The last thing Kishun Murmu, 28, is thinking about is who to vote for. But vote he must. Murmu works at the Kalchini tea garden — one among 183 such gardens in Dooars — 600 km from Kolkata, whenever the garden functions. For most of the time in the past eight years, it has remained closed.
But Murmu dare not stay away from the polling booth, as the trade union bosses in his area would get to know. All relief to workers of ailing tea gardens is routed through their unions, and if he does not vote, the consequences could be disastrous.
““The workers fear is if they don’t vote, even that trickle of relief will stop,” said Rajesh Lakra, general secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad (ABAVP).
“If we don’t vote, we will die,” said Budhan Oraon, of the Red Bank tea garden.
The ABAVP is an activist group trying to persuade the workers to boycott polls to express their anger at the situation. “But most workers feel the price of staying away may be too high,” said Lakra.
Tea is an expensive cash crop, some varieties sell at over Rs 1,000 a kg, but due to a combination of circumstances, most tea gardens here have been in dire straits for the last decade. Around 60 workers at Kalchini have died of malnutrition-related diseases since it first closed.
Leaders of all parties admit that the spate of deaths reduced after after government aid flowed in. Each worker gets Rs 1,000 per month under the package provided, along with subsidised ration. But what next? “The workers are managing to survive now,” said Mohan Sharma, Congress leader of the area. “But the gardens are still far from financially viable.”
Who will the labourers vote for? They are not telling. They are aware the Left Front has provided relief, but it has been paltry and tardy. “We do not have the right to live,” said Janak Baraik, 36, at the Dheklapara tea garden. “We only seem to have the right to vote.”