Life — and death, too — wear a luxuriant green in Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri districts in north Bengal’s Dooars.
At least 100 people died of malnutrition at the six locked out tea gardens in the area since January this year. Although one of the gardens — Raipur Tea Estate where five people died of hunger in June — has reopened, the fate of the other five, with 4,000 workers, is still uncertain.
When HT scoured the area to find out the reasons for closures and the perennial sickness of the gardens, workers said lockouts were often a ploy. The owners first engineer labour unrest by denying the workers statutory and fringe benefits and defaulting on provident fund deposits.
Then local politicians and influential people are brought in to form operating management committees to run the officially closed gardens, as tea bushes need regular plucking. The arrangement helps the owners, as they continue to sell the produce to factories, while the workers have to accept whatever they are offered.
“A few prosper while we suffer and the government loses revenue,” a labourer at Red Bank garden said. The Dooars branch of Indian Tea Association, the owners’ body, however, said prolonged closures would be disastrous for both the industry and the workers.
The Trinamool Congress government, like its Left predecessor, is underplaying the deaths. “The situation has improved. Doctors are visiting the garden four days a week and workers are getting five kilos of rice and wheat per month at `2 a kg,” said local TMC leader Jagadish Roy.
But the story of Parvati Oraon, 55, tells a different tale. Malnutrition accentuated the tuberculosis and leukaemia she is suffering from as Dharanipur garden was locked out for 10 years before reopening in 2012, only to be closed again a few months later.
“We had no money to continue the treatment at a faraway hospital,” Parvati said. And hunger is slowly eroding her family. “Only death can end her suffering and let the rest of us live longer on insufficient subsidised food,” her son Sanjay, 35, said.
The story of Fulumoni Rawatia of Dheklapara garden is even crueller. She gets neither subsidised food nor the Rs. 1,500 monthly dole under the Financial Assistance to Workers of Locked out Industries. The reason: The upper age limit for recipients of the central scheme is 58 years. Rawatia is 62 years old.
Her son earns Rs. 35 a day by plucking leaves at Dheklapara garden — officially closed since 2002, but run by an operating management committee. Normally, a worker earns Rs. 100 a day, plus subsidised ration and healthcare.
Fulumoni wrote to chief minister Mamata Banerjee on November 8, 2012, seeking death rather than starvation. The letter made the state machinery rush aid. But it continued to attribute subsequent deaths to various diseases, and not hunger.
The official cause of the death of 16 people in Dharanipur and of 30 others in Red Bank garden was not hunger. For instance, Sekhar Nagarsi, 40, was reported to have died of alcohol-induced jaundice and Bina Pradhan, 40, officially died of Japanese encephalitis.
Bidyut Das, a doctor with an NGO running the Dharanipur garden hospital said, “Malnourishment makes children as well as adult workers susceptible to diseases.” Even children from operating gardens get admitted at the Nutritional Rehabilitation Centre at Saptibari in Jalpaiguri district, said child development officer Sandip Kumar Dey.
Although Pritha Sarkar, Jalpaiguri district magistrate, said, “We are doing our best to provide relief in the closed tea gardens,” hunger refuses to leave the prosperous Dooars.