In June, when Commerce Minister Jairam Ramesh told an all-women’s delegation that his ministry intends to allocate a financial package of Rs 4,650 crores for tea plantation workers, they told him the proposal was skewed. Their grounds: the government is concentrating on garden owners and giving a go-by to the workers, mainly women and children.
Presenting the minister with a voluminous report on starvation deaths and the state of tea garden workers in Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Coochbehar districts of West Bengal, the delegation, including Planning Commission member Dr Syeda Hameed, pointed out that in this day and age, women were mauled by elephants and children travel almost 20 kilometres to reach the nearest school.
In Dheklapara Tea Estate for instance, apart from children being vulnerable to elephant and snake attacks, they had to cross two mountain rivers to take an exam. Water, wherever available, was polluted due to dolomite poisoning.
A report put together by Save the Garden, Save the Workers organisation points out that starvation deaths occurred due to unemployment and there were three suicide attempts due to financial constraints. “The workers carried a deep feeling of cheating and blackmail by their trade union leaders and owners of the estates,” the report said.
The minister had promised to rework the package to help the affected workers and their families. But nothing has been done so far.
An agitated Mohini Giri, former chairperson the National Commission for Women, told HT the government’s revival package is “for the tea estate owners, not the poor workers. I have visited mental asylums, prostitution dens and prisons but I have seen nothing like the plight of tea plantation workers. It is living death.”
Sreerupa Mitra Chaudhury, chairperson, Institute of Gender Justice, who led the delegation, said, “The minister (Jairam Ramesh) was negotiating to have the gardens reopened. How can they possibly reopen the gardens when no one is showing any interest in the proposal? Why did he not visit the most distressed segments like Ramjhora and Kathalguri, where more than 400 starvation deaths have been reported?”
Chaudhury told HT the ministry should adopt a two-pronged strategy, incorporating the welfare component along with the commercial. Jairam Ramesh was not available for comment despite repeated attempts.