Assam's tea industry is up in arms after the state government registered criminal charges against some of the plantations for triggering a diarrhoea epidemic that claimed more than 170 lives.
"The government is equally responsible for the disease and it is really unfortunate that the tea industry alone is being held responsible," Madhusudan Khandait, general secretary of the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha, the apex tea garden workers union, told IANS.
Assam health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had ordered action against several tea garden managements on Sunday and called for framing charges ranging from culpable homicide to negligence for the diarrhoea epidemic.
The minister said tea gardens ignored repeated instructions and flouted norms by supplying contaminated drinking water to their workers.
The police have been asked to frame charges under Section 302 (dealing with murder) against gardens that did not comply with the orders.
"Did the government punish any senior official or the mayor when some people died of cholera in Guwahati city a few months back," an angry Khandait asked.
Tea industry captains have come out openly against the government's decision saying it was the state labour department's responsibility to monitor norms.
"There is a labour department and health inspectors to look into such things. But to threaten criminal action against tea garden managements is unfortunate," D Dowerah, secretary of the North East Tea Association, said.
The worst hit districts are Jorhat, Golaghat, Dhubri and Morigaon. The disease that has assumed epidemic proportions in recent weeks has affected more than 18,000 people.
Most of the cases were reported from tea garden areas. "Even tube wells in some gardens were located along a drain and this is only inviting waterborne diseases," the minister said.
Teams of doctors and representatives from the UNICEF have visited areas in eastern Assam.
"The reports that we have got from the visiting teams are very disturbing. In some cases we have found a single tube well for as many as five labour colonies," Sarma said.
In some areas, laboratory tests on patients suffering from diarrhoea found a strain of cholera. Authorities, however, said the strain was not 'very virulent' and there was no need for panic.
"The disease is spreading mostly in tea gardens and it is primarily due to lack of basic hygiene, non-availability of clean drinking water, and poor sanitation facilities. The garden managements should provide these amenities to their workers," a senior health department official said.