|By Sanjay Pandey|
The picturesque tea gardens carpeting West Bengal’s Dooars region are gradually turning into graveyards as starvation death continues to stalk plantation workers.
“There is no starvation death in tea gardens of Bengal,”
said state Health Minister Chandrima Bhattacharya, emphasizing that the deaths were caused by prolonged malnutrition.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), those consuming fewer than 1,800 calories a day have been categorized as hungry people and India, with a 1.2 billion population is home to 230 million hungry people.
In a survey that covered around 1200 households at Bandapani estate in Jalpaiguri district, a local NGO found that the average calorie intake of an individual had dropped drastically – from 2,500 calories (when the estates were operational until last July) to 250 calories.
“While some families resorted to consumption of tea flowers, wild leaves, wild tubers and bamboo shoots, some said they were forced to survive on rats and snakes”,
said an NGO worker on the condition of keeping his and organisation’s name withheld as the NGOs working with tea garden workers fear backlash from the government authorities.
With no proper records, it is difficult to establish the exact number of starvation deaths. However, even the sketchy records that are available prove that the death toll has increased manifold after the closure of tea estates.
“The fact is there are more than 100 deaths this year owing to closure of at least five tea gardens and abject poverty,”
said UTWF convenor Anuradha Talwar, who headed the Supreme Court commissioned survey team.
“As the their wages are abysmally low, the poor workers or their family members neither have their health nor the money left to survive post the closure of tea gardens,”
said Talwar, the State Adviser to the Supreme Court Commissioners on the Right to Food.
The team led by Anuradha Talwar, had identified Mukesh Goala, 27, amongst one of 12 people who were in jeopardy and who needed immediate help. However, before the snail paced administration could swing to action Mukesh Goala, who was critically ill, died becoming the latest victim of starvation deaths or in state government’s words “malnutrition death”.
Phulmuni Goala (50), the deceased’s mother, said,
“I lost my son to starvation, the government might call it whatever pleases them.”
Since the closure of the tea garden the mother-son duo had to go without food for days.
“At times, I would go to the forest to pluck shrubs and bamboo shoots to feed my ailing son. Lately, that had also become impossible due to fear of attacks by elephants in the forest. With Mukesh, the only hope of my life is gone. Now, I don’t want to die a slow death. I just pray to God to rid me of this life of misery,”
said the former tea garden worker who now ekes out a living , breaking stones in quarries.
A similar spate of the starvation deaths in Amlasole, West Midnapore, 10 years ago prompted the Supreme Court of India to order an inquiry. Since then the Government has been taking sporadic action as and when deaths in tea gardens were reported in the media. Despite a change in regime, the Mamata Banerjee government has not been able to put an end to this malady so far.
Talwar along with 12 other team members camped in the closed tea gardens of Bandapani, Dheklapara, Redbank, Surendranagar, and Dharanipur between July 8 and July 11 and submitted a report to the Apex Court on August 5.
The tea gardens in Dooars region guaranteed two square meals a day to nearly 5,000 workers and their families, each having four members on an average. Now, they have no regular source of income.
Though they get a few days of work under NREGA, payment reaches them only months later, subjecting them to chronic hunger or starvation.
The income of tea garden workers in developing countries like India is neither adequate to feed their families nor provide for medical care. Not to miss the fact that there is disparity in wages across the country, too.
A large number of adult men from the gardens have had to migrate to far-away places like Kerala, Bangalore and Gujarat, leaving women and children to fend for their life and livelihood.
Pusma Bahadur (50), an out of job plantation worker at Bundapani, said,
“Most men from closed tea gardens have migrated to bigger cities in search of job. But they are barely managing to survive even there making it difficult for them to send money home to their starving families.
The remaining population is working for pittance wages in stone collection and stone breaking mainly in the river beds.
There have also been incidents of woman trafficking, particularly minor girls. The middlemen lure them with jobs in metro cities. These women are eventually sold to brothels or made domestic slaves.”
Drinking water is polluted in most gardens. While Bandapani depends on contaminated river water from Bhutan,making it difficult to cook regularly, other gardens have only a few functional hand pumps left to cater to thousands.
Increased Dropout rate
As a part of state relief measures,while the Government is providing food rations to almost all the gardens, however, other schemes such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) have failed.
Ranging from 30-40 days in a year in 2013-14 and barely 6-14 days in 2014-15 , the number of days of work provided has been much lesser than the guaranteed 100 days in all the gardens. Even the payments are delayed by 3-4 months causing immense suffering.
“I cannot send my children to school as it is too expensive for us now. Earlier, when the tea garden was functional our kids would board the company truck and go to school, but now you have pay Rs 20 to and fro for the same. How can people who earn Rs 90 a day afford to spend Rs 20 on sending one single kid to school?”
said Sudha Gope (28), a former plantation worker who now breaks stones in the riverbed along with her two minor sons.
“If the gardens are reopened, all these problems will be solved and there will no starvation deaths, mass migration or human trafficking in this region,”
Pushma summed up.