competition from Kenya. But a good showing by the tea industry doesn’t guarantee better times for its workers.

Chakraborty was apprehensive the workers’ interests would be further hit because of delay in signing a new wage agreement.

“On March 31, 2008, the wage agreement of the tea workers expired. It is usually done for three years. No new agreement has been chalked out yet. There is a high possibility that in the future when the revised wage structure is announced the workers have to sacrifice their arrears.”

The increasing financial problems in the hills have driven many youths to subversive activities. Women are increasingly opting for prostitution due to poverty and lack of alternative employment, he said.

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