Death is stalking the workers at the 14-odd closed tea gardens of Dooars. Abandoned by their planters, workers of these gardens are now fighting hard to somehow survive on state relief.
But those living in the operational tea gardens too are in a no better situation-at least regarding availability of medical facilities. A survey conducted by a non-governmental organisation 'Swadhikar', which is a partner organisation of 'Child Relief and You' (CRY), has revealed that there are at least 50 per cent of tea gardens that do not have any qualified doctor in their garden hospitals. Moreover, 39 per cent of the gardens of Dooars do not even have a qualified doctor or a trained nurse, which are mandatory according to the Plantation Labour Act 1951.
According to the Plantation Labour Act 1951, the health and welfare of the tea garden workers are the responsibility of the planters and they would have to abide by the standards set by the state government, which would be binding on the planters. Infringement of those standards would attract the cognisance of a court of law.
Under the rule (Section 22/5), each garden hospital shall be under a qualified medical practitioner. But the survey reveales that at least 50 per cent of tea gardens do not have any qualified medical officers in their hospitals. And even worse about 82 per cent of gardens surveyed didn't have any qualified medical practitioner continuously for the last five years. Only 50 out of 132 gardens have kept a qualified medical practitioner at their hospitals in the last five years.
And as if this was enough, the survey conducted by Swadhikar, which was carried out at 132 out of 153 set tea gardens in Jalpaiguri district including 12 closed tea gardens, further revealed 63 per cent of the gardens surveyed do not even have trained nurses. Nearly 29 per cent garden hospitals do not have qualified pharmacists and there are at least 37 gardens, which do not have qualified doctors and qualified pharmacists. And about 29 per cent gardens do not have any qualified doctors, pharmacists or nurses. Forty per cent garden hospitals do not dispense medicines, which they are supposed to do for free under the plantation labour law.
Even worse, 51 per cent of these garden hospitals do not have any emergency facility overwhelming 95 per cent garden hospitals which do not keep anti-venom even though snakebites are very common in tea gardens.
Tapan Nag, secretary of Swadhikar, said "after six long months of work, we have been able to come out with the survey in February and as one can see from the report, the situation is far from satisfactory in not only the closed tea gardens but also in those in a running condition. In fact the situation is pretty bad and tea garden owners are depriving the workers in everyway possible — even to the extent of not providing them with medical facilities."
However, the tea garden owners association claimed that the problem is due to non-availability of qualified medical practitioners who would be willing to come to the remote gardens. "The problem is that qualified medical practitioners and nurses are not willing to come to the tea gardens, most of which are far away from the cities and almost cut off from the general localities. And the payments they get here too are far less from what they could have earned practicing in the cities. So no one is really interested and we have to run our garden hospitals with just registered medical practitioners and quack doctors. When the government is finding it tough to appoint doctors at the district hospitals and health centres even now, how can you expect us to get them. We can't get them even if we want to," said RK Maheswari, honorary secretary of Indian Tea Planters' Association.
R Ranjit, DM Jalpaiguri, said that as the matters are related to rights of the plantation workers under the Plantation Labour Act, the labour department could give strictures and take action against the garden. "On our part, we regularly try to supplement the tea garden hospitals by sending medical teams and health inspectors at the gardens so that the workers could get medical facilities," said Ranjit.